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Rafe had never met a truly irresistible woman, until he met Liberty. Libby has the kind of beauty that comes on slow—strikes a guy the longer he looks. And Rafe sure is having a fine time looking, and touching, and loving Liberty Starr. The only problem is that Rafe is pretending to be just another cowboy down on his luck. Working for the FBI, he’s come to Stone Hill, Colorado, to investigate the man Libby loves like a father. He was just another cowboy. Free-spirited Libby offers him a job and a place to stay. Together they spark like wildfire, their intense passion filling their days and nights. But Rafe is only in town for the summer, and while Liberty is willing to risk her heart, secrets threaten any possibility of a future together…
Dear Reader, Thank you for purchasing this Carina Press launch title. During our journey these past months to acquire manuscripts, develop relationships with authors and build the Carina Press catalog, we’ve been working to fulfill the mission “Where no great story goes untold.” If you’d asked me what I’d be doing a year ago, I never would have conceived I’d be working with the brilliant team behind Harlequin’s digital program to bring you a new and exciting digital-first imprint. I have long been a fan of Harlequin books, authors and staff and that’s why I’m so pleased to be sharing these first Carina Press launch titles with you. At Carina Press, we’re committed to bringing readers great voices and great stories, and we hope you’ll find these books as compelling as we do. In this first month, you’ll find a broad range of genres that showcase our promise to Carina Press fans to publish a diversity of content. In the coming months, we’ll add additional genres and continue to bring you a wide range of stories we believe will keep you coming back for more. We love to hear from readers, and you can e-mail us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected] You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page. Happy reading! ~Angela James Executive Editor, Carina Press www.carinapress.com www.twitter.com/carinapress www.facebook.com/carinapress
Liberty Starr Rebecca E. Grant
She might have taken him for just another cowboy, the way he stood on the side of the highway next to a tenyear-old Silverado that had seen better days. She pulled the Wrangler over. Aramis leaped from the back to the front seat and eyed the stranger. He was tall and wore his Stetson low. He’d taken his shirt off. A trail of dark hair shot down his torso like the shaft of a downward-pointing arrow. His faded jeans rode low and snug. Shadowed by the Rockies, he looked right at home. As if the only space large enough to hold him—the only place he could ever truly be at ease—was outdoors. That’s why she might have taken him for just another cowboy, except that his eyes seemed uncommonly discerning, as if he already knew all there was to know about her. It was unnerving. “Need some help?” He tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “I could use a ride.” She sighed. The last thing she needed right now was a cowboy down on his luck. “How about if I call someone for you? He shrugged. “Don’t know anyone.” “Well, where are you staying?” “Haven’t figured that out yet.” He grinned and crouched low, calling to her dog. “Come here, boy.” Aramis shot out of the car.
“Sit.” Aramis sat. “That’s right.” Aramis’s tail thumped wildly. “Good dog!” He scratched the dog’s ears. “He’s well-trained. Siberian Husky?” She got out of the car and walked toward the cowboy. “Yes.” “What’s his name?” “Aramis. So, what brings you to this part of the country?” “I figured someone would give me a job. I’m good with horses. You know, roping, ranching.” “You do any rodeoing? Rodeo comes back our way in a month. I might be able to help you hook a job.” He pushed his Stetson back, revealing dark wavy hair that hadn’t seen a barber in some time. She could see his eyes more clearly now and felt like he was drinking her in. “Yeah, a bit.” “If you don’t have a cell phone, I can call the garage for you.” “No phone. A little cash. No friends. You could be my first.” He grinned again and gave Aramis a playful pat on the rump. “Your dog seems to like me. You know what they say. You can’t fool a dog.” He waited. She hesitated. “Seems a little unneighborly to leave me here. Wouldn’t it be just as easy to take me into town as to call someone? Sign back there said it was seven miles. Too far to walk in this heat.” He stepped out of the shadow. His eyes were cerulean, like the Colorado sky, his skin deeply tanned. He was, by any definition, magnificent. In this part of the country where Utes, Hispanics and Caucasians had settled more than two-hundred years ago he could have easily
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been taken for a local. She dug the toe of her boot into the side of the road. He looked like a cowboy, but there was something unusually intense about his manner underneath the casual surface. She peered into the cloudless sky, then over at Aramis. No one was likely to travel this stretch of the highway any time soon, and it was unseasonably hot for early June. What could happen in seven miles? She walked back to her car and patted the seat. “Aramis, come!” To the cowboy she said, “Hop in.” He hauled a saddle and shirt out of his truck and dropped them into the back. As he got in, his knees smashed up against the glove compartment. He felt around, found the lever and adjusted the seat. She cut back out onto the two-lane highway. “What’s your name?” “Rafe. Yours?” “Liberty Starr, but you can call me Libby.” “Liberty?” “What can I say? My parents were hippies, heavily into the peace movement. They had no idea what they were saddling me with.” She shot a look over at him and smiled. Rafe frowned. “Liberty Starr. Seems like I’ve heard that name before.” He shrugged. “Can’t place it. You famous or something?” She giggled. She couldn’t help it. The idea of her being famous seemed ludicrous to her. She was about to ask him where he was from when he asked, “Live around here? Stone Hill, maybe?” “Yes. I’m a townie.”
“Live in town all your life? Because you look like you’ve seen a lot of the outdoors.” He grinned. It might have been just a cowboy-friendly grin. She wasn’t sure. Libby hesitated. Sometimes she told people right off just to get the inevitable out of the way. Other times she didn’t. “How familiar are you with this area of the country?” “Some.” “Ever heard of Haley’s Ranch?” “Sure. The nudist colony that got so much press a couple of years ago. Something about misappropriation of funds, I think.” She glanced at him. For all the world he looked like he belonged in a saddle yet the term “misappropriation of funds” rolled off his tongue as if he said it every day. “So, you know about Haley’s Ranch?” He shrugged. “I heard a little about it.” “Well, I grew up there. Left it when my mom died a few years ago.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Sometimes men took it in stride. Sometimes they just got stupid. She wondered how Rafe would react. Let’s see what you’re made of, cowboy. When he didn’t say anything she prodded, “Rafe what?” “Say, wait a minute. You’re the one. You’re the one whose trust fund was misappro—stolen.” “Yes, along with two other women.” “Big stuff. Those guys are going to see a lot of prison time.” She nodded. They drove around the last curve and rolled into Stone Hill. He pointed. “That the garage? You can just drop me there.”
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She parked in front of Hamilton’s Fuel & Tune, and turned to him. She guessed he was probably a year or two older than she was. “I don’t know you—don’t know why I’m going to offer this except that my dog seems to like you. See that inn at the edge of town?” She pointed. “I own it. The Carter House. It’s the only hotel around. I also board horses. Got a couple of stables. We get a fair amount of rodeo tourists here July through September. It’s quiet now because the rodeo’s in Grey’s Canyon for the next few weeks. I can offer you a free lunch if you’re hungry and a place to stay for the night. You might get a line on a job hanging out in the dining room. Or, you could work for me. I could use the help.” Rafe stiffened. “Don’t worry. I’m not offering a handout.” She saw him visibly relax. “I know what it’s like to be short on funds. And friends. And I could seriously use the help. My stable boss and his family went chasing after the rodeo to Grey’s Canyon, and my handyman is recovering from a back injury, so I’m short-handed.” She watched as the cowboy turned in his seat. His eyes settled on hers, and she immediately felt drenched by their blue intensity. After a moment he let them roam to her throat, her shoulders, then dipped further down. She almost never wore a bra. Old habits were hard to break, and she was acutely aware that she poked through her white cotton tank with enthusiasm. His gaze lingered then dipped across her belly and over her thighs. She didn’t know which affected her more, the way she felt when he looked at her dead on, or the way she felt when his eyes toured her body.
“Liberty Starr. People call you that?” Libby smiled. “Most people call me Libby.” “Libby.” He rolled her name over his tongue and grinned. “Well, I’m not most people, and from the looks of things, neither are you.” His grin widened. “Liberty, Libby, Lib, Bee…” He shook his head. “None of those work. How about I just use your initials—L.S.” He frowned. “Nope—sounds like Ellis, a guy’s name.” His gaze swept across her like the summer wind just before a storm. “Nothing even remotely male about you.” He snapped his fingers. “I know. I’ll drop the S and call you Elle. Thanks for the ride, Elle.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek, catching the side of her mouth as he pulled away. He smelled like a cowboy all right. One who was as down on his luck as he was charming. It was the last thing she needed.
Libby set the bucket of oats in front of her favorite horse, a black mustang stallion. “Hey there, Marengo.” She laced her fingers into the horse’s mane and ran the back of her hand against the side of his face. Libby had inherited Marengo the way she tended to inherit most of her animals. She just stumbled upon them when they most needed her. She’d come across Marengo as a colt only a few weeks old while he was being attacked by a cougar. She drove the cougar off, brought the colt home and nursed him back to health. She tried several times to release him back into the herd, but he always followed her home. She owned three other horses: Betty Grable, a painted palomino with dainty legs; a chestnut mare with an attitude named Jezebel who liked to drive Marengo
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wild; and her first horse, the tall and almost ghostly White Cloud, who was now nineteen. Libby preferred to care for her horses herself, and kept them in a private stable, separate from the boarded horses. Usually she had about a dozen horses boarding with her. At the moment, however, with the rodeo in Grey’s Canyon, she only had six in her care. It was just as well since she was currently without help. She drew up her hair into a ponytail and began to muck out the stalls. It was hot, dirty work. After several minutes she was dripping wet. Her cotton tank slung low as the sweat collected. She peeled it off and moved on to the next stall. When she’d finished, she stripped out of her shorts and briefs and turned on the faucet. She took a long pull then held the hose high letting the cool water wash her clean. Outside behind the barn, she stretched out on a hay bale for a quick nap. This was the main reason Libby kept her horses in a separate barn—for privacy. As a naturist, she was entirely comfortable with her body and needed to be unrestrained by the superficial layers of clothing that kept the sun, wind and rain from her skin. On summer days when the heat was high, she often took care of her horses in the buff and stretched out in the sun behind the barn afterward. Libby awoke to the low nickering of Marengo begging for their afternoon ride. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, then stumbled back into the barn. “I’m coming, boy. Where do you want to ride today?” She patted his neck, took hold of his mane, and vaulted onto his back. She pressed her knees into him, and then leaned forward to stroke the side of his neck. This animal was the best ride she’d ever had. He moved like the wind.
Stone Hill was a valley town surrounded by the Colorado Rockies. Beyond Libby’s stables was some of the most beautifully wild, rugged country that Colorado had to offer. Endless sky. Tall grasses as far as the eye could see. But the terrain was deceptive. The ground broke suddenly and dropped into a gorge. Beyond it stood the majestic Rockies. It was treacherous for anyone unfamiliar with the area. Libby had posted signs warning bikers, pedestrians and horseback riders not to wander off the trails, to help keep them from toppling into a creek bed or meeting with some other unfortunate accident. She could feel Marengo itching to run. She clicked her tongue. “Go ahead. You know the way.” They headed west to the falls. She clicked her tongue again. The horse leaped, sure-footed and powerful. She leaned into Marengo’s mane and urged him even faster. “Go ahead. As fast as you want.” They were like two entwined spirits. She let him run until he stopped of his own accord, trotting into the open area behind a spray of falls that fell from an overhang above. He picked his way across the hardened clay and shale at the lake’s edge, carefully wading into the shallow until horse and rider were under the falling water. It spilled over them both. She stretched her arms laughing at the feel of it, then patted Marengo’s hind quarters to urge him a little farther into the falls. When he was where she wanted him, she released her hair and let it fall loose. She shifted her body until she was lying on her back, her head against Marengo’s mane. The water poured in rivulets down her torso. She spread her legs and let the water kiss her. It was cool, exciting. She lay stretched against Marengo’s back enjoying the liquid aphrodisiac. When she was fully aroused, she moved her
Rebecca E. Grant
hand down to the soft folds of her body, languidly pushing her fingers in a circular motion until her body began to soften and spiral. She thought about that cowboy Rafe. The way he’d looked her over. The way his eyes rested on her every curve. He’d looked a long time. And when he kissed her, she had felt the rough of his beard. Was he just another rodeo chaser? Would he show up at her door for food and whatever else he could get? She thought about his eyes, and the swell between his legs. With the heat from Marengo’s back, the cool of the water, the memory of Rafe, and the intensity of her fingers, it wasn’t long before the spirals broke into soft explosions. She shrieked and then heard the canyon echo it back. Marengo nickered softly and whooshed, as if he understood that sometimes a girl just had to release some tension. Marengo walked most of the way back. The slow pace allowed her hair to dry into soft waves that splayed around her shoulders and down her back. Marengo picked up speed as they neared the stables. The sun was fading. She would brush him down and then get some dinner for herself. Marengo walked into his stall and turned to look at her. She fed him a sweet apple, brushed him down, gathered up her clothes and headed toward the Carter House. The walk between her stable and her suite of rooms at the back of the inn had been gated off and was private, intended for her use only. Something Rafe apparently didn’t know because he was standing in her path, pulling on a cigarette. He hadn’t seen her yet. She didn’t mind the fact that she was nude. If she’d learned anything, it was that others got a whole lot more shook-up about nudity than she did. But she would have
preferred to have her clothes on; while she loved being naked in nature, being naked around people she didn’t know really wasn’t her thing. She was not an exhibitionist. Besides, it was important to maintain a little mystery with men. The sun dropped behind the Rockies just as he turned in her direction. Suddenly, it was night and he was nothing but a shadow. He tossed his cigarette and walked toward her. She couldn’t tell just when he realized she was naked. “They told me you’d gone out for a ride. Figured I’d wait for you.” She could hear heat in his voice. “You come by for a place to stay?” He nodded. “And I thought I could help you with your horses, for a while anyway.” “You have any trouble working for a woman?” “No ma’am.” He grinned. “You said you’ve done roping and rodeoing. Have you done any stable work? Or am I going to have to teach you everything? Because I don’t have time to teach some greenhorn.” “I know my way around.” She hesitated. “Okay, as long as you understand how things work. I’ll make sure Emma knows to give you a room and put you on the payroll. Have you had dinner?” He stepped a little closer. “I was waiting for you.” She shivered. She couldn’t help it. Cool as she was about her own nudity, she felt exposed and overheated and more than a little wild standing in front of him. His shirt was open, hat tipped low, body stoked. Her own body was still relatively hot-wired. He took another step. His boots crushed pokeweed and gravel. His head dipped. His arm circled around her waist. God, but he was strong.
Rebecca E. Grant
His lips brushed hers then closed in, coaxing her until she opened her mouth and let him take it the way she knew he would. His tongue searched for hers. When he found it, they entered into an exquisite dance. He had a great mouth. Wet and deep, firm. He tasted of burnt tobacco and smelled of leather. He let her go and stepped back. She felt the loss of him. He tipped his hat. “That was just to show you that I know my way around—understand how things work.” He grinned. “Besides, you were so beautiful in the waterfall, you kind of got me going.” Her body stiffened. “What—you saw…you were watching? But that was private.” “If that was private, then you need to find a place where anyone who happens by can’t see.” He was convincingly unconcerned. “What were you doing out there? How did you get there? Were you following me?” “Now slow down. Don’t want you jumping to the wrong conclusion. I brought you a horse to board. Figured if I was going to work here, I should do my part and bring you some business. They told me you were out riding. Thought I’d see if I could find you, and enjoy a ride. I did, on both counts.” He grinned again. Amused. Unflappable. “You should have let me know you were there.” His eyes landed squarely on hers and she felt her body stir. “I did that too. But between the water and all the noise you were making, you didn’t hear me.” “You should have tried harder.” “That would’ve meant coming closer. I didn’t think you’d want that.” “You could have turned and ridden away as soon as you saw what I—that it was a private moment.”
“How do you know that I didn’t?” He patted his belly. “I’m starving. Think we can go get that dinner, now?” She’d never run into anyone like him before. If she wasn’t careful, his grin would absolutely undo her. Playful. Outrageous. Confident. She tossed her head. “I’ll see you in the dining room.” She left him to watch her retreating backside as she moved purposefully toward her rooms. It would be a challenge, but somehow she would maintain a little mystery with this one, even though he’d already seen her naked, watched her pleasure herself, and kissed her until she nearly purred like a cat. One might think it was a little too late for mystery— but she’d find a way.
Rafe acknowledged to himself that until today, he’d never met a woman he might possibly like wearing clothes as much as he liked her naked. He reminded himself that he shouldn’t have been surprised to find that Liberty Starr was not your typical small-town, cowgirl type. But everything he’d learned about her before coming to Stone Hill hadn’t quite prepared him for the woman he’d met today. She must have called Emma from her room because by the time he walked up to the desk, Emma was already expecting him. “You planning to be here for a while?” Her voice was gruff. “Looks that way.” He grinned, but the matronly Emma wasn’t an easy conquest. She frowned. “How long’s ‘a while’?”
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Rafe looked directly into her eyes. “I’ll be straight with you, ma’am. I don’t know. But while I’m here, I intend to make myself useful.” “Useful, he says. Well, I’m giving you one of the smaller rooms. It could use a few repairs. You any good with a hammer?” “Sure.” Emma narrowed her eyes. “Well, that’s one way you might think about making yourself useful. You go on into the dining room and don’t wait for Libby. Kitchen’s about to close. She’ll be along when she’s ready.” Rafe sat down in a booth at the far end of the restaurant where he could watch people coming and going. The room was packed with people and more formal than he’d expected. There were deep red leather booths and white tablecloths. A tea light in a gently curved hurricane lamp flickered at every table. The vaulted ceilings, skylights, natural wood and a candlelit veranda created a welcoming but cozy atmosphere. Earlier as he’d moved about the town he’d seen a number of eating establishments—taverns, cafés, chain restaurants; it was no small feat that Libby’s inn was so clearly the local favorite. Yet he’d expected this, so he couldn’t have said why he was surprised. Liberty Starr. She didn’t look anything like her photo, yet still he’d known her. He was uneasy when he saw her pull off the highway to offer help. He’d hoped to roll into town quietly without anyone, and especially not Libby, taking much notice. But one look at that long blonde hair of hers made him change his mind. She had the kind of beauty that came on slow—struck a guy over and over the longer he looked. He hadn’t been entirely
honest with her. He did have a cell phone and had been just about to call for help when she showed up. He scowled. This was not going to be as simple as he’d hoped—already it was messy. They’d warned him to leave everything behind that might give him away, including his horse. But instead of leaving the mare behind, he’d had her stabled close by in Grey’s Canyon because this was rodeo country. Depending on how things went down, he might need a horse. He might even need to compete in the rodeo and, if so, he wanted a horse he could depend on—one that would respond to his every command without hesitation. But Libby had caught him by surprise. He liked the way she’d stopped to see if he needed help, the way she’d spoken openly about herself. He liked the way she couldn’t leave him stranded on that lonely stretch of highway, even though she wasn’t sure she trusted him. He liked her so much, he’d decided to move his horse from Grey’s Canyon to her stables, and take her up on her job offer—even though he didn’t need either—even though it would be a distraction from his intended purpose. His scowl deepened. This was not the time to pull a caveman act, kissing her like that. Yet he knew why he’d done it. Part of him wanted to show her who she was dealing with. Prove to her just how much he knew his way around. But mostly he’d done it because he couldn’t stand there another minute looking at her all golden and flushed from her ride, without kissing her. He closed his eyes to better see her naked again and grinned, remembering the way she walked away from him like a high-stepping filly. He used to think there was nothing like the backside of a woman—the rest was just frosting. But what Libby had was a lot more than frosting.
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She was full where a woman ought to be and taut where a man wants her to be. Yes, this could get very messy. He was so distracted by the memory of her he nearly missed her approach, until Emma called after her. He opened his eyes in time to catch a glimpse of tanned legs and a shapely backside before she disappeared around the corner. When she returned, he watched her walk, a light sway to her hips. Her hair was still a little damp, presumably from a shower, and bent in soft waves. She wore a white dress that clung like a second skin and barely restrained what lay underneath. The dress buttoned up the front—the top three buttons were left undone, revealing glimpses of what lay beneath. Thin spaghetti straps slid down off her shoulders as Libby moved, giving the impression that the dress was just moments away from sliding off her strikingly toned body. She looked genuinely concerned. “Oh, no. You waited for me. I didn’t mean for you to wait. The kitchen has closed. And Ruby’s gone home. About the best I can do now is to throw a couple of steaks on the grill, or warm up what’s left of today’s special.” Emma hollered from the other room. “No special left.” Rafe thought the woman must have the hearing range of a bat. “Then I guess it’s steak. You eat red meat?” He grinned. “I eat just about any kind of meat.” Although he hadn’t intended to, it sounded suggestive, even to him. He tried again. “Red meat is fine, although I prefer white meat.” Even more suggestive. “What I mean is, I’m pretty good with a grill. How about letting me handle the meat.”
He should just shut up right now. He watched her kick off her shoes, and followed her into the kitchen. She pointed. “Steaks are in there. Grill is out there. Charcoal should already be in it. Lighter fluid on the second shelf under the grill. I’ll get a salad started. You eat salad?” He nodded. Nodding was safe. There could be nothing suggestive about a nod, at least in this context. “Looks like there are a couple of baked potatoes left. They ought to be easy to heat up.” She glanced at him and blushed. Now she was doing it. One of her straps slipped. His body responded to her like a schoolboy’s with little or no control. He couldn’t remember the last time he was this powerfully attracted to a woman. Desperately, he tried thinking of the Pledge of Allegiance to distract himself. When that didn’t work, he tried to recite the alphabet backwards. From there he moved to accounting principles, and finally in desperation he tried to remember Latin noun declensions and verb conjugations, but there was no stopping his lower region from reaching out to greet the woman. He spied a chef’s apron and put it on for camouflage. Outside, the patio was lit with gaily colored lights. Rafe started the coals then went back inside. Libby straightened and backed out of the refrigerator, her hands full. “Need any help?” A bottle of dressing slipped out of her grasp. He caught it just before it smashed against the hard tiled floor. He grinned. She couldn’t know that this was probably about as helpful as he was going to get. On more than one occasion he’d been booted out of the kitchen and branded a nuisance.
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It wasn’t that he wasn’t willing. After all, he was quite good with his hands. He could build just about anything, even without plans. He’d spent many a cold night out on the range whittling, and had a handmade chess set to show for it. He was good with horses and could rope just about anything, including women. The trick with women was as simple as this: It was all about making a woman feel great. And not just making her feel great. It was about enjoying making her feel great. His nimble hands and sexual conquests aside, it was always a mystery to him that each time he tried to help out in the kitchen, he was suddenly all thumbs. “Sure. Why don’t you slice some avocado for the salad? Knives are here, avocado there.” She pointed to Ruby’s impressive rack of knives. Rafe eyed the avocado. It looked innocent enough, but he knew better. He’d tried to work his way into an avocado more than once. He peeked over at her. She was slicing cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, a few sweet peppers, paying no attention whatsoever to him. He reached for a knife. It felt awkward in his hand. Too big. Unwieldy. He hacked into the outer layer of the avocado, determined to do his best, when he felt her brush up against his side and place her hands over his. Her tanned arms were warm. He could feel the softest part of her body against his arm, and caught an eyeful as she leaned in. Her hands were strong for a woman. The skin, soft. “Let me show you.” She worked his hands as if they were her own. He was amazed at the way she was able to get his fingers to cooperate, and found himself once again more than a little aroused. “I think we could use a second one. It’s in the fridge. Want to give it a try?” She hadn’t taken her hands away.
Her eyes drifted up toward his. He could see that she was amused. It shook his confidence a little. He could feel the way his feet shuffled as he walked to the fridge to get another avocado, unwilling to be the clumsy loser guy. He brightened. Maybe she would help him with this avocado, too. She didn’t, but he actually managed a pretty good job the second time around. “Nice.” She smiled. Her eyes rolled over his. They were green with brown flecks. He would have pulled her to him and forgotten all about food, except that he was so hungry he could feel himself losing strength. He’d pulled his truck out onto the highway about 4:00 that morning. Hadn’t taken the time for breakfast. The last time he ate was lunch the previous day. He watched her unwrap the butcher paper from the steaks and set them on a plate. His eyes shifted between her face and her body. She caught him looking. She opened a cabinet and pulled down two glasses and a bottle of wine, then handed him the plate with the steaks. “Coals should be about ready.” Her eyes gave nothing away. He took the steaks and did his best to saunter out of the kitchen. She followed him, carrying a bottle of wine and two glasses. He tossed the steaks on the grill. They hissed when they hit the heat. The sound settled him. He was in control again—of himself, and the situation. If there was one thing he knew, it was how to grill a great steak. She popped the cork. “Wine?” “Sure. What is it?” “A malbec. One of my favorites with steak.” He nodded. “Soft tannins, lively acidity, unassuming—a perfect balance for steak.”
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“You know wine?” She looked pleased. He shrugged. “I worked a couple of summers at a vineyard in the Sonoma Valley. I know a little.” The wine gurgled into the glasses as she poured. She took a taste and smiled. “I think you’ll like this.” She handed him a glass, then turned on her heel and went back inside. He was instantly disappointed that she wasn’t staying to keep him company. But she was back in a moment with warm garlic bread. “I’m starving. I need a little something with the wine.” She tore off a piece. His hands were busy rubbing cracked pepper into the steak. She offered him a bite. He took it. The bread was toasted to perfection, the middle still soft with a mixture of butter and garlic. Some of it drizzled down the side of his chin. She caught it with her finger and popped it into his mouth. She took a bite herself, and then offered him another before sitting down at one of the wrought iron tables. Rafe was glad he was still wearing the apron and wondered if she was intentionally flirting with him or just doing what came naturally to her. “So, you brought me a horse to board?” He nodded, wiped his hands and took a taste of the wine. It was good. He would bring a bottle next time. He had one in mind he was sure she’d like. “Whose horse is it?” “Belongs to a friend of mine.” “A friend?” He nodded but offered nothing more. “How do you like your steak?” “Medium rare.” He grinned. “Glad to hear it.” He hopped up and flipped the steaks.
She brought out plates, the salad, potatoes, silverware and napkins just as he was taking the steaks off the grill. He poured more wine for both of them. His knees grazed hers when he sat. He hadn’t meant to and pulled his chair back. He lifted his glass in a toast. “Thanks for helping me out today.” She nodded. They drank. He watched her set her wine glass down. Watched her push the side of her hair back behind her shoulder. Watched the way the straps of her dress fell low on her arms, and groaned silently as he made up his mind. He would make no more overtures. This was the best course of action going forward for three reasons. First, she was pretty sure of herself. She knew she didn’t have any trouble attracting men—which meant she was confident enough to let him know if she was interested. Second, she was going to be his boss. Sort of. For a while. At least until he figured out what to do next. Third, a romantic interlude with Liberty Starr, no matter how enticing it would be, was not on his agenda. He shook his head. Too bad he’d kissed her. To taste a woman like her and then set her aside was not going to be easy. And he’d given her the impression he was interested. He wasn’t even twelve hours into this thing, and he’d already racked up a number of mistakes. Sloppy. “Steak is good.” She smiled at him. He slammed back to the present and had to work to keep from inhaling his food. Everything tasted great. Fresh. New. The lights danced in the breeze and tossed colored shadows against her face. The sound of mandolin music drifted softly toward them. When he asked about it, she said, “One of our guests.”
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“It’s nice.” “Yes.” He poured them more wine. “I owe you an apology.” She put her fork down and looked at him. “When I found out you’d gone riding, I had no idea that I was barging into something private. When a horse moves as fast as yours did, it’s easy to pick up the trail. I just thought we might ride together. I didn’t realize—what I mean is—” He broke off. “Is that your idea of an apology?” He tried again. “By the time I tracked you down, you were under the waterfall. I only saw the back of your horse. I thought you’d gotten down and were on foot somewhere. I called out but you didn’t answer. It wasn’t until I got a little closer that I realized—and when I did, I pulled back. I am sorry.” He was being truthful. He did pull back. And then he watched from a distance, unable to tear his eyes away. Seeing her on her horse like that was about the most sensual thing he could ever remember seeing. “So, once you understood that my ride was private, why were you waiting for me?” Rafe felt himself color. “It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t dress before leaving the stable. And then we were already in conversation when I realized you were—” “Naked.” “Yes.” “And the kiss?” Although he was trained not to, he let his eyes roam her face, down her throat, across her shoulders until they rested on her breasts. When he’d taken enough of her in, he closed his eyes. “There just wasn’t any way not to.” She shivered.
“Cold?” She smiled. “More tired than cold.” She got up and walked over to a wicker chest tucked into the corner of the patio, where she pulled out a blue blanket with white wolves and chestnut-colored horses running side-by-side. “Want one?” He shook his head. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders. The weight of it pushed her dress lower. She opened a second bottle and filled their glasses. “We okay, then?” She smiled. “I like my privacy. Maybe it’s because I spent all those years with absolutely no privacy at all.” “You didn’t like the colony?” “I didn’t know anything different. Actually, I’m grateful that I grew up the way I did. But some people equate nudism with exhibitionism. I am neither a nudist nor an exhibitionist.” “And yet you were riding your horse naked.” She smiled again. It warmed her eyes. “I’m a naturist.” She took a drink of her wine. “Thank you for apologizing. I’m over it. So, what are you really doing here, Rafe?” Careful there, fella. Watch yourself. “I do a bit of rodeoing.” “Really? Then I’m surprised you didn’t know the rodeo is in Grey’s Canyon during the month of June.” “I did. I just hadn’t gotten there yet when you found me broken down on the road.” She seemed to accept that. He shifted things back to her. “How does a girl who’s all alone end up with all of this?” “What makes you think I’m all alone?”
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Be very, very careful. Better slow down on the wine. “That was just my way of trying to find out.” He grinned. She shrugged. “I was in my second year of veterinary medicine when my mother got too sick to take care of herself. I left school to come home and care for her.” “There wasn’t anyone at the colony to care for her?” “She’d left the colony by then.” “I see. So she was living here?” “No.” She glanced at him. Her eyes were troubled. “It’s complicated. My father died when I was thirteen. He was a seer. People came to him to learn about their future.” “And was he able to help them?” “Some. Mostly, my dad was a drunk. Nicest guy you’d ever meet, but he just couldn’t hold it together. I think he loved my mother very much, but he was haunted. He came and went until one day he was gone for good. They were so different. She was from Long Island— Caucasian. He was from Big Water—part Hispanic and part Caucasian. She met him one night in a bar, her first year of college. She was underage. He was the bouncer and let her in.” “She went to the University of Colorado?” Libby nodded. “Wanted to become an aeronautics engineer. But she met my dad. Got pregnant with me. Dropped out of college, and that’s when they moved to Haley’s Ranch.” “How did your mother’s family react?” “At first they cut her off. Later they relented.” “They cut her off because he was of mixed race? Because of the nudist colony, or for some other reason?” “All of the above. And they’d already selected someone for her.”
“You ever meet them?” “No. They welcomed her back into their lives, but they never approved of my dad. She never forgave them for it, so we never visited them.” “That’s rough.” Rafe topped off Libby’s glass. “After Mom died, I was at a loss. I couldn’t face going back to vet school. I’d lost momentum. I was a spinning wheel with nowhere to go.” “Because the colony had misappropriated your trust fund?” “Misappropriated—that’s a legal term. You use it easily.” Rafe checked himself. “I’m just remembering the headlines.” “Yes. They’d stolen my mother’s money. I didn’t really have a home. We’d stayed with a woman here in town, a good friend of my mom’s, and I just couldn’t figure out what to do with myself.” “So you bought the inn. But how did you manage that, with all of the legal problems between you and the colony?” She looked at him hard. Slow down. You’ve got to slow down. Libby shrugged. “That’s another story entirely. I bet Ruby saved me a piece of her chocolate torte. I’ll split it with you.” She didn’t wait for him to answer. She headed for the kitchen and returned with two plates. He reached around and pulled the blanket back up over her shoulders. She smiled. They ate in silence. After a few moments he said, “This is a showplace. Hard to believe it was this nice when you took it over. I’d guess you had to put a lot of work into it, yes?”
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He knew he’d made her uncomfortable because all she said was, “Yes. Something like that, anyway. What about you?” He finished the last bite and pushed his plate away. “I never knew my dad. My mother was Ute and Hispanic. She died when I was fourteen.” “I’m sorry. What of?” “Heart trouble. The worst kind.” “I don’t understand.” The blanket slid off Libby’s shoulder, pulling at her dress. She didn’t seem to notice. “She died of a heart attack. When I was growing up, my mother used to tell me that she had a bad heart—that she’d loved the wrong man and now her heart was broken. She said that one day she would die of that broken heart. And one day, she did.” He stopped abruptly, before he said too much. Libby leaned forward and placed her hand on his shoulder. The blanket fell away. “I’m sorry, Rafe.” She brought his hand palm up to her lips, kissed it, and placed it against the bare skin over her heart. He could feel the soft curve of her body. In his lifetime, he’d never met a truly irresistible woman, until today.
Libby awoke to the sound of Ruby coming in with coffee and the morning paper. “Thanks, Ruby. I’ll take it outside.” “I tucked a freshly baked boysenberry scone into the napkin, and there’s a small glass of orange juice for you, too.” “Oh, Ruby! You spoil me.” “You could do with a bit of spoiling. Glad to see you slept in.” Slept in? Libby glanced at the clock, shocked to realize that she was supposed to have met Rafe and taken him through the morning routine, hours ago. How could she have slept so late? “Now don’t get all worked up. Emma says that boy Rafe has already taken care of the morning chores.” Ruby broke into a toothy smile. “You just sit there and relax. Wake up a bit. Maybe take a long bath. There ain’t nothin’ for you to worry about this mornin’. It’s already nice and warm outside. You go on out there and enjoy your breakfast.” “But I still have to take care of my horses. Marengo will be having a fit about now.” “Emma says that boy took care of your horses, too.” No matter how hard Libby tried, she couldn’t manage to think of Rafe as a “boy.” Nor had she ever seen anyone get past the Peace sisters as quickly as Rafe apparently had.
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About six months before Libby opened the inn, she placed an ad for a manager and a chef. The next morning, Emma and Ruby Peace showed up at her door. Emma and Ruby were a package deal. Raised on the Ute reservation, Emma left at age twenty to become a housekeeper for a wealthy woman in Denver. She managed the house and household accounts for the same woman for forty years. She retired at age sixty when her employer died and the house was sold at auction. Soon after Emma’s retirement, her sister Ruby, a chef with epicurean skills, was less-than-gently encouraged to take early retirement by her restaurateur employer who claimed she wasn’t keeping up. Ruby knew it had nothing to do with her ability to keep up. The restaurant had recently come under new management. The new manager objected to both her ethnicity and her age. Libby hired them on the spot. After the Carter House opened, Emma kept the inn running faultlessly. Word of Ruby’s cooking spread like a pandemic. People clamored for her roasted trout and her chocolate torte. Apparently the sisters thought mothering was included in their job responsibilities because, between the two of them, they’d made short work of the occasional hired hand who wanted to groom Libby instead of the horses. They weren’t like family—they were family.
The late morning sun was warm against her bare skin. Libby wolfed the scone and took her coffee to the wicker rocker where she could relax and let the sun do its magic. Her thoughts kept returning to the night before. She would have sworn he would kiss her—maybe even assume he was invited into her bed. But he hadn’t.
She picked up the paper, then tossed it aside. But why hadn’t he kissed her? He certainly seemed attracted to her. She’d worn the white dress with the spaghetti straps just to tease him. And catching the garlic butter with her finger like that—she’d done it before she realized what she was doing. She almost regretted teasing him, but not quite. Between his kiss after her ride yesterday, and letting her know he’d seen her under the waterfall, she’d thought him just a little too pleased with himself. Over dinner she gradually became aware that he had shared only a few personal details. At first she’d thought he was just a very good listener, always turning the conversation back to her. But after a while she realized that he was practiced at deflecting questions. In fact, she didn’t even know his last name. But that would be easy enough to find out. She could look at Emma’s paperwork. Libby did a quick inventory of what she did know about him. He owned a truck, a Stetson, claimed to have done a lot of rodeoing, his mother died of a broken heart when he was fourteen, and he had a great mouth. Her body gave an involuntary flex. When she met him on the highway, he’d looked like just another temptation sent her way—another cowboy down on his luck who expected her to save him, and she’d probably try because Lord knows she always fell for the underdog. But there was something under the surface. She’d seen it in his eyes several times. Over dinner, she’d heard it in his speech. He was educated, polite and capable of depth. At least depth of thought. She didn’t yet know about his character. By the end of the night, he hadn’t seemed so much like a cowboy down on his luck as he did a man who valued his freedom. He was also well-informed about the whole Haley’s Ranch fiasco, which proved nothing,
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really, since the story had been all over the national news. A nudist colony, three women and misappropriated trust funds made for a great headline. This morning she had learned that Rafe was interested enough to impress her. Why else would he rise early and get all the chores done before noon? Yet last night he had not kissed her. Instead, he’d walked her to her room. The moment hung suspended. He’d stood so close she could feel his heat. “Thanks for dinner.” His eyes burned. “You’ll work it off.” She could feel her own eyes burning. He reached out and brushed a tendril from the side of her face. It was all she could do to keep from chasing his fingers with her lips. His hand rested briefly on the side of her shoulder. His fingers massaged gently as if he couldn’t keep from touching her. He took both of her hands in his, squeezed them lightly, then drew his hands up the sides of her arms. His thumbs hooked the fallen straps of her dress and slid them into place. “Good night, Elle.” And that’s how he left her. She’d thought about reaching for him. But earlier that evening, when she realized that he was quite likable, she’d decided two things. First, as his boss, it was inappropriate for her to make the first move, and he’d already proven he wasn’t shy about making moves. If he was interested, he would have to be the one to initiate things between them. Second, when she wanted someone, she liked to be courted. An old-fashioned term perhaps, but she liked it just the same. If he was interested, he’d have to do the pursuing.
Libby stretched, letting the sun bake her bare skin until she felt as though she’d been simmering for hours on low heat. Her stomach rumbled. That was the trouble with Ruby’s cooking. It was so good; she was always hungry for more. She rose to go inside and take a shower, but not before she saw Rafe coming through the far gate with Aramis at his heels. Frustration collided with pleasure. The man certainly had a knack for finding her in the buff. Someone was going to have to explain to him that this side of the Carter House was private and gated for a reason. Usually Emma made sure everyone understood this. Her handyman, Emilio, also helped to enforce her privacy, but he’d injured his back and it would be several more months before he was up and around. Rafe waved. She ignored him and went inside, closing the door firmly behind her. She bypassed the tub, dropped the pleated shades for privacy, and stepped into the shower.
Cabrerras. A quick look at the employee file Emma had started for him revealed that his last name was Cabrerras. It wasn’t a familiar name. His permanent address was listed as Escalante, Utah. Her stomach rumbled again. She closed the file and glanced at the clock. It was nearly noon. She’d taken a much longer shower than intended, and more care with her appearance than usual. She slipped into a pink sleeveless T-shirt and white shorts then headed to the kitchen for a quick lunch raid. She pushed through the stainless steel door. The pungent smell of Ruby’s chicken Parmesan filled the air. To her surprise, she saw Rafe and Ruby huddled over the stovetop looking like old friends.
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Rafe handed the ladle back to Ruby. “Now, that’s what I call good.” Ruby beamed. “Oh, go on. Here. Take another taste.” She dipped the ladle into the private pot she always had going on the side for tasting, blew on it and spooned the ladle to Rafe’s mouth. Rafe took his time tasting and chewing. When at last he swallowed, he grinned broadly. “Best I’ve ever had.” Ruby preened. Something about seeing them laughing like old friends made Libby uneasy. She was pleased they were getting on so well, but it was unusual for Ruby to be won over by a slickster like Rafe Cabrerras. She caught herself. It wasn’t fair to call him a slickster. She couldn’t possibly know what he was—yet. She just knew she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the easy way Rafe ingratiated himself to others. And there was something else. She may as well admit it right now. Her current uneasiness was due to the fact that she wished she was the one ladling food into Rafe’s mouth. She brushed the thought aside. “Much of a crowd out there?” Ruby turned in her direction. “Well, hi there, honey. Now don’t you look pretty? Doesn’t she look pretty, Rafe?” Rafe stopped what he was doing and swept Libby with his eyes. He opened his mouth, hesitated, and then said, “Always.” He turned his back and began fumbling with a bread wrapper. “Sure, we’re busy. Got the usual out there.” Ruby grinned. Libby nodded, surprised to see the way Rafe seemed to have Ruby’s blessing to move freely about her kitchen,
and amused that the bread wrapper was giving him so much trouble. Ruby never let anyone, not even Libby, have that kind of freedom in her kitchen. It was only after hours that anyone was allowed to toast even so much as a piece of bread for themselves. “Need anything from me?” “Not a thing, sweetie. Rafe here already ran to the grocer’s to get a few things.” Rafe nodded, still very preoccupied with putting things away. “Think I could get a little lunch? Some of your chicken Parmesan would be wonderful.” Ruby glanced at Rafe. “No, dear. I’m a little busy right now.” In the nearly four years they’d been working together, Libby couldn’t remember Ruby ever turning her away. Putting her out of the kitchen, yes. But not without first handing her a heaping plate of food. She started to object, but Ruby cut her off. “Rafe, didn’t you have some questions for Libby? You two go on now. I can’t be talking with you all day long. I’ve got a restaurant full of people to feed.” Ruby shooed them out the back door as if they were pesky children. “And take this with you.” She handed Rafe a wicker picnic basket. Rafe took Libby’s arm with his free hand and led her outside. “What do you think? Know of a good picnic spot?” Libby knew a set-up when she saw one, and decided to play along. “I know a number of them.” “Care to suggest one?” “Well now, that depends.” “On?” “What’s in the basket?”
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Rafe broke into a grin. “I honestly don’t know what all she put in here, but it weighs a ton. Pretty sure I saw her slip some of that chicken Parmesan in, though. And a couple of mangoes. Some cake. I think she said something about pie, too. And she had me making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in case we got hungry later.” “Later?” “Yeah.” When he didn’t explain she said, “Just how long did she think we’d be gone?” He grinned. “All I know is that she told me to make ’em ‘just in case.’” Well this was a shift. Usually the sisters Peace sent wandering buckaroos like Rafe running for the border the minute they showed an interest in her—often without a chance to pack. “Oh, and Emma said you might show me some of the less-traveled trails.” So, Emma was in on this too. Really, this was the limit. Emma knew Libby kept those trails closed to the public—or “less-traveled” as she must have put it—so that she could have the freedom to ride her horses in a natural state. “It’s a perfect day for it. The horses have been cared for. They’re in the corral now, getting their exercise. Jute Judson came for his two horses this morning, so there are only four boarded horses to tend this evening.” “Jute took his horses?” “Yeah. You didn’t know?” “No. He owes us several months’ back payment.” “All taken care of.” “He didn’t try to stiff you?”
Rafe rocked on his heels. “He did. But usually when a guy moves as fast as he was moving, there’s a reason to be suspicious. So I gave Emma a buzz.” “I guess you do know your way around.” She was pleased. He was going to be a big help. Rafe smiled, waiting for her to make up her mind. “Well, why don’t you saddle up your horse and Marengo? I’ll go put on jeans and riding boots and meet you in back of the stables.” “You use a saddle?” He grinned wickedly. She tossed her head. “Occasionally.” He was seated on an Appaloosa, Marengo’s reins in hand, waiting for her. “She’s lovely. What’s her name?” “Firenza.” The way he said it, it sounded like a caress. “Have any trouble saddling Marengo?” Rafe grinned. “He doesn’t like the saddle much.” “I don’t think it’s the saddle he minds,” she teased, then relented and smiled. “He’s just not used to having anyone else handle him.” “Where are we headed?” “I’ve thought of a couple of places. There’s an old linesman’s shack up the East Ridge a couple of miles with a great view. But it’s a bit of a climb.” She eyed the oversized picnic basket. “If we follow the south edge of Tangler’s forest for about a mile and a half, we’ll reach a pretty little lake. It’s a nice spot for a picnic. That one might be a little easier, considering the load you’ve got there.”
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“Sounds good. Is there a place to let the horses run? She could use a little airing out.” Rafe ran his hands the length of Firenza’s neck. The horse nearly purred. “How well does she do with other horses?” “She can be a little temperamental.” “I ask because the lake is a favorite watering hole for a herd of wild mustangs. There’s plenty of space to run them, but we might meet up with other horses.” He nodded. They rode side by side in silence. There was no obvious path, but Marengo knew the way. When occasionally it was too narrow to ride side by side, Rafe would drop back. Libby didn’t know which was warmer: the sun on her face, or Rafe’s eyes on her backside. She swished her ponytail and urged Marengo a little faster. The trail opened, and Rafe caught up. “You in a hurry?” “I’m hungry!” He started to laugh. She liked the sound of it. “What’s so funny?” “You should have seen your face when Ruby said you couldn’t have any lunch.” Libby smiled. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to get you out of there.” “So this was your idea, then?” “Nope. I just poked my head in and asked what the routine was for lunch. Ruby invited me in and before I knew it, she had me tasting everything in sight. Not that I minded. She’s one hell of a cook. Every time I said I liked something, she wrapped it up and stuck it in the basket. I thought she was putting together something for some family who’d ordered a basket, or maybe someone was
sick. Then Emma came in and suggested I get you to take me on some of the trails—warned me not to go alone because too many people get lost out here. Then Ruby said what a great idea that was, and that we might as well take a picnic lunch. That’s when she got me making the PB&J sandwiches ‘just in case’, and I was just finishing when you showed up.” Rafe reined in his horse. Libby followed his lead. He pointed into the woods. “There. On the aspen between the two evergreens. See it? A white owl.” It took Libby a moment to find it. “Uncommon to get this close to one—in the daytime anyway. My grandmama used to talk of the white owl medicine. She said that the white owl teaches us to conserve our energy until the time is right, and to be observant. The white owl has the power of prophecy.” He grew silent. “Your grandmother believed in totem medicine?” “She was part Ute, part Hispanic. Totem medicine is common in both cultures.” She nodded. “What about your mother and father?” “My mother believed. Don’t know about my father. Didn’t know him well. He wasn’t around much.” He drew his horse a little ahead of hers, and they started forward again. “I’m sorry.” He shrugged it off, but she could tell there was nothing casual about him in that moment. “I know a little about totem medicine.” “From your dad?” “Yes.” “And your mother?” “She could take it or leave it.”
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“You said she was Caucasian.” “Yes.” “That explains it.” “What?” “Your coloring. It’s like honey.” Honey? That was the best he could come up with? “And no tan lines.” Libby dug her heels into Marengo. The horse took off. One look over her shoulder told her Rafe had all he could do to hold Firenza back without upsetting the picnic basket. She didn’t appreciate his crack about no tan lines and considered leaving him to find his own way. It was juvenile of him to remind her that he’d seen her naked. But when she reached the mouth of the lake, she slowed Marengo to a stop and waited for Rafe to catch up. “What was that all about?” “Your grandmama taught you about totem medicine. It’s too bad she didn’t teach you better manners.” He looked surprised and then serious. “If you knew me better, you’d know that was intended to be a compliment. The most beautiful women in the world are those who are comfortable in their own skin.” Well, there was certainly nothing juvenile about that philosophy. Maybe she’d been too quick to judge him. Libby dismounted and began to loosen Marengo’s girth. Rafe hopped down and helped her with the saddle. Marengo nickered and trotted over to the sweet grass by the lake’s edge. Rafe lifted the picnic basket from Firenza’s saddle. The horse followed him as he walked away, butting her head against his shoulder. When he paid her no attention, she began to nip at him. Rafe set the basket down on a rock. “So, you think just because Marengo got to take his saddle off, you want
yours off too, is that it, girl?” He swatted lightly at her hindquarters, then loosened the girth and slid the saddle off. Firenza nosed his shoulder again. Libby watched the way Rafe handled the horse. He was supremely confident in his ability to manage her. His hands were deft, gentle, and affectionate. A girl could learn a lot about a man by the way he handled a horse. Rafe stretched his back and took a moment to look around. She tried to see it the way he was—as if she were seeing it for the first time. Lots of trees, tall grasses and open meadow and lake just beyond. On the other side of the lake, about 100 yards or so, water spilled from an upper lake creating a waterfall about three feet deep. There was a large flat rock just off to the side of the waterfall perfect for sunning. Rafe spread out a blanket while Libby unpacked the basket. He was right. Chicken Parmesan still warm in its thermal container, mangoes, plums, cake, pie, the peanut butter sandwiches, several bottles of water, and tucked into the beverage compartment were two bottles of chilled champagne and collapsible champagne glasses. Libby smiled. Why, those two wicked women. Rafe glanced over and saw the champagne. “Ruby sure knows how to put on a fine picnic.” They ate chicken and drank champagne under a circle of birch trees, listening to the coo of the mourning dove and the chatter of mountain bluebirds. When they were done, Rafe took off his boots and stretched himself across the blanket. He propped his head in his hand. Libby let her eyes roam over him and then tried not to shiver, aware that he was watching her watch him. He’d pushed his Stetson back on his head. His grin was easy, his eyes alert. His body looked relaxed, but she knew
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better. He was like a cougar ready to spring at the slightest provocation. “So, tell me, Elle. If you could do anything in the world, anything at all, what would it be?” “You mean, how would I support myself?” “Not necessarily. How would you choose to spend your time if you could do anything?” “I’m doing it.” He took his Stetson off and ran his fingers through his hair. “You wouldn’t change anything?” She thought about it a moment. “Well, I would have finished school. I’d like to be a vet. We lose a lot of animals because life is hard out here, and no one has the luxury of time or money to heal a broken animal. That’s what I’d like to do.” Rafe rolled onto his back and laid his head in her lap. She looked down at him and experienced again that feeling of losing herself in the blue of his eyes. Her hair fell down in waves around his face and over his shoulders. “So, if you could do anything in the world, your choice would be to heal animals—not take a cruise, or win the lottery, or achieve fame.” He grinned. She grinned back. “Are you mocking me?” “A little. You’re a do-gooder.” “No. It’s just that I’ve already taken a cruise—I didn’t think it was that great. I don’t need to win the lottery, and I like my privacy. There’s no privacy with fame.” Rafe turned on his side toward her and burrowed his head deeper into her lap. “I guess you got a little taste of that during the trial.” “Yes, although fortunately they never published my photo. The other two women weren’t as lucky. I still
remember the most shocking headline next to their photos. It read ‘Nudists or Prostitutes: You Decide.’ I don’t know if either of them ever got over it…” “Yeah, I remember that. The reporters constantly mentioned a mystery woman, but your identity wasn’t revealed until you testified. How’d you manage that?” She looked at him sharply. “This isn’t my favorite subject.” He nodded, his blue eyes intensely compassionate. “Sure, I get it.” Libby adjusted her position on the blanket, crossing one leg over the other. “Not everyone was as understanding as you seem to be. The truth is, a friend of mine let me stay at his place. It was pretty secluded. He knew a few people, who knew a few other people. By the time he was done calling in favors, most of the reporters had backed off. One of the women had underage children, so the judge agreed to a closed court, which limited the press’s access even more.” Rafe nodded again. “But didn’t that just drive curiosity?” Libby shrugged. “I suppose. But it limited my exposure to the public without hurting anyone else.” “A friend like that—that’s a friend worth keeping. Who was he—where’d you meet him?” Libby uncrossed her legs and hugged her knees to her chest. It was one question too many. “Let’s change the subject.” They were quiet for several minutes. Rafe was the first to break the silence. “So, tell me more about the inn. Must be at least a hundred years old.”
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She smiled, pleased with this new topic. “It was built in 1860 by a man named Geoffrey Carter just after gold was discovered in the area.” “Even older than I thought.” “Yes. Until I bought it four years ago, it had stood empty for as long as I can remember. Everyone called it ‘that Carter monstrosity.’ On the edge of town the way it is, it should have been a perfect target for kids to throw stones at, or for vandals, or a haven for trysting lovers. But rumors about it being haunted by the spirit of the cliff-dweller were so viral, no one ever dared disturb the place. Then one day, after my mom died, it occurred to me that it was perfect for an inn, and the acreage was prime for boarding horses. I was consumed with the idea—couldn’t shake it.” “Makes sense. You’d been surrounded by death. You wanted to make something come alive.” Libby looked at him in surprise. “That’s exactly it. I don’t think I knew until just now, but that’s exactly what it was.” “Still, it must have been a lot for one woman to take on.” “I didn’t do it alone.” “Oh?” “I have a partner.” Libby jumped, aware that once again she’d been doing all the talking. She glanced at the lake. “What do you say to a swim?” She was already peeling off her clothes, revealing a sleek, black bikini, as she ran toward the lake. She dove in, swam a few strokes and then turned to see what Rafe was doing, surprised to find that he was standing at the edge of the lake. “Water’s great. Come on in.” He didn’t move.
“What are you waiting for?” He didn’t say anything. She waved. “Come on in. I’ll race you to the falls.” The man didn’t budge. She pointed. “See the rock. It’s perfect for sunning.” She turned away, intent on swimming to the rock, when she heard him call her name. She stopped. “I can’t swim.” She took a few steps toward shore. “I never learned.” He looked miserable. “Feel like learning now?” He hesitated. “I’ve tried.” “Okay.” She walked out of the water and took his hand. “I’m sure I can teach you. I’ve taught lots of kids.” “I’m not a kid.” “Which will make it just that much easier for you to learn.” He eyed her bikini top. “I didn’t wear swim trunks.” “No problem. Oh—are you embarrassed to swim in the nude?” He looked for all the world like a little boy who wanted something very badly and didn’t know how to get it. She found his vulnerability nearly irresistible. “Here, if it will make you feel better, I’ll take mine off.” She untied her bikini top and let it drop, then stepped out of her bottoms. “Your turn. I’ll meet you in the water.” She squeezed his hand, walked back into the lake and stood waiting in the shallows. Libby had no doubt that she could teach him to swim. The fact that she was naked was natural to her. She’d learned to swim naked. She preferred to swim naked. Yet she felt her entire body thrill in anticipation of seeing Rafe naked.
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She waited, watching to see what he would do. She knew he hated the fact that she had seen his fear. She also knew her nudity gave him an incentive. She walked slowly back to him. “I can make this easy for you. I’ve taught lots of—” “Kids, I know.” “Not just kids. I’ve worked with people, young and old. I was a lifeguard when I was in high school.” His eyes locked onto hers. “I promise, I can make this easy for you.” She reached out to loosen his belt and pulled out his T-shirt. He offered no resistance. She spoke softly. “Raise your arms.” He raised his arms and she slid his shirt off. She lowered the zipper of his jeans, slid her hands under his briefs and pushed them off. There was a moment when Rafe’s briefs caught and swung like a white flag from a very rigid staff. Rafe’s body affected her like a potent aphrodisiac. But as his swimming instructor, she did her best to act as though she had not noticed. “Come with me.” She walked him a few steps into the lake and snuck a covert glance. The cold water would shrink him, if there were any shrinking to be done. She gave it a moment and looked again, expecting to find him smaller and more relaxed. Instead, every part of Rafe’s body was stiff. His face was locked, his arms had frozen in place, his knees had lost their ability to bend, and he was jutting upward as pointed as Pike’s Peak. She couldn’t help it. She turned away from him so he wouldn’t see her smile. She walked backward in front of him holding both his hands until the water was almost waist deep. “We’ll start with floating. Have you ever floated?”
He shook his head. “I’ve never been able to float for more than a second or two.” “No problem. I’m going to hold you up. You’re just going to lie on top of my arms above the water. Eventually I’ll lower you until you’re floating on your own. Your job is to relax. Think of your favorite place. Go there in your mind. It will help you.” But Rafe was so locked up, his face and upper body kept dropping like a rock, while his erection sailed proudly above the surface like a mast. She’d never seen anything like it. She had to work hard not to giggle. Clearly he needed to relax. She stood him on his feet and saw the bitter defeat reflected in the depths of his eyes. She couldn’t help feeling responsible. She’d started this thing not realizing how deep it ran. He turned away toward shore. The back of him was as shockingly sensuous as his front. “Wait!” She caught up with him. He didn’t stop. She took his arm. “We just have to find a way to help you relax.” He shrugged her off. They were almost to shore. “I have an idea, Rafe.” He whirled in her direction. “Give it up, Elle. Give it up. I should check on the horses anyway.” She caught his face in her hands. “I can’t. I can’t give it up.” He stood immobile, a slight tic to his jaw. “I have an idea. What’s the best way you can think of to relax? I mean completely let go.” She took both his hands and led him back into the shallows. She leaned in until her body was flat against his. Her hands caressed his shoulders, his chest. She stepped
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deeper into the water. He followed. She kissed the base of his throat, pulled at an earlobe with her mouth, stepping deeper into the water until they were once again nearly waist-deep. She reached beneath the surface of the water and took him into her hands. His eyes widened. She worked the soft tip of him in one hand, the base with her other. He reached for her, but she stopped him. “Your only job is to concentrate on feeling good.” He grinned. “Currently, that’s not a problem.” She smiled back. Her hands were full of him. He was thick, warm, rigid. The tip of him was swollen and soft to the touch. He was the perfect size. She closed her eyes. This was going to be harder than she realized. She’d only intended to bring him to the point of release so that in those moments of total relaxation post-orgasm, she might be able to help him. But holding him the way she was, she felt a gnawing ache in the deepest part of her. She played his body the way she would a fine instrument. It would be so easy to guide him inside. He gave a soft moan. Or maybe it was she who moaned. She held him with both hands and let the domed end nudge her belly. He moaned louder. She drew her hands back and forth, circling and kneading. He reached for her again. This time she let him pull her close. His arms circled around, crushing her to his body. She felt his lips over hers nudging them open. His tongue would not be denied. He took her mouth until she nearly lost sight of her objective. She pulled away, dragging her body against his as she circled behind him. She wrapped her legs around and pressed herself into his back, then reached for him from behind, and brought him to a powerful finish.
When at last his body was quiet, she kissed the back of his ear and kicked up, pulling him on top of her. They rose to the surface and floated like one. After awhile, she spread his arms, showing him how to rotate them effectively, and slipped out from under him. He continued to float. She swam beside him, until they reached the flat rock in front of the falls. She showed him how to tread water, then lifted herself onto the rock and stretched out. With a powerful kick, he flipped on his belly and swam a few strokes, lost his rhythm and flipped onto his back. He tried it again and again, each time achieving greater success until he was swimming with the measured strokes of an athlete. She smiled. Unconventional in method perhaps, but they’d gotten the job done. Something good had been accomplished today. He pulled himself up on the rock. “Thank you.” She smiled, feeling very lazy. “I believe we can do anything when we really want to. You really wanted to learn to swim.” He nodded. “There was a time when I wanted to be a Navy SEAL.” She opened one eye. “Really?” “Yeah. I thought they were the toughest guys around.” She wasn’t impressed. “You still think that?” “Oh, they’re tough alright.” “Being tough is important to you?” “Not any more. Strong, yes. Tough, no.” He leaned over. Water dripped from his body onto hers. “You ever use that technique before?” “Never. I never met anyone as resistant to the water as you were.” He bent to kiss her neck. One hand rested on her hip.
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She gave a throaty chuckle and pushed his hand away. “I already know how to swim.” “I’m aware of that.” He kissed the side of her mouth. “I was thinking of something else entirely.” He drew his lips down her neck and kissed the swell of her breast. She pushed him gently away. “Which is?” “I’d like to race you back to shore where I can thank you properly.” His hand rode over her thighs and the curve of her backside. She rolled off the rock and swam away. He flopped into the lake after her. With his longer body and powerful reach, he overtook her in moments. She kicked away, swimming harder, and although she gave him a good workout, she couldn’t out-swim him. He grabbed her foot and pulled her to him. She went under and he lifted her up against him, treading water with one arm. “I’ve created a monster.” She pretended to beat his chest. They both laughed. She kicked away again but he caught up with her and changed his stroke to a dog paddle. “I’ve always wanted to swim in the nude,” he told her. Then he flipped over on his back when he lost his stroke. She giggled. “Coordinating conversation with swimming takes time.” When they reached shallow water, she decided to tease him and turned to swim away, but he caught her arm and pulled her back. She saw the look of intent in his eye. She wrapped her legs around him, letting the water support her, and leaned against his chest. “Do you know what I’d like right now?”
“No, what.” He sounded like he knew exactly what she wanted. “A piece of Ruby’s pie.” She kissed his lips. “Pie? You want pie? Now?” “Umm, doesn’t that sound good?” “Only if you’re the pie.” He claimed her mouth, drawing on her lips and tongue as if they were his own. It took everything she had to pull away from him. Not because she didn’t want to be with him, and not because of some silly resolve to stay away from him. She pulled away because he was definitely in the mood to pursue her. She ran out of the water. He was only a stride or two behind. She raced for the picnic basket and scooped up the pie just as his arms circled her waist. She held the pie up like a prize. “Pie, Rafe. Let’s have some pie.” He grinned. “Only if you let me feed it to you.” “Of course.” Rafe held the pie to her lips. She took a small bite. He brought the pie to his mouth and took a bite as well. They watched each other as they chewed. She knew he was contemplating his next move. She already had hers planned. He offered her another bite. A piece of apple slipped out and landed on his chest. She scooped it into her mouth with her tongue. Rafe dropped the pie and pulled her to the blanket. He threaded his legs through hers then rolled alongside her, his mouth already traveling the expanse of skin between her lips and the soft concave between her breasts. He moved lower until he caught the swell of her and finally captured the tip with his tongue. She closed her eyes, enjoying the warm, gentle suction and the swirl of his tongue.
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Suddenly, she giggled, pushed away and raced across the field. She grabbed Marengo’s mane and vaulted onto his back. Marengo didn’t need to be told what to do. He bolted across the meadow. She leaned into him, enjoying the feel of his powerful legs as he galloped full speed. She could hear Rafe behind her on Firenza. Riding bareback wasn’t his greatest skill. She kept the lead for a few minutes, then began to slow, finally bringing Marengo to a stop in front of a small grove of trees. She draped herself across Marengo’s back and intentionally cloaked her body beneath her long hair, her head resting against her hand, waiting. Rafe brought Firenza in close, blocking any chance of escape. His eyes held hers. She smiled. She might cooperate. It depended entirely on what he did next. What she hadn’t counted on was the way Firenza whinnied and brought her head alongside Marengo’s, flirting shamelessly. She distracted Marengo so that he was no longer anticipating Libby’s every command. Rafe grinned, now that he had the upper hand in this coy little game of hers. His eyes were full of delicious intent. He brought his horse even closer. “I wonder if you have any idea what you look like.” She waited. “Come here.” She smiled, daring him to make his move. “Come here,” he repeated. He reached over, hooked his arm around her waist, and pulled her effortlessly onto his horse. He placed her firmly between his legs. She could feel his chest against her back. His arms wrapped around her waist. He brought his mouth to her ear. “You are as wild as any creature in the forest. I find you enchanting.”
He paused to kiss her neck and turn her face to the side so that he could kiss her lips. He smoothed her hair until the length of it lay across his hand, then wound it around his fist and grinned. “There will be no getting away from me, now.” She sighed and leaned back into the luxury of his body. He clicked his tongue, told Marengo to follow and headed back to the lake. At first it was enough to simply sit with him like this, leaning against his chest. She could feel his thighs grip Firenza, and his chest expand when he drew a breath. Rafe massaged her shoulders and arms, occasionally brushing her breasts. He moved to her thighs and back to her arms again, nuzzling her ear. When they reached the lake, Rafe walked Firenza into the water. He dismounted. “Come.” She let herself slide off Firenza’s back into his arms. He carried her out of the water and laid her on the blanket. For a few moments all he did was look at her, but he may as well have been touching her because his eyes swept her like a caress. He kissed her mouth, her fingers, and her breasts, but his final destination was much lower. His fingers were everywhere, finding pressure points she hadn’t known she had. His tongue teased around her thighs, and finally eased into her in the most intimate of kisses. He was as enthusiastic as he was practiced. He brought her to the point of shrieking three times before he slid himself between her legs and rocked her into oblivion.
He’d never been so hungry for a woman. He’d never had a woman run away from him or make him chase her the
Rebecca E. Grant
way she had—and, more importantly, he liked chasing this woman. He’d never seen a woman who could laugh so freely, or vault effortlessly onto a bareback horse, or strip so easily, or enjoy being outdoors in her natural state. She was like a nymph. He reached for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “How many did you make?” “Three.” “Good. One for me.” He snatched them away before she could take one. She shrugged. “Have it your way.” She reached for the chocolate cake. He snatched that away too. She reached for the pie and giggled when his hand shot out, robbing her of the pie. She looked at him slyly and scooped up a mango. This time he wasn’t fast enough. She spread the fruit open and sucked noisily. Mango juice ran down her face and across her breasts and belly. Rafe could only stare. “I was going to use your body as a plate for my sandwich, and then lick off the crumbs when I was done. But since you’re being such a bully, I had to settle for a mango. I’m going into the lake now to wash myself off.” She got up and walked slowly to the lake. He tried to be cool and aloof—to remember why he’d come to Stone Hill in the first place, but who was he kidding? There was no way he was going to pass up this opportunity. He sprang to his feet. His fingertips caught hers. She turned slowly, a half smile on her face. He swept her into his arms and carried her into knee-deep water. She had the most amazing body. He couldn’t get enough of it. He began to use his tongue, his hands and the water to bathe her. She threw her head back and half-moaned, halfwhimpered her pleasure. She urged him deeper into the
water and slid over him until he was so deep inside her, he no longer knew where he ended and she began. Her muscles flexed around him like a sheath. He held her, enjoying the sway of the lake and the way she cinched him all the way inside. She murmured into his ear, “Take me back to the blanket.” “You just want that peanut butter sandwich.” “The sandwich can wait. Take me back.” Much later, she said, “I wonder if it’s too late to tell you that I never mix business with pleasure?” He flat-out laughed. “You are pleasure whether it’s business or otherwise.” Rafe winced inwardly. He was so off-purpose. She was the most tempting thing he’d ever come across. What was he going to do if he had to choose between her and his reason for coming to Stone Hill? What would happen when she found out who he really was? They fell asleep, their bodies folded into one another like a graceful sculpture. The sun was soft and low in the sky by the time they awoke. Rafe pulled her head onto his lap. “Time we were getting back.” She stretched and smiled up at him. He stroked her face. “But, truth is, I’m not in any hurry.” He bent down and kissed her. “Besides, I want to hear the rest of the story.” “What story?” “The story of you. We’ve established what you’d do if you could. We started to talk about how you acquired the inn. I can’t imagine how you got anyone to stay there with its reputation for being haunted. You said you have a
Rebecca E. Grant
partner. Did you mean the Peace sisters?” He rubbed the base of her throat with his thumb. It felt delicious. “Actually, they’re the ones who gave me the idea about how I might get some leverage out of that legend and help people feel differently about the mansion.” His fingers went still. “But they aren’t your partners?” She raised herself up on an elbow. “Are you changing the subject?” He smoothed the hair away from her face and smiled. “I don’t know. Am I?” For just a moment, he’d seemed overly focused on finding out about her business partner. Why should he care? But when she looked into his eyes, she saw only amusement fused with heat. She launched into the legend, convinced she was being over-sensitive, yet again. Dealing with the press for two years, while the Haley’s Ranch incident was being sorted out in the courts, had left her less than trusting when it came to strangers. “Emma and Ruby suggested that all the stories about the place could actually work in my favor. I don’t know exactly when or how the stories started, but for as long as I can remember, people believed the Carter House was haunted by the spirit of the cliff-dweller.” Rafe chuckled low. “Hey, around here, we take legends very seriously.” He sobered and nodded. “Tell me.” “Long ago, the spirit of the cliff-dweller was forced down from the mountains and into the valley by a greater, more powerful spirit. Unhappy about being displaced, the spirit of the cliff-dweller was said to haunt those who died alone. Many of the Stone Hill residents were afraid,
regardless of whether they believed the story of the cliffdweller.” Rafe kneaded her shoulders as he listened. “Well, old Miriam Carter was the last of the Carters to live in the Carter house. She died alone in her bed at age ninety-one. It was a week or more before her death was discovered, and she was in a state of decay when they found her. Her mouth and eyes were open. Her lips and eyelids were paper thin due to age. Gravity caused her lips to curl back away from her teeth, and her eyelids to drop into the sockets behind her eyes. She looked as though she had died shrieking in terror. Of course, everyone said it was the spirit of the cliff-dweller. That she had been frightened to death, alone there in the house like that.” “But you didn’t believe that.” “Our community is primarily Hispanic, Ute and Caucasian. We’ve been living together for so long we have a sort of blended culture. Although not everyone believes in them—some think of them as lore—shamans and other spiritual healers are accepted authorities in this town. So, I was very public about hiring a spiritualist to cleanse the Carter House and invited several of the town’s most active gossips to attend.” Rafe chuckled. “The shaman told everyone that we had the legend wrong. The spirit of the cliff-dweller had not been forced down from the mountain but instead had willingly left it in order to help both man and beast learn to live together in harmony. “The cliff-dweller spirit spoke to all living creatures through the voice of the wind as it passed over the reedy grass at night when the moon was high. But the eerie sound was misunderstood. People mistook it for the
Rebecca E. Grant
wailing of the bereaved and became fearful. It made the cliff-dweller spirit very sad to be so misunderstood. He stood us in a circle and pointed to us one at a time. He said that every single human being who could hear his voice had a responsibility to help clear up the misunderstanding because, of course, it’s not a good idea to make a spirit unhappy. People literally ran out of there eager to spread the new story.” “Smart girl.” “Well, it helped that Caleb Hamilton got the rodeo commission to agree to bring the rodeo back. People believed that happened because they were righting an old wrong and this was how the cliff-dweller’s spirit chose to reward them.” “Caleb Hamilton?” “Yes, he owns the largest ranch in the area and has financial interests in several of the surrounding ranches, as well. He also owns the hardware, the drug store, the Dairy Queen, two of the four bars in town, a grocery store, the auto garage—some even say he owns the local sheriff, although I have no reason to believe that. I’ve never known him to be anything but fair. Hard, but fair.” Rafe reached for his hat and pulled it low. “Sounds like the guy to know around here. Is he, by any chance, your business partner?” She hesitated before answering and then decided she was being silly. “Yes.” Rafe brushed the hair away from her face. “Really? I’m impressed. How did the two of you hook up?” “Oh, I’ve known him a long time. He and my mother were involved.” “Involved?”
“Yes, I think he loved her very much. He’d been married before—in fact, there were rumors that he had been married twice. People say he never got over his first wife, but I’m not convinced there ever was really a first wife—that is, a wife before Jane. She’s the only one I ever knew of. She had two daughters from a previous marriage who were a few years older than me. They went to boarding school and spent their summers abroad, so I never really knew them.” Rafe brought her fingers to his mouth and kissed them. “So he divorced Jane and started seeing your mother?” “No, no. He and Jane were married about eight years when Jane died from a riding accident. It was about a year after she died that he and my mother started dating. I had just left for college. From then on, I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break and most of my summers at the Hamilton ranch. Caleb taught me to ride and rope, to brand and to care for horses. I loved it. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian.” “So he was good to her then? And to you?” She nodded. “Yes, very.” “But something happened.” “My mother wouldn’t talk about it. All I ever knew was that they’d broken up about the time she learned she was seriously ill.” “You were close to him, even after the break up?” “Actually, I was never close to him. He was good to me, but we were never close. I think my mother may have been the only one to ever really get close to him. He’s not an easy man.”
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Rafe rolled onto his side taking her with him. He folded himself against her and kissed the back of her ear. “But somehow he ended up as your business partner.” “I went to him with my idea.” She closed her eyes savoring the feel of his body wrapped around hers and remembered how nervous she’d been about approaching Caleb Hamilton.
Hamilton walked to the large window in his study and looked out, his back to Libby. When he turned around she saw evidence of a perfect storm cross his face. “I’m a hard man, Liberty. I’ve had to be. I’ve had to make decisions that would have broken most men.” Libby shifted, unsure where he was going next. “Please don’t misunderstand. I’m in no way bragging. I’m just saying that I’ve been a hard man. At times it’s served me well. But there have been times when it’s caused me to make mistakes. Mistakes I couldn’t take back, no matter how much I may have wanted to. Your mother was one of them. I never should have let her leave me. But I was so foolish…” He seemed to struggle with himself and then a moment later he continued. “I’m still a hard man. Not likely to change. You write up a proposal. The only favor you’ll get from me is that I’m willing to look at it. This is business, Liberty. No matter how much I cared for your mother, no matter how fond of you I might be, I never mix sentiment with business.” Two weeks later when she presented her proposal, Hamilton made a counter offer. “I think you’ve really got something here. Something like this could help put Stone Hill back on the tourist
track. I’ve been tinkering for a while now with the idea of putting in a bid to bring the rodeo back. It would take some doing, but I can pull a few strings. It didn’t make sense before, but a hotel with a first-rate restaurant that can handle an upscale menu as well as burgers and fries, and boarding stables where some of the rodeoers and other tourists can board their horses close to the action, would make Stone Hill very attractive.” His excitement was palpable. “In fact, your idea is so good, I can’t accept your proposal.” Libby flattened her back against the chair in disappointment. This was more like what she’d expected. Next would come a litany of reasons why he couldn’t support her idea. “No, what I want is to be a partial owner in the business—a partner.” She swallowed. “You wrestle with that awhile and see what you think is fair—some repayment of the loan and some writeoff in exchange for a partnership. Meanwhile, I’ll see what I can do to get things rolling with the rodeo commission.” “You would have to agree to be a silent partner.” She could tell she’d surprised him. “Why would I agree to an arrangement like that?” “Because no one will ever take me seriously if they know you’re my partner. They’ll go straight to you. I won’t do business that way. Besides, do you really want to be bothered with every detail? If you agree to be a silent partner, we’ve got a deal.”
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“So, he agreed?” She could feel the vibration of his voice as they lay together, their legs intertwined. “He did, yes.” “And?” “And it’s worked out well for both of us. The only thing we’ve ever really disagreed on was the name for the inn. Caleb insisted on changing it, but the Carter House is a landmark. I thought there would be value in preserving the town’s history and so the name remained.” “He’s the friend—the one who provided protective custody, isn’t he?” Libby nodded. “Yes.” “A happy ending.” Rafe moved her again until she lay on her back, his leg between hers. Libby could feel his intent. She was ready for him. He kissed her lips, slowly drawing them apart, bruising them with gentle bites while his hands traveled the length of her. He found her softest curves, and then covered them with his mouth. His tongue eddied the delicate skin until her body whirled. She felt swollen, flammable. Libby reached for him, but he was already easing himself in. He was the match, she the striking surface. Together, they were a wildfire.
As they headed back to the inn, Rafe kept Firenza close to Marengo. The horses would have liked to run, but Libby was in no hurry for the day to end. She held Marengo at an easy walk. About halfway home he surprised her by moving Firenza broadside, directly into Marengo’s path. He pushed his hat back and met her eyes. She thought he was about to say something, but instead he spoke low to her horse. “Steady, boy.”
She couldn’t hear the rest of what he said. She was too distracted by the quiet thuds of Firenza’s hoofs as he pulled her alongside Marengo, and the way he never broke eye contact. He brought his horse so close, his knee brushed hers. His eyes roamed her body. It was as if he was touching her. When at last he looked into her eyes again, he said, “Best picnic, ever.”
Every day for the past two weeks, Rafe had gotten up before dawn, taken care of all the horses, and then dissolved into the light of day as if he were invisible. She hadn’t seen him—not even once. She almost caught him at breakfast one morning, but he shot out the back door of the kitchen so fast, all she saw was his boot just before the door closed behind him. When she questioned Ruby and Emma about it, the women acted as if they didn’t know what she was talking about. As far as his work went, she had no complaints. Each night she left instructions on the whiteboard in the office, and every day they got done, although she couldn’t have said how. Every time she went to check on him, the work was already done or was well underway, but Rafe was nowhere to be seen. His work was unquestionably good. He even went out of his way to do things she hadn’t asked him to do, like shoring up the fencing that had come loose in the last storm, painting some of the outbuildings, and Emma said he’d fixed the squeak in her chair that was forever driving her, and everyone else, crazy—the one that Emilio had tried to fix half a dozen times, but never could. So, although Ruby and Emma claimed to have seen Rafe frequently, she had not seen him even once since the day they went to the lake. She didn’t know what she’d expected, but this wasn’t it. Then, yesterday she got a call from Caleb Hamilton inviting her to drop by the ranch for lunch today. Apparently he had something to discuss with her. They
generally handled most of their business by email and telephone, so it was unusual for him to request a meeting face-to-face. She tried to think of the last time that she’d seen him, and realized it was about two months ago. He’d stopped by for breakfast. Although it was early in the day, he had looked drawn and tired. He’d claimed to be coming down with something and scuttled out before they completed their business, concerned that he might be contagious. She pushed open the stainless steel door. “Well, hi, honey. What are you up to today?” “Sorry, Ruby, I can’t talk now. I’m on my way over to the Hamilton ranch. I’ve just got time for a cup of coffee, and maybe one of your croissants.” “How’re you gettin’ there?” Libby thought the question rather odd. “What do you mean?” “I mean, how are you getting there?” She almost sounded nervous. Ruby never got nervous. Libby squinted. “Why would you ask me that? What are you up to, Ruby?” “I’m not up to anything. What makes you think I’m up to something?” “Because you have that look on your face. What’s going on, Ruby?” “Well, it just occurred to me that if you’re going to the Hamilton ranch, it might be a nice day to take Marengo out. It’s been quite a while since you’ve been out that way with him. Rafe says the horse is getting antsy.” Ruby twisted her apron. “I don’t know. They’re saying it might rain this afternoon and I don’t know how long I’ll be. I can take Marengo out when I get back if it’s not raining.”
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“I just thought …” The woman looked uncertain. “Okay, that’s it. Spill it, Ruby. What are you up to?” Ruby let go of her apron. “All right, if you must know, I thought you might like to ride Marengo so that Rafe could use your jeep.” “His truck is still at the garage?” “Well, they fixed it, but then he had to take it back in.” “If Rafe wants to use my jeep, why doesn’t he just ask me himself?” Ruby shrugged. “Why doesn’t he just ask me himself,” she repeated. “Well, dear, he can’t.” “He can’t?” “I already gave him your keys.” “You gave him my keys?” She nodded. “He’s gone.” “He’s gone? You gave him my keys and he’s gone?” “Now, Libby, don’t just stand there repeating everything I say. It’s exasperating.” “You think I’m being exasperating? I have an employee who is avoiding me like I’m Typhoid Mary, a manager and cook—” “Chef.” Ruby corrected. “Chef who seem to be helping him avoid me, although I don’t know why. And now you’ve given him my jeep.” “Now, Libby, I didn’t give him your jeep. I just lent it to the boy for a while.” Frustrated, Libby left the kitchen before she said anything she might regret. It was just over six miles to the Hamilton ranch on horseback. There was no trail, but the terrain allowed her
to take a nearly straight line from the Carter House to the Hamilton ranch. She decided to saddle up; Caleb disapproved of her riding long distances bareback because if an emergency came up, she’d be without a saddlebag and supplies. Aramis trotted out after her. “No, boy. It’s too far for you.” The husky crossed his paws and bent his head. “No matter how well you beg, you can’t come. It’s too far.” She scruffed the fur on his head. “Next time. I promise.” Rafe had been right. Marengo was itching to run. About a quarter mile out, Libby left the path. The sun was high, the day already warm. She slipped out of the saddle, fed Marengo an apple and led him to a patch of sweet grass. There, among the flame-colored Indian paintbrush and blue columbine, she unbuttoned her chambray shirt, stripped out of her pants and tucked her clothes into her saddle pack. She found a flat piece of ground, spread her feet slightly, drew her shoulders back and placed the tips of her fingers together pointing upward. She took a deep breath and held it, releasing it slowly after several counts. She remained in this position until her mind was clear and she was aware only of the light breeze that brushed through the grass and sent the wild flowers bobbing in the sun. She extended her arms and turned her palms upward until her mind was again quiet. She moved to a sitting position and drew the bottoms of her feet together. She straightened her back and held the position, breathing in and out, letting her muscles stretch and relax. She straightened her legs and leaned back on her elbows so that her torso was taut. Slowly, she used her hands to
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support her hips and raised her body until only her head, shoulders and elbows touched the earth. With most of her body stretched parallel to the ground, she pointed her toes and flexed the muscles in her calves, thighs and torso, contracting and releasing until she felt her body join with the elements, and she was free of tension, fear, worry. She lay down flat, laced her fingers behind her neck, spread her legs and brought the bottoms of her feet together, inviting the sun into her root chakra. She raised her knees to her breasts then rolled to her feet and assumed her last position—a classic tiger pose. She held the stretch, then straightened her back and raised her arms above her head, offering her thanks for all living things. She remounted Marengo and rode about four miles through Tangler’s, a half a mile around Clear Lake and stopped to cool off in the water. Libby had been this way dozens of times. She was used to riding alone. But for the last half-mile or so, she had grown increasingly uneasy. She couldn’t quite put it into words, but something was off. Typically she would have spent awhile at the lake and possibly longer drying off in the sun. But her unease grew, and she pulled on her jeans and boots even before she was fully dry. She swung back up onto Marengo and the sun felt so good, she decided to wait to put her shirt on until she reached the bluff. Just as she was leaving the lake, Marengo tossed his head, whinnied as he reared up and bolted into a wild run. Libby had all she could do to keep from being thrown. She hadn’t seen what it was that spooked Marengo but suspected there was a cougar nearby. It was the only thing she’d ever known to make him act this way. The horse didn’t quiet easily, and was still charging as they neared the edge of the woods. All her concentration was focused
on getting Marengo to slow down. If he didn’t, they would plunge off the edge of Dead Man’s Cliff and fall into what the locals liked to describe as a bottomless pit. Unless you were familiar with the area, it would be impossible to know that a cliff was only fifty yards beyond the clearing. She drew him to a stop just as they broke out of the woods. He snorted and danced but she held him fast until he finally quieted. Beyond the gorge was the expansive Hamilton ranch. There were five horse-filled corrals, several barns and other buildings, as well as the imposing three-story Hamilton mansion. Beyond that lay miles and miles of untouched land, all belonging to Caleb Hamilton. But the Hamilton ranch wasn’t what caught Libby’s eye as she broke through the cover of trees with Marengo under tight rein. What caught her eye was the body of a man lying on his stomach at the edge of the cliff. He wasn’t moving. Libby thought he might be hurt. If he was, he was in danger of rolling off the edge to his death. She dismounted and had just about reached him when the man turned around and sat up. “Rafe?” Rafe pulled the tip of his Stetson low. A pair of binoculars hung around his neck. Libby walked back to Marengo and shrugged into her shirt, aware that once again, he was in her private space and had caught her in a state of undress. “What are you doing here?” She noticed the way he was slow to break into his usual grin, and didn’t quite meet her eyes. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. When he offered no explanation she prodded, “I thought you were off to Grey’s Canyon in my jeep.”
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“The guy I was going to meet cancelled so I didn’t need it. Jeep’s still in your garage.” “You here on foot?” “Nope.” He pointed to Firenza, discreetly tucked away and tied to a branch. “I see. I’m surprised you didn’t hear me coming. Marengo was spooked by something. I think it may have been a cougar. I didn’t see it, but Marengo was only a few weeks old when he was attacked by a cougar. Nearly killed him. It’s the only thing I’ve ever known to spook him. You see anything like that?” “Bad place to get spooked.” Rafe jerked his head toward the cliff. “Yes, it is.” He took a long drag. “No, I didn’t see a cougar. Ran into your pack of mustangs, earlier. About a dozen of them. Amazing the way they survive out here. Beautiful creatures.” She nodded. “Where are you headed?” “I’m having lunch with Caleb.” “That his place down there?” Rafe jammed his thumb toward the cliff. “I think you know it is. Why are you spying on the Hamilton ranch?” He shifted. “What are you up to, Rafe?” He walked over to her and took her arm. “If there’s a cougar in these parts, we shouldn’t be standing around. Neither of us has a rifle. You taking the trail down?” “Yes.” “I’ll go with you.”
“But if you’re going back to the inn, then we’re headed in opposite directions.” He shrugged. “Truth is, I was planning to go down the trail and take the long way back. Probably a good idea if there’s a cougar, as you suspect.” Libby didn’t like the uneasy feeling she had. There was nothing about him that resembled the playful, attentive lover she’d enjoyed so much nearly two weeks ago, or even the dependable employee who anticipated what needed to be done on a daily basis—even before she knew. He seemed like someone else entirely. Someone dark. And he’d definitely avoided her question about why he was spying on the Hamilton ranch. The trail down from the bluff was the only tricky part of the ride to Caleb’s. It was everything a less-thanaccomplished rider wouldn’t want to encounter. Steep and rocky, the trail wound down over rock and soft earth. In the winter months it was impassable. Even in good weather, everyone who took it knew they did so at their own risk. Libby went first. Rafe followed, keeping Firenza close to Marengo’s flank. Almost too close. About halfway down, the trail leveled off. It was a good place to give the horses a breather before going the rest of the way. Rafe lit another cigarette and drew Firenza close to Marengo. He looked at her from under his Stetson with eyes that were shaded, brooding. “I’d hate for you to stop trusting me, Elle.” “Would you trust me if the situation were reversed?” “I don’t know. Maybe.” “But I don’t understand why you won’t just tell me what you were doing? Do you know how creepy it is to think that you were spying on Caleb?”
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His eyes grew darker. “I’d hate for you to stop trusting me,” he repeated. “And if I did?” He didn’t answer. As they picked their way down, the hooves of their horses sent stones skittering. Again, Rafe kept Firenza closer to Marengo than Libby would have liked. It made her feel crowded. Almost rushed. A chill of fear spiraled through her. What did she really know about him other than that he’d charmed her over and over within a twoday period and then was suddenly inaccessible? They had nearly reached the bottom when Marengo reared. Libby fought for control of her seat, his hooves dangerously close to the edge. If they were to fall, they were close enough to the bottom that it likely wouldn’t kill them, but she didn’t want to find out. Rafe reached out and caught Marengo’s reins, talking low to both horses, but Marengo wouldn’t be calmed and Firenza was unnerved. Marengo reared again, nearly throwing Libby. Rafe let go of Marengo’s reins and reached for Libby. She didn’t have time to protest. “Let him go. Let him run.” He caught her and pulled her over onto his horse just as Marengo shot forward. When she was settled between his legs, he spoke low into her ear the way he’d spoken to Firenza. Soothing. Calm. Coaxing. “And that’s the trouble with mustangs. They’re wild. Can’t trust something that wild.” Libby felt the need to defend her horse. “He was spooked. I’m convinced we have a cougar on the prowl.” Although it was unnecessary, Rafe kept one arm around Libby. She could feel the strength of his body. It would have been so easy to relax into him and enjoy it. But she didn’t recognize this remote, almost sullen man
whom she’d caught crouched over a cliff peering through binoculars. At least he hadn’t insulted her by claiming he was bird watching. They wound around the last curve of the trail and saw Marengo standing next to a fallen mustang. The horse’s neck was gashed. Libby slid off Firenza and ran to the fallen horse. There was little she could do, but it looked as though the horse might have a chance if she could get help quickly enough. Libby swung back into Marengo’s saddle. “Stay with him. I’ll get help at the ranch.” Rafe gave a short nod. He looked grim.
“So it looks like the horse is going to make it?” Caleb’s voice was strong, even though Libby thought he looked tired. “If she does, you can thank Libby.” “You would have put her down, Jared?” “Yes, I believe I would have,” the vet said. Caleb nodded. “Cruel to put the horse through so much suffering.” Libby held Caleb’s eyes as she spoke. “I didn’t have a rifle. The horse was already suffering. Since there was no way to end it quick, why not try to save her?” Caleb chuckled. “I can’t argue with your logic, but I also know that even if you’d had a rifle, you wouldn’t have used it on the horse.” Caleb turned to Rafe. “What about you?” “I think it’s pointless to have a hypothetical conversation about what any of us might have done under other circumstances. The unknown is unknown.”
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Libby had noticed that while Rafe was civil with Caleb, he was in no way trying to ingratiate himself. Most of his answers had been monosyllabic. Almost terse. He’d become heavy-lidded and distant. It would have been easy to mistake him for just another hired hand. Rough, hardedged and uncomplicated. Until his last comment, which in no way sounded like the answer of a rodeoer. It caused Caleb to swing hard in his direction. “I don’t believe I caught your last name.” “Cabrerras.” Caleb’s face went white. He reached for his napkin. “You go by Rafe. Is that short for something?” “Raphael.” The two men stared at each other, their faces unreadable. Suddenly, Caleb began to cough. It shook his entire body, and although he took several swallows of water, he couldn’t stop. He used his napkin to cover his mouth and excused himself from the table. “Please, all of you—finish your meal. Liberty, stop by my study before you leave. I need a word with you.” Libby wondered if she should go after him. But Caleb was a proud man. She knew how much he hated any sign of physical weakness, in himself and in others. Indigo, a tall giant of a man who had been Caleb’s house servant for as long as she’d known him, was already helping him up the stairs. It would be better to wait at least a few minutes. She took another swallow of wine. Caleb spared no expense when it came to wine. This was an Italian Barolo, a full-bodied, powerful red known as the “wine of kings.” She took another swallow. She usually had good instincts about people and it was no different with Rafe. From the moment she’d first seen him, she’d known he was more
than a drifting cowboy. But he’d turned out to be a great worker, and she couldn’t remember ever being with such a playful, ardent lover. She was confused by his absence and disappointed when she caught him spying on the Hamilton ranch. Still, whatever his story, he’d worked hard to please her, even while keeping his distance. And he’d known Marengo was going to bolt. Had he seen the cougar? Did he have a sixth sense? Whatever it was, she’d thought he was just crowding her on the trail to show her how uncomfortable it could be if she decided she didn’t trust him, but in fact, he’d been ready to catch her because somehow he’d known Marengo was going to act up. Yes, whoever Rafe Cabrerras was, she’d known he was different from the start. There was nothing simple about this man. She eyed him over her glass. He talked easily with the vet, although his body still communicated tension, his face still slightly sullen. His eyes caught hers. Libby felt her entire body tremble. Light and full of laughter, he was nearly impossible to resist. Dark and sulky like this, he was deadly. “What about it, Libby? Any chance you’ll return to school soon? What’s it been, four years? You could probably still pick up where you left off. I’d be happy to give you a recommendation if you need one. We could use someone with your talent and heart around here.” “I’m not sure yet, Jared. But thank you—for everything. Just about anyone else would have gone ahead and shot that mare. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check on Caleb. I don’t know how long I’ll be. If you’re gone when I get back, goodbye for now. I’ll give school
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some thought.” She took a few steps from the table. Over her shoulder she said, “No need to wait for me, Rafe.” She expected to find Caleb at his massive desk but instead found him sitting on the leather sofa, a blanket wrapped around his legs. She’d always thought of him as a bull of a man. Today he looked almost small. Never a good poker player, she must have telegraphed every one of her thoughts because Caleb cleared his throat and spoke more gruffly to her than usual. “Close the door and sit there, Liberty.” He pointed to a chair. On the sofa next to him was a stack of papers, several with blue wrappers. She assumed they were going to discuss business but hadn’t a clue why. Everything was going smoothly and in accordance with the terms of their contract. But Caleb surprised her. Instead of bringing up business, he asked, “Who is that man?” “Rafe? I hired him to care for the horses.” “Yes, yes, but who is he?” “I’m not sure I know what you mean. He’s just someone I hired to help me.” “Where did you meet him?” Caleb’s voice and eyes burned, but his shoulders were uncharacteristically rounded, his face, tired. “Well, you probably won’t approve, but I picked him up from the side of the road about seven miles outside of town. His truck had broken down.” “Did you do a background check on him?” “No. It was all very informal. It just sort of happened.” “Liberty, that’s no way to conduct business. How can I possibly turn my…how can I possibly trust you to…” He took a deep breath. His throat rattled. “You are too
trusting about people. It’s the one thing I haven’t been able to teach you. What do you know about him?” “Not much more than you do. He’s a good worker. Does it quietly.” She wondered if she was being disloyal to Caleb by not telling him that she caught him hanging over Dead Man’s Cliff spying on him. “Is there something about him that upsets you?” With what appeared to be great effort, Caleb changed the subject. “We’re off topic. What I’m going to tell you may come as a surprise—possibly even a shock. I’d like you to hear me out before you interrupt, as you are so often prone to do.” She nodded. “I’m dying.” Shock registered. She opened her mouth, but he put his hand up. “Not a word until I’m done. I have cancer. There’s nothing they can do.” “But surely—” “Liberty, believe me when I tell you that there is nothing anyone can do. I have nearly inexhaustible means. If there was something that could be done, I would know about it and I would be doing it.” Libby felt the tears collect and begin to spill. Caleb was a distant and often unyielding man, but he’d always been good to her. She loved him in spite of the fact that he kept her at arm’s length. He looked deeply into her eyes. “Thank you.” More tears spilled. “For what?” “For caring. You are the first person I’ve told, besides my legal team. I am an exacting man—and not easy to live with. I’ve never tried to change—never even really thought about changing. But because I am who I
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am, I’m alone. It is an inconsolable ache to realize that there’s no one to mourn you.” He stopped abruptly. “I must sound like a fool. A weak, self-pitying fool.” Libby couldn’t stay in her chair. She rushed over to him, dropped to her knees and laid her head in his lap, aware that his entire body stiffened. “Liberty, get up.” She didn’t move. “Get up. Go back to your chair.” Libby raised her head. “You’ve been more of a father to me than my own ever was. I loved him, even though he was a drunk. And I have loved you. Make no mistake, Caleb. When you are gone, I will mourn you.” She laid her head in his lap again. After a moment, she felt his hand on her head. It was clumsy, and just another indication of how unused he was to having anyone show him love. His body began to shake. He was crying. When at last he stopped shaking, she got up and brought him a second blanket. He accepted it gratefully. “Now then. See if you can keep your promise this time and let me get all the way through what I have to say. I am leaving you the bulk of my estate.” She opened her mouth to protest. “Liberty, please be good enough not to make this harder than it already is.” She closed her mouth and sat back. “You needn’t be concerned about Annabelle and Rose-Marie. They’ll be well taken care of. While their husbands say they’re interested in taking over the ranch, neither of them could do it alone, and they can’t agree on anything long enough to work together. They want it, but they don’t love it. You love it.”
Libby couldn’t stop her tears. “I don’t think you have any idea how wealthy I’m making you. It may be that I’m not doing you any favors. I’d hoped to see you marry and settle down with a good man. You think that’s an old-fashioned concept, and perhaps it is. I’ve come to accept that you may never get married. You’ve got one of the best heads for business I’ve ever seen, and one of the softest hearts. You’ll have to watch that heart of yours. For example, you love horses. While I don’t agree with your decision to try to save that wild mustang, I understand that it’s your nature to be soft with animals and with people. I only hope that you will be able to protect yourself. I’ll try to teach you how, starting with having my security run a check on that new hand of yours.” “Caleb, this is so generous of you, but I can’t possibly—” “Liberty, I’ve made three mistakes in my life of such great magnitude, they nearly ruined me. Some might say those mistakes did ruin those close to me. The first is one I will never talk about—not even to you.” His face grayed. “The second was with Jane. I should never have married her. I couldn’t love her the way she deserved. I tried to make it up to her girls by indulging them. It was a colossal misjudgment on my part. They turned out bitter and superficial. They blame me for their mother’s death.” “Oh, no, surely they don’t.” Hamilton’s shoulders seized and he began to cough uncontrollably. Libby poured out water from the crystal decanter and held it to his lips. When it was over, he closed his eyes. He was only fifty-three but at that moment he looked at least twenty years older. “I’ll leave you to rest.”
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“No. Don’t go.” He closed his eyes again and continued. “I can understand why they blame me. She was out riding in terrible weather because I had upset her so.” He shook his head. “Such a waste.” He looked hard at Libby. “The third was your mother. I should never have let her leave me. If she’d lived, I think she was the one woman I could have loved enough to make happy. But I let her walk away from me because of foolish pride. Long ago I made up my mind that any woman who left me would be out of my life for good. Leaving me was something I could not and would not forgive. I hadn’t realized that your mother ended things because I hadn’t married her, and she knew she was dying. She thought I didn’t love her enough to marry her, so thought I wouldn’t have loved her enough to take care of her when she was dying. It was a selfless act. One I can’t pretend to understand. I’m not exactly the selfless type. When she walked out the door, I vowed I would never look back. But I looked back every day. I spent every day after she left hoping she would come back. But she never did. And then she was gone. I didn’t find out that she was dying until it was too late; she was too far gone. I never got to tell her that the reason I didn’t marry her had nothing to do with how much I loved her.” He began to cough again. Libby got up to help him but he waved her away. When he spoke again, his voice was no more than a raspy whisper. “Those were mistakes of great magnitude. I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I made a fourth one. Leaving all of this to anyone but you would be another mistake—a disaster I wish to avoid.” His voice began to gain strength. “Assuming you agree to this, I’d like you to move in here and let me start
teaching you what you’ll need to know. You’ll have to learn fast, Liberty. I don’t have much time.” “Your children…” “My step-children will resent you and may try to fight you in court. I’ve scheduled a meeting for the two of us early next week with my—our—lawyers. After we’ve taken care of the legal details, we’ll meet with the girls and their husbands so that there are no surprises after I’m gone. I’m of sound mind. My lawyers know what they’re doing. Annabelle and Rose-Marie will never have to worry about their financial security, although they won’t like the way I’ve structured things. Their husbands both come from wealthy families and never learned how to manage money. They have no understanding of its value. They’re irresponsible. I’ve done what I can to provide for them and protect them.” “But Caleb, this is their home.” “Can you remember the last time they lived here?” She knew it was more than ten years ago, probably closer to fifteen, when the younger of the two was still in high school. “But it was your choice to send them away to boarding school. You agreed to send them out east to college. It wasn’t surprising that they both married men who lived far away. You can’t hold it against them that they might not have the same bond with the land, or even this house, that I have.” “You went away to college. You went away to veterinary school. You came back when you were needed. You love this land. I watched you fall in love with it, and everything about this ranch, the first summer you stayed here. I knew then that one day I would leave it to you.
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What I didn’t know was that I would leave nearly everything else to you as well.” “Out of spite?” “I will forgive you that question one time. Do not ask it again, Liberty. I have my reasons and they are not, as you say, out of spite. I’m not prepared to say any more except to tell you that from this point forward, you must be very careful about whom you invite into your life, no matter how innocuous they, or the role they are to assume, might seem. You’ll need to learn caution.” “You’re presuming I’ll accept your offer.” “You will. You may not think you will now, but you will. You’ll accept it for all of the same reasons that I built it. Because you must.” Libby stood and walked over to the window. “Take a good look, Liberty. Everything you’re looking at is yours.” “I was looking at the Rockies.” He chuckled. “Touché. The mountain I’m giving you is a figurative one. But it is a mountain all the same.” “Are you buying me, Caleb?” “What do you think?” She sighed. “I think you’re terrible at being kind. I think you’re doing this to be kind to me, but that you’ll try to manipulate me every which way you can between now and—” She broke off. She hadn’t intended to be insensitive. “When I die. Of course I will. I’m not a fool, Liberty. I know that you and I see the world very differently. But we love the same things. If I have to manipulate you to teach you certain things, then that’s what I’ll try to do. You give it a little time—let this all sink in. When we meet with our lawyers next week, you’ll learn more of the
specifics. In the meantime, I would ask you to keep this private. I’ve not released word of my illness yet. These things need to be done in an orderly manner. I know you’ll keep my confidence. We also need to talk about what will be done to protect you. There are things you don’t know. At the very least, you’ll have to give up the free range you’re used to, I’m afraid. I’m tired now, Liberty. It’s time for you to go. Good night.” Libby left the window. She bent over and kissed Caleb’s forehead. “Enough of this nonsense. Leave me alone now, Liberty.” “I tell you what, Caleb. You can show your feelings your way, and I’ll show mine my way. I’ll send Indigo in on my way out. Good night, Caleb.” She closed the door of the study behind her. Indigo was waiting in the hall. He looked grave. Suddenly, it struck her. The man was dying and all they’d talked about was to whom he was giving his money. She turned on her heel and marched back in. “What is being done for you?” He gave her a weary look. “I knew it was too good to be true. I thought we were actually going to get through this without you turning into a driveling nursemaid.” She sat down on the sofa next to him. “What is being done for you?” “Liberty, I really am too tired to go through it with you now. We can talk more about this tomorrow, or later in the week.” “But, Caleb. You just told me you’re dying, and all we did was talk about the distribution of your wealth.” “My wealth is my life. I’m leaving the ranch and my other holdings to you, the one person I can be assured will act with both good business sense and conscience—more
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conscience than I’ve had, perhaps—after I’m gone. I would appreciate it if you will simply accept this, and let us focus on how to prepare you for this responsibility. I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t want to talk about my health any further. I don’t want you or anyone else doting on me. Liberty, you’ve already given me what I needed by agreeing to meet with our lawyers next week.” The tears came harder. She couldn’t stop crying. “Your tears—” he broke off and brushed his big hand against her cheek “—move me. You are your mother’s daughter. Can’t we leave it at that?”
She was half-blinded by a new round of tears as she left the house and headed for the stables. She didn’t even see Rafe until he caught her. She buried her face in his chest. She didn’t care whether he was Rafe the playful, ardent lover or Rafe the dark and sulky version. All she cared was that he was there. That his arms wrapped around her as if she belonged in them. That he held every part of her body against every part of his. She wept into his chest until she had nothing left. Her soul ached for that lonely man who had never really learned how to connect with another human being. After a while, she grew silent, and still Rafe held her. When at last she was breathing normally, he said, “I don’t know what happened in there, but if he hurt you in any way…” “He didn’t hurt me. Quite the opposite.” “Well something he did made you cry.” “Yes.” She brought her mouth to the soft place between his jaw and his neck. “Yes. I am crying because of him.” Rafe held her even more firmly but said nothing. She could feel the tic of his jaw. Instinctively, she brought her lips to the tick. “It’s not like that. It’s not what you think. He didn’t do anything to me.” “I’ve heard enough around town to know he’s an unfeeling bastard.” “No, no. That’s just what people say about him.” She kissed his neck, aware that he was supporting the full
Rebecca E. Grant
weight of her body. She kissed the underside of his chin and the hollow between his shoulder and collarbone, aware that his jaw was still ticking. Rafe swung her into his arms. She closed her eyes and turned in to him. She would have crawled into his skin if she could have. “Open your eyes, Elle.” “No, no,” she murmured, kissing his ear. “Elle, open your eyes. There’s something you need to see.” The last thing Libby wanted to do was open her eyes. She brought her lips over his. She hadn’t meant to. There just wasn’t any way not to. At first he didn’t respond, but she knew it was just a matter of moments. She felt his arms tighten, his back grow taut. She heard his breath quicken and felt the beat of his heart against hers. When his mouth opened, she drank him in. His lips captured hers, pulling at them until she was breathless. He moved to her neck. The gentle suction caused her to cry out, and then he was back, moving his lips over hers until she was nearly limp from the pleasure of it. He set her on her feet. “There’s something you should see.” He slid his hand into hers and drew her into the stable where Jared had worked so diligently on the injured mustang, earlier. “Look.” Libby looked and saw that the mare was no longer down, but back on her feet. Marengo was in the same stall. He stood very close, as if guarding the mare. “I think you’ve lost him to another woman.” Libby whirled into Rafe’s chest and cried again. This time he laughed. “I can’t figure out if you’re happy or sad. But one thing’s for sure. I’m going to need a new shirt.”
“Oh, take the damn thing off.” She peeled his shirt away from his skin, and leaned into him. He chuckled even as his arms slid back around her. “Digger said we can leave the horses here and take the jeep.” Libby started to giggle, remembering how her morning began. “Whose jeep is he giving us permission to use? His or Caleb’s?” Rafe shrugged but didn’t let go of her. “Does it matter?” She sighed. “Probably not.”
It was raining hard by the time they got back to the inn. Rafe drove the jeep like a pro. As if he’d had a lot of experience driving in country that gets rained out in a moment. Libby caught herself wondering yet again who he really was. “You hungry?” She shook her head. “You?” “No. Looks like it’s going to come down for awhile.” He pointed to the rain. “Yes.” “I have a bottle of wine. Want some company?” “Yes.” “I’ll be there in about a half an hour. I need to take care of the horses.” “I’ll help you. It’ll go faster if we do it together.” He kissed her lightly on her shoulder. “I’m not convinced of that. It might take longer.” He looked at her meaningfully. “I’ll risk it.”
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But Rafe wouldn’t let her do any work. “You sit on that bale of hay over there and stay out of my way. You’re paying me to do this job.” He worked fast, with economy of effort and singleminded purpose. When he was done, they ran out into the rain over to Libby’s private stable. He tried to get her to sit down out of the way but she wouldn’t hear of it. He mucked and she pitched in the fresh straw. They were just about done when she felt him come up behind her. She could smell his musk. “It’s not right, you know.” “What’s that?” “You have too many clothes on. Look at me.” He grinned. “No shirt. Let’s even things out.” He began to unbutton her shirt from the bottom up. When he’d undone the last button, he slid his fingers underneath her shirt and rested them on her hips. “Take it off.” She smiled and tossed her head. “Ah, but I’m not the one who thought my shirt should come off. Maybe if I just tie it up like this.” She took the ends and tied them, leaving her midriff bare. He backed her up against the neatly stacked bales of hay. “No, that’s not quite what I had in mind.” He unknotted her shirt and let the ends fall. She stared at him, daring him to make the next move. He leaned over, brushed her shirt off her shoulder and kissed the bare skin, then pulled her shirt back into place and turned to finish his work. She watched the way his shoulders rolled each time he swung the pitchfork, saw the muscles in his arms stretch and expand until all she wanted was to have those strong arms around her. She kicked out of her boots, then turned the water on and held the hose out, letting it run free.
“Rafe.” He turned. She lowered the zipper of her jeans, then let the water run down her neck, between the cleft of her breasts, over her belly, and beyond. Rafe tossed the pitchfork and lunged, but she squirted the hose at him. When that didn’t slow him down, she ran out into the rain. He caught her and pulled her hard. His breath came heavily and his eyes flared. “This comes off now.” He smoothed her shirt away from her body and pushed her up against the side of the barn. Both hands were on her breasts as he assaulted her mouth with deep, probing tenderness. The rain came down in torrents. She didn’t know when her jeans came off, or his. They were naked, and she couldn’t have said what she wanted more—to feel him up against her the way he was, or to feel him in her the way he surely would be, any moment now. And then giant shards of lightning shot across the sky. It was close. Too close. They burst into the barn, closed up the stalls and made a run for Libby’s rooms. Libby loved storms. Even entertained the idea of chasing a storm once or twice. She tossed him a robe and slipped into a pair of cut-offs and a tank. “I’ll make sure everyone in the restaurant is in the basement.” “I’ll check the guest rooms.” He was already out the door and halfway down the hall, robe flying open behind him. “Okay, but put some clothes on first.” He reversed his direction, swung her hard into his arms and kissed her. “To be continued, later.”
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There was a nearly full house in the restaurant, but everyone knew not to take chances with a storm like this. Too easy for lightning to glance off the mountains. The cellar was large. The furniture was old, but under Emma’s management, the cellar was as dust-free as every other part of the inn. Libby unlocked the wine cellar and opened a few bottles. Ruby had just made appetizers for several of the tables, along with a tray of popovers. Rather than let them go to waste, she brought them with her to the cellar. Waiting out the storm shifted into a storm party. Rafe helped eighty-nine-year-old Luna Rafferty, the inn’s only full-time guest, down the stairs. She’d outlived every member of her family and found her room at the Carter House perfect for her needs. Libby felt a strong sense of responsibility to watch out for Luna and had a standing tea date with her every Thursday at three. Luna claimed to have second sight. No one really knew if she did or not. Sometimes her predictions were right. Sometimes they were wrong. For years people whispered that Luna was not her real name—that she’d taken the name because it implied her mystical abilities were guided by the lunar cycles. Whether she had the sight or not, Luna was not hesitant about predicting the outcome of this particular storm. “It’s going to be a bad one,” she said over and over, between mouthfuls of Ruby’s tenderloin beef bites.
Libby hung up the phone as Rafe came in. He looked exhausted. She hated to leave him with so much left to do. “Something’s happened to Caleb. He’s been rushed into surgery. I don’t know much more than that. I have to go. Can you and Emma handle things here?” “Yes. But why do you have to go to him? I don’t understand what it is that binds you two. Does he have something on you?” “What an odd thing to say. Of course not! Aside from Emma and Ruby, Caleb is the closest thing I have to family.” Rafe shook his head. “He couldn’t be further from my idea of family.”
John Canfield, Caleb’s attorney, met her at the hospital, flanked on either side by two men dressed in plain, dark suits. “How is he?” “The storm clipped the southwest corner of the house. It’s the most amazing thing. There’s almost no damage to anything except the corner where Caleb’s bedroom is. Indigo tried to get him to go to the cellar, but he refused. We think he was sleeping when it happened. We won’t know the extent of his injuries until he’s out of surgery.” “I see.”
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“There are a number of things we need to discuss. We can use his room. They’ll come and get us when he’s out.” “Do we have to do this now?” Canfield nodded. “I have no idea how serious his injuries are. You’re his primary beneficiary and his successor. If he dies, you need to know exactly what’s going to happen and what to do about it. I have all the documents. Caleb has already signed them. They just require your signature. I’ll explain them as we go.” An hour and a half later, Libby stood up. “I need some coffee. Can I get something for you?” “Scotch.” He smiled. She appreciated his attempt to break the tension. “I know this is a lot. You really had no idea, did you?” “No.” He pulled out his phone. “I’ll get this.” Into the phone he said, “We could use a couple of coffees. Hold on. How do you take yours?” “You have someone here to bring you coffee?” “Security. How do you take yours?” She blinked. “Black. Security?” “Black. Sugar and cream for me.” Canfield snapped his phone closed and nodded, an odd expression on his face. “Caleb is a wealthy, influential man. You can’t accomplish what he’s accomplished without making a few enemies.” “But security? You’re saying he’s in danger?” Canfield gave her an appraising look. “And so are you, now.” “Me?”
Canfield sighed. “We know of one person specifically who has made several threats against his life, but it would be foolish to think he’s the only one, or that he’ll be the one to try anything. It’s possible that he’s already hired someone to do his dirty work. From this point forward, you’ll need to be suspicious of everyone.” “Hired someone—what are you saying?” “I’m saying the moment Caleb decided to make you his heir, your life changed—you don’t even know yet how much. It’s one of the reasons Caleb wants you living at the ranch where he can better protect you.” Canfield abruptly changed the subject. “Forgive me. I should have asked you whether you incurred any damage from the storm.” She was more than a little willing to switch topics. “I lost one of my stables—the larger one. Fortunately I was only boarding a small number of horses at the time, and we were able to get them out before the fire.” “You were lucky.” “Yes. My inn manager and my chef, sisters—they live together a few blocks from the inn—lost their home.” “Any injuries?” “No. We were having a storm party in the cellar of my inn at the time.” Canfield gave her an appraising look. “I like it. It fits. Somehow I can’t see you cowering in the storm anymore than I can see Caleb.” “I’m not all that cavalier. It just seemed to make sense. My restaurant was full. My chef had an oven full of appetizers. We had to take cover down in the wine cellar. What else was there to do?” Their coffee arrived on the heels of the doctor. She looked exhausted. “Have a seat. He’s resting comfortably.
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He had some trauma to his head, his right leg is broken, and there were internal injuries that needed attention. He was already in a weakened state from the cancer but there’s an upside. We were able to remove some of the malignancy while we were in there. We may have bought him a little more time. It’s hard to say. But in terms of his injuries, he should recover fully.” “They said he was in a coma when he arrived?” Libby slid her coffee over to the doctor. “I think you could use this more than I can. Go ahead. Take it.” The doctor smiled gratefully and took a long pull. “No, he was unconscious but not in a coma. He had to be in a great deal of pain; it was his body’s way of dealing with it.” “How soon can he come home?” Libby knew how much Caleb was going to hate being in the hospital. “His leg needs traction. We need to observe his head injury, make sure everything is healing the way it should. Plan on him being here about two weeks. After that he can go home. He’ll need a nurse, and someone who can handle the heavy lifting.” “No problem. When can we see him?” She was hoping to get to Caleb as quickly as possible. To reassure him that he would recover, and that he wasn’t alone. “He won’t be himself until tomorrow. But he should be out of recovery in an hour or so. They’ll bring him up. He’s in pain and has a head injury. He may not make a lot of sense at first.” Libby thanked the doctor and turned to Canfield. “We’ve got to get him his own nursing staff immediately.” Canfield nodded. “I can see you know him well. I’ll have someone get on it right away.”
“Today. He needs his own staff today. People who know how to handle a patient like Caleb and who can work well with the rest of the medical staff. Blend in.” “You really care for him, don’t you?” “Don’t you?” “He’s a tough old bird. ‘Care for him’ might be an overstatement, but I do respect him. I’ve never known him to be anything but honest. He has an amazing head for business. It’s as if he has a crystal ball—he can look into the future and tell you what the next hot trend will be. Many times I’ve advised him not to do something, only to have him make a bundle. He used to tell me that one day I’d learn to trust him.” “And did you?” “I did, yes.” “And he trusts you?” “He trusts me to handle his legal affairs. He thinks I have a terrible head for business.” “Then he’s missing the obvious.” “Which is?” “You were smart enough to land him as your client. I’d say that was a pretty savvy business move.” Canfield smiled, but all he said was, “Perhaps.”
It was three full days before Libby was back in her own bed. She spent almost the entire time in Caleb’s room at the hospital. People came and went, bringing her food and changes of clothing. Every time she left the room, she was shadowed by one or more members of the security staff Canfield had hired. Caleb behaved like a beast. Finally Libby put her foot down.
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“Caleb, you have to stop this. It was your own decision not to take the precaution of going into the cellar with Indigo. Your injuries are the simple consequence of that decision. I can’t sit by any longer and watch you frighten off everyone with your rage. It’s inhumane. Especially when they’re just trying to help you.” “Incompetent. All of them.” Calmly, she said, “It’s likely we aren’t seeing them at their best. Do you know why? Because you frighten people. How can they do a good job when they’re frightened?” “I don’t frighten. I intimidate.” “You and I must have a different dictionary. But let’s not argue over the finer details. When a nurse goes running out of the room in tears, it probably doesn’t matter whether it’s intimidation or fear. You’ve made someone feel bad just because you can.” He glowered at her. “Think of it this way. You’re paying eight thousand dollars a day for a private nursing staff.” His face darkened. “Do you know why it’s so high? Because we could only get one agency to accept the job. And they know they’re the only game in town. They also know they’re going to lose some of their staff because of you. So they can charge this obscene premium, and guess what? The rate keeps going up every time you bully someone. Does it make good business sense to throw your money away like this?” It started as a quiet chuckle and built until he was laughing so hard he had to hold his hand over his incision. “You should see your face. You have been the master of calm. An admirable skill in some respects, Liberty, but I
was beginning to think you were going to put up with my bad behavior indefinitely. You can’t let anyone—and I don’t care who they are—walk all over you, or those in your employ. Glad to see you reached your limit. Now, what can we do to help you learn to draw that line in the sand before I have to spend eight thousand dollars a day?” She was utterly speechless. He was an absolute beast—that he’d been doing it intentionally to test her was the last straw. She stood up and walked out of the room. She could still hear him chuckling halfway down the hall.
“Why are you the one who’s taking care of him? You said yourself he has a nurse and a long-time servant to help him.” She hated this. She absolutely hated this. She believed that not telling the whole truth was the same as lying. But she’d given Caleb her word that she would respect his privacy. That meant she wasn’t free to tell Rafe the real reason she was moving to the Hamilton ranch. It wasn’t because he needed her help managing his medical care. It was because he was dying, and she had chosen to honor his request to spend the time he had left teaching her what he thought she needed to know. “I just do. Trust me on this one, Rafe.” “But he’s not even your blood relative. He just dated your mother for a while. Where are his daughters? Why aren’t they helping out? Does he have something on you?” “That’s the second time you’ve asked me that.” Rafe lit a cigarette. “I’m sorry, Elle. I was out of line.” “There’s more.”
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“More?” She nodded. “I’ve hired a nurse, but Caleb’s going to need someone who can lift him. Indigo can’t manage it alone. He’s at least ten years older than Caleb. Here’s what I’d like to see happen. Emma and Ruby can handle the inn without me. With the large stable gone, the smaller stable is overcrowded. I want to move all the horses to Caleb’s stables. I’d like you to move out to the Hamilton ranch with me and care for the horses there. The rodeo will be back in town soon. That means more horses to board. People would love to board them at Hamilton’s. You’d be in charge of all things horse related. There’s plenty of privacy. You could either stay in the main house or, if you prefer, there are two guest cottages. It’s entirely up to you. You’d also help the nurses when Caleb needs to be lifted.” “I’m nobody’s nursemaid.” “Suit yourself. I know he’s willing to pay four times what I’m paying you.” “To be at his beck and call.” “Along with a lot of opportunity.” “Forget it.” “Are you seriously turning down a fatter paycheck?” “I’m not interested in fattening up my paycheck.” “Would you do it for me?” His jaw started to tick. She knew him well enough by now to know that sometimes his jaw ticked when he was angry, sometimes it ticked when he was under pressure, and it always ticked whenever the subject of Caleb Hamilton came up. “What do you have against Caleb, anyway?” “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, come on, Rafe. I caught you spying on his ranch—don’t even bother trying to deny it. You were barely civil to him at lunch that day, even when he was gracious enough to invite you to eat with us. You don’t want me staying at his house or caring for him. What could you possibly have against the man?” “A lot of people don’t like the guy, Elle.” “Yes, but they don’t really know him any more than you know him.” He toed the dirt with his boot. Finally he said, “I know the type.”
He thought her beautiful when she tried to coax the truth out of him. She couldn’t know how close he was to telling her what he knew about the man. From what he’d been able to ascertain, Libby only knew that Hamilton was a successful rancher with a handful of other local business interests. Although she was not an easy one to fool, she would have no way of knowing who Hamilton really was. And what she didn’t know might hurt her. It all depended on why Hamilton was suddenly keeping her so close. Keeping Libby safe wasn’t part of his original plan, but it was now. Rafe would need to find out what Hamilton intended for her as part of his investigation. Hamilton had put distance between himself and everyone else, intentionally it seemed, his entire life. Including those he cared most about, like Libby. He’d helped her with the Carter House investment, but he’d remained a distant, silent partner. Now, suddenly, she was deeply involved with him—meeting with him at the ranch, caring for him at the hospital, making sure he had appropriate care, moving out to his ranch for an indefinite
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period of time, shifting her horses to his stables. This was a major change in the man’s behavior. Rafe was not a stranger to beautiful women, but he’d never met anyone like Libby. He thought her so beautiful, he hadn’t been able to stay away from her. Not once, not twice, but three times. He’d known her for less than a day when he found himself kissing her, because not kissing her was impossible. Less than twelve hours later, after he’d made up his mind to stay away from her, he found himself alone with her on a picnic he could have easily avoided, trying to think of ways he could get naked with her. He was a trained professional, and a fool. He knew better. And when he realized just how much he’d compromised her, he tried to stay away from her. He’d even managed it for nearly two weeks, only to have her pop out of the woods. And by pop, he meant literally, half-dressed the way she was. And that could have been a big mistake, catching him staking out Hamilton’s ranch, like a rookie. Now, she’d asked him to stay out at the ranch with her. It was perfect—exactly what he’d been looking for. A way to gain access to Hamilton that would fall well under the radar. He doubted that a more experienced investigator could have done better. In about a minute, he was going to agree with her, but first he had to make her think he wanted no part of it. In a way, he wished he’d never gotten into this at all. He hated deceiving her. He watched the way she was so obviously guileless as she smoothed her hair away from her face. The way the length of it fell to her waist. He reached out to touch it, to follow it with his hand down her back. He could feel his jaw tick. The day would come when she would find out the truth.
What would he do if she couldn’t forgive him? He felt his face grow dark, and tossed his cigarette. When this job was over, he was going to have to give the dirty things up again. Reclaim his place with the nonsmokers. He sighed. Giving up cigarettes might not be the only thing he’d have to give up. “Please, Rafe. Just try it out. If you don’t like it for any reason, you can leave.” He took her by both arms and jerked her close. He wasn’t rough, but he wasn’t gentle, either. Her eyes widened in surprise. “I’ll do it. But only because you want me there. You do want me there, don’t you?” What the hell was he saying? He was so off script. He felt her arms close around his neck. Her body folded into his. Her breasts teased his torso. He couldn’t stop himself. He kissed her the way he’d been dying to kiss her ever since the storm. He tried to keep his hands around her waist, but they were the devil’s hands. He cupped her buttocks. When that wasn’t enough, he slipped his hands under her shirt, teasing her breasts. Yet still it wasn’t enough. He opened her shirt and took her breasts into his mouth one at a time, as if he were starving and only her body could save him. He must stop. He had to stop. He couldn’t keep his head straight around her. He tried to push her away, but even as he pushed her away, he pulled her back. “Come with me.” He wasn’t sure if he’d said it, or if he only thought it. He had the tip of her shoulder in his mouth. She was pure ambrosia. He couldn’t stop kissing her long enough to go anywhere, even though all he wanted was to get to her bed.
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She stepped back and took his hand. “Come with me.”
He was moody and unpredictable. She never knew if he was going to kiss her or avoid her. She knew they had chemistry because she could feel his body burn when she was around him. She knew he liked her because he was always going out of his way to help her. She also knew that she had a tendency to fall for underdogs. As a result, she learned early that sometimes underdogs are underdogs because they choose to be. Whenever she hooked up with one of those, she unhooked very quickly. Others, she’d actually managed to help before sending them on their way. Rafe was a breed unknown to her. And her body craved him as if he were a part of her. She led him into her bedroom. He pulled her down on top of him. “What if I told you I couldn’t wait?” She tried to ask him what he meant, but he wouldn’t stop kissing her. He loosened her belt. “I can’t wait another moment. Not another second.” He yanked her jeans off. His hand slid between her legs. “I can’t wait another moment to feel you.” His fingers slipped into her. She moaned. Her moan caught on his tongue and he volleyed it back, matching her moan for moan. She was so ready for him it was all she could do to keep from begging him to fill her. But she couldn’t speak because he would not relinquish her mouth. His body was so tightly wrapped around hers, she didn’t think he could find a way in. And then he was there. She gasped and spread her legs to let him fill her more.
“You are like a narcotic. My own personal habit. I just can’t have a little.” He ground into her. He was the perfect fit. “Every time I’m around you, I want more. Until I just want to be inside you.” He pulled her closer and ground. “Deeper.” He plunged. “And deeper.” He plunged again. He moved her legs and drew his fingers across her until she begged him to finish it or keep going—she didn’t know which she wanted more. He pulled away, amplifying her need for him, and bent to kiss her breasts. “You are the most dangerous woman I’ve ever met.” He drove into her like a man possessed, then matched his movement to hers until they found the rhythm of the ages and let the sound of their heartbeats pull them over the edge.
About a week and a half after Caleb came home from the hospital, a gaggle of attorneys gathered at the house in a two-day closed-door meeting that included Libby. Rafe recognized the men as lawyers. It was as if they were straight out of central casting: clean cut, freshly pressed and overly eager. Hungry. It further confirmed Rafe’s suspicions. The old man was bringing Libby into the business. Rafe tried to get her to open up about it, but she wasn’t talking. Of course, there was one way he might be able to wrest the information from her, but he couldn’t bring himself to exploit her that way.
Libby stepped outside to get some air, wishing she could slow things down just a little. “Pretty serious stuff going on in there.” “Oh!” Her hand flew to her throat. It was Rafe. She hadn’t heard him come up behind her. “You okay? You look a little wobbly.” She nodded, wishing she could confide in him. Over the last two days, she’d learned that Caleb Hamilton held controlling interests in computer software companies. He owned the world’s most widely used computer virus protection program. He financed an Internet search engine that was now worth eight hundred million. He’d backed a two-person cell phone start-up in the early nineties that took off overnight and today produced billions in revenue. He sat on a number of corporate boards, was influential
with members of congress, and contributed heavily to breast cancer research as a memorial to her mother. She also learned that about seven years ago, he’d deeded back the land to every local rancher whose paper he held. His lawyers were still complaining about that, but all Caleb said was that those people would never be able to get out from under the burden of that debt. And neither could he. He never should have taken another man’s land. He was only making things right. Her head was spinning. “Sure he’s up to all this excitement? He’s on some pretty hefty painkillers.” “He’s showing some strain,” she agreed. “I’m surprised you would ask. I thought you didn’t like him.” He shrugged. “Got time for a ride?” She shook her head. “No, I need to get back in there.” He gave her one of his heavy-lidded looks. The kind that said he didn’t like being kept at arm’s length. “You know where to find me if you need me.” She watched him amble off toward the stables, fighting the urge to call him back. Would life ever again be as simple as lying naked in his arms? After two days, Caleb sent everyone but Libby and John Canfield away. To Libby he said, “You signed a number of documents when I was in the hospital giving you authority to act on my behalf if I became incapacitated. Those remain in effect. If, between now and the time of my death, I can’t manage things, you’re in charge. John will provide counsel.” Caleb paused to catch his breath. “What remains is to tell you how I wish to distribute my assets after my death.
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Trust funds have been set up for Annabelle and RoseMarie. It will be more than enough. Trust funds have also been created for their children. There are a number of charitable contributions to medical research programs, and a medical aid scholarship in your mother’s name to help cancer patients who otherwise could not afford medicine or treatment. The rest goes to you.” She’d known this moment was coming, and still she was unprepared. “It’s too much.” He sighed and closed his eyes. “I was proud of you when you came up with the idea for the inn—the way you dug in and found a productive way to manage your grief. The inn is making a nice profit, and it almost runs itself now. What are you going to do with the rest of your life, Liberty? You have a lot of freedom—maybe too much freedom. You’ve been at loose ends lately. What I’m giving you is the opportunity to do anything with your life. You could go back to school and finish your vet-med program, if you still want to be a veterinarian. What I’m trying to say is that I want you to be happy, and I want you to have the freedom to choose your future. But that isn’t the only reason I’m making you my beneficiary.” He paused again, longer this time. When he spoke, she had to strain to hear him. “I was lucky. Every time I turned around, the right person advised my father or me at the right time to take action that proved to be outrageously lucrative. If I give it to Annabelle and Rose-Marie, what do you think they’ll do with it? Don’t worry. I won’t make you say what we both know, out loud. I’m giving it to you, Liberty, because you’ll find ways to put the money to good use. I’ve spent my lifetime stacking up one financial win after the other. I thought that was the definition of success. But hindsight
offers an almost cruel clarity. The definition of success isn’t making money—it’s finding ways to use it to help others.” Libby had to force back the tears. “I’m no Pollyanna. I don’t mean to suggest that you just give it away. What I’m saying is that I know you have the conscience and the spirit to do good with it. And if you do, it will bring you untold happiness. That’s my fervent hope for you.” “But Caleb, you could do that now.” He shook his head. “No. I’m a selfish man. I’m too much like my father. He couldn’t let go of a penny. I’ve let go of what I can, but the rest is up to you.” Caleb needed to sleep. Libby was almost out the door when he spoke again. “One more thing. I have word that the girls are coming. I don’t know how long they plan to stay. I’m going to tell them about my will when they’re here. After that, you’re free to discuss it with whomever.” He waved his hand. “I know this is a lot and I asked you not to talk about it with anyone. It may have been unfair of me. I realize you’ve had no one to process this with. But I do thank you for respecting my wishes so that the girls won’t hear about it from someone other than me.” Libby retraced her steps, leaned over and kissed his forehead. “You’re such a fraud. I know you love them, Caleb. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t care what they know or from whom they heard it. I’m going to make it my personal project to help them know that you love them.” “We’ll see if you still feel that way after they’ve been here a week. Now stop breathing all over me and get that boy, Rafe. I’m in need of his assistance.”
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There were two guest cottages. Rafe had chosen to stay in the white cottage, but after the second week, he moved into the main house for two reasons. First, while staying in the guest cottage helped him maintain a little distance from Libby, it kept him on the periphery. He couldn’t get a clear sense of Caleb’s activities. It was just another example of how he was letting his feelings for Libby affect his judgment. Second, Caleb’s stepdaughters and their husbands sent word that they were coming for a visit, and would prefer to stay in the cottages. This gave Rafe an easy excuse to move into the house. In Rafe’s opinion, the eldest, Annabelle, was a piece of work. Rose-Marie was the kinder of the two, but she couldn’t hold an opinion that differed from her sister’s. They hadn’t been there ten minutes when Annabelle’s face clouded. She followed Caleb into his study, but that didn’t stop Rafe from overhearing the first part of their conversation. “Caleb, what’s going on here? Who are all these men?” “Security.” “Security?” Her voice grew more strident. “Whatever do you need security for?” Caleb sounded weary. “Annabelle, I’ve never been one to explain myself. Do you imagine something has happened that I would change now?” Annabelle sputtered. “Well, do you realize they’re inspecting everything—our bags—even my personal luggage?” Annabelle turned sharply away from Caleb and spotted Rafe in the hall. She pulled her mouth into a grim line, walked to the door and closed it firmly. Rafe had no idea how, or even if Caleb ever answered her.
It was obvious that neither of the sisters had anything but resentment for Libby. Annabelle made it clear that she felt it was inappropriate for Libby to supervise the repairs to the house or, for that matter, to tend to any of Caleb’s affairs. Rafe nearly laughed out loud one day when he saw how Libby managed Annabelle. Libby was pretty shrewd when it came to sizing up people, and she knew it was pointless to argue with Annabelle. She also knew that Annabelle wasn’t happy unless she was making someone else unhappy. Libby couldn’t care less whether she supervised the repairs to the west wing. She just acted as if she did to ensure that Annabelle would pay attention to it and want to manage it herself. This way, Libby accomplished two things: Annabelle was out of the way, and didn’t start asking about Rafe’s place in Caleb’s business. It would be darn inconvenient if Annabelle were to turn her focus to him. Rafe headed toward the kitchen. It was about ten o’clock. Gabby, the night nurse, came on at eight. At ten she had a habit of taking a tea break. Rafe had begun to make it his practice to join her. People could get very chatty over a cup of tea. It gave him easy access to updates about Caleb’s health. Gabby was just about to take her first sip of tea when they heard Caleb’s buzzer go off. Gabby looked at her watch and rolled her eyes. “How do you suppose he always knows the exact moment when my tea is just right? Do you think he does it on purpose?” She looked wistfully at the perfectly steeped amber liquid. Rafe patted her arm. “You stay here and relax. I’ll go and see what he wants. Maybe it’s something I can do.” Gabby looked uncertain.
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“I’ll come and get you if I need you.” He left the kitchen and stood in the doorway of Caleb’s bedroom.
“I heard you ring. Is there anything I can do for you?” “Well, where is that nurse? What am I paying her for if she’s never going to be around when I need her? No, you can’t help me. I don’t need to be moved. I rang for the damn nurse.” “Suit yourself. I just thought if it was something I could do, you wouldn’t have to wait.” “Well why in hell should I have to wait? Why isn’t she here?” Rafe grinned and headed for the door. “Come back here.” Rafe kept on walking. “You there. Rafe. Come back here.” Rafe turned. “You play chess? I usually play with Liberty, but I don’t want to disturb her. I’ve been working her too hard. She needs her rest.” Rafe heard the way his voice softened when he spoke about Libby. Something in him churned. “I do.” “You any good?” “Let’s find out, shall we?” About half an hour into the game, Caleb said, “You don’t talk like a ranch hand.” Rafe smiled. “You don’t play chess like one, either.” “Are you asking me about my background?” Caleb lay back and closed his eyes. Rafe had the impression he was in a great deal of pain.
“I don’t need to know anything unless you tell me you’re seriously interested in Liberty.” The two men locked eyes. “I see the way you look at her. If it’s a light flirtation, I’m not one to get in the way. She’s a big girl. It’s up to her whether she lets you break her heart. But if you’re serious about her, then I promise you, my people will infiltrate your personal business so deep, you’ll feel as though you’ve had a colonoscopy.” Rafe studied the board. “Fair enough.” “That’s it? That’s all you have to say.” “And this.” “Yes?” “Your mind isn’t on your game. Your queen is wide open.”
Libby watched Rafe move Caleb with the care a son might give to a father in fragile health, and smiled. Caleb groused and complained about him to his face, but she could tell they liked each other. It was the sort of grudging affection that men often came to when they cared about the same woman. It was almost time. Libby’s stomach tightened. She took no pleasure in what was to come. Canfield put his hand on her shoulder. “We’re gathering now. Everyone’s there. Rafe just got him settled at his desk.” “Do you really think he should be sitting up for this?” Canfield smiled. It was a patient smile. “It’s his way. You know they’re going to fight this.” “Maybe they should.”
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“We’ll see if you still feel that way after this meeting.” Caleb’s study easily accommodated everyone. Annabelle and Jed sat on one of the leather sofas. RoseMarie and Russ sat on the other. Canfield looked comfortable in a high-backed wing chair, leaving the loveseat for Libby and Rafe. Caleb had asked Rafe to attend as a witness. “But Caleb, I don’t understand. If this is to be a family meeting, why are these other people here? What business is it of Libby’s or your—your orderly, here?” “Libby and Rafe are here at my request.” “But this is unseemly. You can fill them in later if you must, but to include them in a family meeting—” “Annabelle!” She was startled into silence. For just a moment, Libby saw Caleb as he used to be: fearless and fierce. He sighed. “I owe you an apology. Both you girls. You were short-changed. I was never a good substitute for a father. You girls were fourteen and twelve when I married your mother. I had no idea how to be a parent to teenaged daughters. Maybe I would have done better if I’d had children of my own. When you were here, I indulged your every whim because it was all I knew to do. I let your mother pack you off to boarding schools and trips abroad, and while all of it was educational and at least some of it enjoyable, you were never in one place long enough to call it home. I’m sorry I didn’t do better by you girls. It’s no wonder you have no respect for me, my home or my wishes.” Annabelle looked like she was going to interrupt and then thought better of it.
“I am dying. I have cancer. I probably won’t see the new year.” Rafe covered Libby’s hand with his own. She appreciated the comfort and wondered if he had suspected something like this. “I wanted to tell you myself, and I’ve also decided to tell you how you will be cared for after I’m gone.” Annabelle sat straighter. “But Caleb, of course that’s not necessary. I’m sorry to learn that you’re sick, and I sincerely hope you have many more years to come. Why, you’re still a young man. But we’ve already worked it out among ourselves. When you’re gone, Russ will take over the ranch. Jed and I will continue with his family business, and we’ll split the profits. The four of us can decide a fair percentage at a later time. I believe you have one or two other holdings that I’m more than happy to manage. It’s not as if I’m a novice. I’ve handled our investments for a number of years now. So you see, there’s no need for any of this. Let’s just forget it and try to have a nice visit. The repair work on the house is well underway. If necessary, I can stay a few days to see it through after the others have left.” “Thank you for that lovely speech, Annabelle, but let’s not pretend we’re family.” Annabelle was stunned into silence. “I want to call attention to the fact that we’re videotaping this meeting. There are four cameras.” Caleb pointed to the four cameras. “I’m nothing if not thorough. Just a good idea to have a record of what actually occurs here today. Each of you will receive a copy of the tape.” Libby watched as the sisters exchanged looks. “Annabelle and Rose-Marie, upon my death you will each inherit ten million dollars. I’ve put the money into
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trusts for you. They are structured in such a way that they should last you a lifetime, and sheltered so that if you divorce, your husbands will in no way benefit. When we’re done here, John will meet with both of you privately to explain the details.” Rose-Marie broke character and was the first to speak. “Thank you, Caleb.” “Yes, thank you, Caleb.” Annabelle echoed. “This is, of course, in addition to the ranch.” “No, Annabelle. Your total inheritance from me is ten million dollars. I’d say that’s a generous amount by any standards; does anyone disagree?” Jed spoke up. Libby couldn’t remember him having said even one word in the two days they’d been here. “More than generous!” He grunted as Annabelle jabbed him in the ribs. “What, may I ask, are your plans for the ranch?” “If you will allow me to continue, Annabelle, I’ll get to that in due time. May I ask you, how does ten million sound to you?” “Well of course, Caleb, you’re more than kind. I didn’t realize you were worth quite that much. But about the ranch—” “And you, Rose-Marie?” “I honestly had no idea it would be this much. I don’t know what to say.” “The amount seems generous?” “I’m overwhelmed. Yes, very generous.” Caleb smiled. “I’ve also created trust funds for your children. Upon their twenty-first birthday, they will each inherit one million dollars.” This time it was Russ who spoke. “Thank you, Caleb.”
“Good, now that we’ve established that you agree the amount of money I’m leaving you is quite large, and certainly more than any one person could need, I want to provide full disclosure about the rest of the details of my will so that my wishes and desires are fully understood by all of you, and there can be no question about what I have arranged.” “Well, what else is there, except the ranch?” Annabelle spoke with asperity, her patience clearly challenged. “Approximately forty million dollars has been assigned to various charitable concerns. Medical research, scholarships and grants, a memorial fund, and so forth.” There was a collective gasp among the stepdaughters and their husbands. Libby noticed that Rafe had not made a sound, nor shown any discernible reaction. “The ranch and all other assets totaling a net worth of one hundred and twenty million will go to Liberty.” No one said a word. “Liberty is also succeeding me in my business interests, and is the executor of all charitable contributions.” “This is outrageous.” “What exactly is outrageous, Annabelle?” “Well, that you’ve given your daughters one-twelfth of what you’ve given someone who isn’t even a member of the family.” “Really? Because a moment ago you agreed that ten million dollars is quite generous.” “But that was before we knew what you were worth.” “So ten million is only a lot of money if it’s half of what I have to give? Is that it?”
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Annabelle scowled. She was not a pretty woman when she scowled. “Of course not, but you have to admit, Caleb, that the amount you’re giving to your daughters compared to the amount you’re giving to someone who is, well, who is frankly a stranger, is insane.” “Liberty may be a stranger to you, but she is not a stranger to me. And let me remind you that you are no more related to me than she is. Not by blood, and not by law. When your mother died, any responsibility I had toward you died with her.” “Yes, but we are the daughters of your wife. She has no such distinction.” “Be very careful, Annabelle.” “I will not be careful. I can’t believe you would do this to your own family.” Caleb smiled. Libby recognized the expression. It was the look of a cat deliberately playing with its prey. “I won’t warn you again, Annabelle. Any further protest will cost you one million.” “But you can’t possibly give Libby—” “You now have a trust fund of nine million dollars.” “Oh stop it, Caleb. You can’t possibly intend—” “That’s eight million.” “You would reduce my inheritance because I dare to argue the insanity of your—” “Seven million.” Caleb’s eyes were deadly. Jed jerked up and raked his hand through his hair. “That’s it! Annabelle, I won’t listen to another word out of you. You’ve already cost us three million dollars. Either zip it or I’m taking you out of here.” “But he can’t possibly be serious.”
Jed clamped a hand over Annabelle’s mouth and dragged her out of the room, muttering an apology to Caleb as they left. Caleb chuckled. “I should give him his own dispensation—a kind of hazard pay.” “You won’t really reduce her inheritance, will you, Caleb?” “Afraid you won’t be able to live with your sister if she knows you’ve inherited more than she will? Technically you already have, because you have three children; Annabelle has only one child. But no, the will remains as is. Your sister will get her full ten million.” Rose-Marie looked infinitely relieved. “Are there any questions before we adjourn?” “Well, I understand that Libby will own the ranch, but does she plan to live here? Russ and I were hoping to raise the children here. There’s plenty of room, even if she is planning to live here. She could stay in one of the cottages.” “I’ve asked Liberty to live here for a period of no fewer than five years. If she chooses to leave the ranch after that, she’s free to do so. Now, if Liberty decides to agree to let you live here, your trust fund will be reduced by the amount you would pay toward a mortgage, equal to the purchase price of the ranch, and that money will go to Liberty to pay for your lodging and other expenses. Frankly, Rose-Marie, you can’t afford it. At twenty-five thousand acres, the ranch is valued at about thirty million.” “But Caleb, why? Why would you make it impossible for us to live here at the ranch?” “Because you have no real interest in actually ranching or helping Liberty maintain the name associated
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with the Hamilton brand of horses, or anything else we produce here. You’d be a drain on ranch resources. I know it sounds harsh, Rose-Marie, but the reason I’ve given you ten million is so you can live your own life— the way you want to live it.” “But the children love the ranch.” “Do you love the ranch, Rose-Marie?” “I can’t think of a better place to raise the children.” “You haven’t answered my question.” “Well of course I do. I think it’s perfectly lovely.” “Then you wouldn’t object to working in the stables, or training the horses, or helping with the feed crops, or even work out on the range? You wouldn’t object to having your children work alongside the ranch hands on a daily basis?” “But I don’t know anything about those things—and the children couldn’t possibly do that kind of work.” “You could learn. You’d have to learn. That’s what it takes to run a ranch.” “Well I don’t really have an interest in running the ranch. We just want to live here.” “So you want to live at the ranch, and benefit from the ranch, but contribute nothing to the ranch, is that it?” She appeared to have no idea what to say. “I think I’ve made my point.”
“Libby, Mr. Hamilton is asking for you.” It was Gabby. Libby looked at the clock. It read after midnight. Rafe was already in Caleb’s room when she arrived, Aramis at her heels. “He’s having a bad night,” Rafe told her. “Don’t talk about me as if I’m already dead.” “Well clearly you’re not dead, or you wouldn’t be making all this ruckus.” “There, do you see the way he talks to me? Why do you have this boy hanging around, anyway?” Libby chuckled. “I may have brought him here, but you’re the one who keeps him here with all your demands.” Caleb laughed, but Libby wasn’t fooled. She knew he was in a great deal of pain. “Rafe, I thought maybe we could play chess. Libby, watch how he plays. He can teach you a thing or two about strategy—specifically how to protect your interests.” Libby raised an eyebrow. “If you’re saying he’s a better chess player than I am, that may be more of a statement about you than about me, since you’re the one who taught me.” He chuckled through what was an obvious spasm of pain. “My point is that he plays differently. A person can learn a lot from someone who does things differently.” He eyed them both.
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They played until Caleb fell into an exhausted sleep. Libby was spent, too, but she hated to leave either of them. “Tired?” Rafe’s voice eased across the room, just above a whisper. “Yes.” “I have an idea.” He was sitting in one of the two oversized chairs by the window. She waited, loving the sound of his voice and the way half of his face was shadowed in the low light. “Interested?” “Maybe.” She liked this half-serious, half-playful side of him. “Well, this will only work if you can work up some enthusiasm.” “About what?” “Oh, so now you’re interested?” He was such a tease. “Well, it’s just that I don’t have anything better to do right now than to listen to your babble.” “That will cost you.” “What?” “Name-calling. It’s hurtful. It will cost you.” “I didn’t call you a name.” “You said I was a babbler.” She could hear his grin. “Well, you are a bit of a babbler, you have to admit.” The irony made her giggle. Rafe was the most closemouthed person she’d ever met, except perhaps for Caleb. “There it is again. Name-calling. I never realized you had such a mean streak in you.” “Very mean,” she agreed. “But interested in hearing about your idea.” “Oh, we’re back to that.”
“Well, not for long if you don’t spit it out.” “I have to whisper it to you.” “You already are whispering.” Silence. “I said, you already are whispering.” More silence. There was only the sound of Caleb’s breathing. “Well then, don’t tell me. I wasn’t interested anyway.” “I’ve already told you twice. You just couldn’t hear me. I was whispering but you’re too far away to hear it.” She recognized the invitation. Had known all along that’s what he meant. But she wasn’t about to go running across the room to him—at least not yet. He was just a little too confident. “Then you should come closer.” “But there’s an empty chair over here by me.” “What if I’m perfectly comfortable here?” “You didn’t learn anything tonight did you?” “What do you mean?” She wasn’t sure about this turn in the game. “You can’t protect your interests if you’re too far away from them.” “Ah, I see. The chess lesson.” “Bright girl.” “You being one of my interests?” “Of one kind or another.” He patted the arm of the chair. “Come here.” She waited. “I’ll make it worth your while. You come here and I’ll tell you what I learned tonight.” Much better. Now they’d entered into a negotiation. It would only make good sense for her to cross the room and hear what he had in mind. She took her time. Aramis
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followed. When she was near enough, Rafe reached out and pulled her into his lap. She curled into him and felt his arms close around her. She was lost in the comfort of his body. She had almost fallen asleep when she realized he hadn’t told her what he’d learned. It was agony to rouse herself, but a deal was a deal. “You haven’t told me what you learned tonight.” “Oh, that.” He sounded sleepy. “Yes.” She burrowed into him more. “I learned that I can’t go even one day without this.” He brought his lips to hers. She could feel his exhaustion as well as her own as he held the kiss. She may have already been dreaming; she couldn’t say for sure, but she thought she heard him whisper, “Sleep well, my love,” just before she dropped off.
Rafe had been drifting in and out of sleep for the last half hour or so, aware that he still held Libby in his arms. He could feel her soft puffs of breath against his neck. He couldn’t make up his mind whether to let go of her or whether to wake her up and get her off to bed before Caleb found them there. He must have fallen back to sleep when he heard Caleb’s fiercely growled whisper, “No! Don’t wake them. Just take the dog out—he’s ready for his walk—and get out. Get out and let them sleep. You can come back later when they’re awake. Just leave the juice, and get out.” Rafe waited a moment, then opened one eye and found both of Caleb’s boring into him. “Don’t say a word. She’s still asleep and I don’t want her disturbed. Just nod your head that you understand.”
Rafe gave a slight nod. “You’re in love with her.” Rafe made no move to acknowledge him. “You’re in love with her. I’m not asking. I’m telling you because for a smart boy, I don’t know if you realize it, yet.” Rafe held his head perfectly still. “You know what this means, don’t you? I’m going to have you investigated. Do you have anything to hide?” Rafe smiled and shrugged. “Fair enough—we all have something or another to hide. How bad is it?” Libby sighed and both men froze. When Caleb appeared to be satisfied that she was still asleep he said, “If you tell me now, before I start the investigation, I’ll consider you an honorable man and let it go. If I find something out after the investigation is underway, I’ll run you out of the state. Do you understand?” Rafe nodded. So, now they were investigating each other. He wasn’t worried. Caleb would only find out what Rafe intended him to find out. Nothing else. “I have no desire to ruin you, boy. But I have a responsibility to protect Liberty. I’ve put her in a difficult position—one she didn’t ask for. When I’m gone, people will come at her from every direction, every single one of them wanting something. I need to know if you’re one of them and you were just smart enough to get ahead of the pack. So if you have something to hide, you better start thinking of me as your priest and tell me. In the meantime, I’m changing your job responsibilities. Let’s see how you do running the ranch.” Rafe’s eyes darkened. Caleb seemed to understand.
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“Don’t misunderstand. I’m only making you my ranch manager. Libby still calls all the shots. You do what she says—carry out her orders. And make sure you handle everything that she doesn’t need to know about. That’s what a good ranch manager does. She still has a lot to learn about the business. I don’t have a lot of time. I don’t know if I’ll be able to teach her everything.” Caleb coughed and reached for his water. “You much for the rodeo?” “I do all right.” “Labor Day is a big day for the rodeo. Liberty enters the bareback barrel racing competition every year. You have a preferred event?” “Saddle bronc.” Caleb nodded. “You two are going to need to work together more closely. I plan to enter you as a team in the team roping event. Best way I know of for people to learn to work together.” Rafe frowned. “Don’t bother objecting. You have plenty of time to work on it, if that’s what you’re concerned about.” Rafe spoke low, careful not to wake Libby. “You sure she’ll will agree to this? From what I’ve seen, she isn’t one to do something just because someone thinks she should.” “She’ll come around. Meanwhile, see what you can do about making my stepdaughters uncomfortable, will you? They’ve far overstayed their welcome. It’s time to send them packing. You know, schedule work on the cottages. Fumigation, repairs—take men off the repairs on the main house and shift them to the cottages if you have to. Have Digger put extra fertilizer on the flowerbeds and in the flowerboxes. Things like that. You get the idea.”
Rafe smiled and then caught himself. He’d lost his objectivity about Libby the first day he saw her. It wouldn’t do to lose his objectivity about Hamilton, too. “If you two are done plotting the evacuation of the guest cottages, may I remind you that you run the risk of driving the girls into the house, instead of back to their homes?” Libby sat up and smoothed the hair out of her face. “How long have you been awake?” Caleb demanded. Rafe wondered the same thing. She hadn’t given him any clue, and he was trained to notice things like that. Her breathing hadn’t changed. Heartbeat hadn’t increased. She hadn’t become restless. She might be better at subterfuge than he’d realized. “Why, were you exchanging secrets?” Rafe knew they both looked guilty. She stretched. “I heard something about some priest running someone out of the state. It didn’t make any sense. I must have still been dreaming. But I definitely heard you offer Rafe the position of ranch manager.” Rafe was uneasy. She’d done such a good job of fooling him into thinking she was still sleeping, he couldn’t tell if she was being entirely forthcoming. Had she heard what Caleb said—that he was in love with her? If she had, it could further confound a situation that already had too many layers. Caleb appeared to study her. “Any objections?” “Only if Rafe isn’t interested. If he is, I think it’s a smart move.” Caleb chuckled and gave Rafe a meaningful look. “Oh, he’s interested.”
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Libby was close to losing her patience. There was a reason she had posted a warning sign on Marengo’s stall door. “Digger, tell her that no one is allowed to ride Marengo. Period. And then just saddle up Lonely Boy. He’s the gentlest ride we have.” “But she’s insisting on riding Marengo. And there ain’t no sign.” “What happened to the sign?” “Dunno—it was tacked up on his stall, but ain’t one here now.” Libby sighed. This wasn’t the first time Annabelle had argued with Digger about the horses. Allowing Annabelle to ride Marengo would be irresponsible. Marengo was unquestionably good with Libby, but he didn’t tolerate other riders well. Libby had no idea what kind of a horsewoman Annabelle was, but she knew Annabelle used a crop. Marengo wouldn’t put up with that. Annabelle could get seriously hurt. For everyone’s safety, Rafe was the only person besides Libby who had permission to ride Marengo. “But she’s already got one of the men to saddle ’im up.” Libby worked harder to keep her patience. She’d never seen anyone quite so hell-bent on making trouble as Annabelle. “I’m coming out there now. Saddle up Lonely Boy and don’t let her near Marengo. Hold the cowboy who saddled Marengo. I’ll want a word with him.” She hung up the house phone and pulled on her boots. She’d been behind closed doors with Caleb all morning, like every other morning for the last four weeks. The more he taught her, the more she realized she didn’t know. Finally Caleb agreed to lie down for a nap and
Libby had been hoping to take Aramis out for a run with Marengo, when Digger called. Where was Rafe? Why wasn’t he handling this? She knew she wasn’t being fair. With the rodeo back in town, activity at the ranch had picked up. As Libby had suspected, no one objected to boarding his horse at Hamilton’s instead of at her stable. But it was Hamilton’s contract with the rodeo that kept things in overdrive. The contract required the Hamilton ranch to supply fresh horses and cattle, and rotate the animals according to rodeo guidelines, so that they were properly rested and cared for. Some of the rodeo cowboys boarded their horses here, and Caleb had just purchased a racehorse. Rafe had his hands full. Efforts to send the sisters packing had not only been unsuccessful, they showed no signs of leaving and stood their ground like squatters. Jed and Russ flew in every other Friday afternoon and out the following Monday morning since their arrival. Every one of them, with the exception of Annabelle, was reasonably easy to deal with. Russ and Rafe actually got along with each other quite well. Jed appeared to suffer long and silently at Annabelle’s side, and basically kept to himself. Their child, Norah, almost never made a peep. But Annabelle was a constant source of irritation. This incident with Marengo was just another example. When Libby got to the stable, she found Digger holding Jezebel, Firenza and Betty Grable for her. All three of them were saddled. “What’s this?” “I couldn’t stop her. She told me to go and saddle up White Cloud. I thought she’d gotten it outta her head to ride Marengo, and was making me saddle up another
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horse just outta plain orneriness. Paulie came with me b’cause he didn’t have no desire to hang around her.” Digger scratched his head as if he was still trying to figure it all out. “While we were gettin’ White Cloud ready, she took off on Marengo.” Libby mounted Firenza, the fastest of the three, and took off at a gallop. Over her shoulder she cried, “Paint the sign on this time.” If Annabelle was riding Marengo blindly and at top speed, as the trail she left in her wake suggested, they could both get hurt. She wondered if Annabelle presented any real threat. If she got hurt, she might sue. Annabelle never missed an opportunity to bring up the inequity whenever their paths crossed. Did she put herself at risk on purpose? That would be one way to get more than her ten million. Libby didn’t care about the money; it was the harm a lawsuit might have on their brand—especially a lawsuit levied by family. She kneed Firenza, urging her forward faster. She should have thought to tell Digger to keep quiet about Annabelle storming off on Marengo. She didn’t want anyone mentioning it to Caleb; things were already strained enough between Caleb and Annabelle. And he’d been doing so well lately. He was gaining strength. For the past week he’d been up for half days at a time. Libby knew Annabelle’s hostility toward him was more upsetting than he let on. Libby gritted her teeth and urged Firenza even faster. Annabelle was riding north. If she kept going in this direction, it would take her to “the snake pit,” an area along the Front Range heavily populated by snakes. Many were harmless, but there were plenty of rattlesnakes.
Annabelle wouldn’t have any idea that she was in dangerous territory. Libby slowed Firenza as they neared the snake pit, then stopped to consider the wisdom of going in or swinging back for reinforcements. Here at the foot of the Front Range, she’d never get a signal on her cell. Libby’s list of things she was truly afraid of was short. But near the top of that short list were snakes. She decided to go a bit farther. If she didn’t find Annabelle, she’d go back for help. Firenza seemed to sense the danger. She picked her way carefully. Libby was about to turn back, when Firenza raised her head, pointed her ears and whinnied. In the distance, Marengo answered. Then Libby heard Annabelle scream. Libby made Firenza move forward, even though the horse was nervous. Suddenly, Annabelle and Marengo came into view, about thirty yards away. Annabelle screamed again, “Snakes!” Libby stopped. Sure enough, she could see that Marengo was standing in a pool of snakes. It took everything Libby had not to turn and run. She coaxed Firenza a few steps closer. “Whoa girl. That’s right. Just be easy now.” She stroked the mare’s neck. To Annabelle she said, “Be very still.” Annabelle shrieked and started crying. Libby had no idea how long Marengo would stand still. “Annabelle. Stop it. You must be calm.” She kept shrieking. “I swear, Annabelle, I will leave you here if you don’t stop that noise.” Annabelle fell instantly silent. “Don’t move. Be very, very still. Listen to me. There are only two kinds of venomous snakes around here. The
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rest of them are harmless. With any luck, you found the harmless kind. Don’t move. It’s important not to spook Marengo. Usually if you’re still enough, they’ll leave you alone and go about their business.” “How do I know you’re telling me the truth?” “Do you think you found the only snakes in the area? I’m taking a risk too, just being here.” Her voice rose. “You have to get me out of here. I don’t know how much longer I can sit here.” “Listen to me, Annabelle. Snakes aren’t aggressive by nature. They usually don’t attack unless you startle them. Have you been bitten?” “No.” “Has Marengo been bitten?” “That’s really all you care about isn’t it, your precious horse.” Libby clenched her fists. “Annabelle, if Marengo’s been bitten, and the snake released enough venom, you’re in serious danger because Marengo will go into arrhythmia. When that happens, he’ll lose consciousness. That will land you in a pile of snakes. You are my primary concern here. Has he been bitten, either around his legs, nose or neck?” “His nose?” “Yes, it’s the most common place for snakebite because horses poke their heads down to see what’s moving around underfoot—now try to think and answer me. Had you stopped Marengo for a rest, or did you run right into the snakes?” “We stopped for a rest.” “Did he lower his head?” “No, I wouldn’t give him his head. He’s far too willful.”
“Unlike you.” It slipped out before she could take it back. Annabelle started to cry. “Stay with me, Annabelle. Be very still. Stop crying. Give Marengo his head so that he stands still—he’s about to start backing up. Do it, Annabelle!” Annabelle began sobbing louder, but did as Libby instructed. “Now I want you to focus on this. Most snakes are not poisonous. Most snakes do not attack. Even the poisonous snakes don’t always release venom when they strike. Most snakes will start to move on. All of the things I just said are facts, and they’re in your favor. Do you see that?” She nodded. “Stop nodding. Stop crying. Be still. The snakes can’t hear you but you’re upsetting Marengo. Now think, what’s your favorite thing in the world?” “What?” Annabelle sounded confused. “Focus, Annabelle. What is your favorite thing in the whole world? Maybe it’s a favorite place, maybe it’s a food, maybe it’s your daughter?” “Yes, yes, my daughter.” “And your daughter’s name is?” “You know her name.” “Say it, Annabelle. Say your daughter’s name out loud.” “Norah.” “How old is Norah?” “She just had her eighth birthday before we came out here.” “I want you to name all the things you love about your daughter.”
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Annabelle started to cry. “Stop crying and tell me all the things you love about your wonderful daughter Norah.” “I love it that she loves me. She loves me. She doesn’t judge me or criticize me. She loves me.” “Yes, I’ve seen that.” “You have, haven’t you? And she’s such a good girl, my beautiful child. She never makes any trouble.” “What else?” “She has hair like yours. Long and wild. Her eyes are the bluest I’ve ever seen. And she’s smart. Oh, she’s so smart. Brings home the best grades. And she’s clever. Have you seen the way she can make up her own songs— out of nowhere? They just come to her. She’s such a miracle. They almost took her from me. They said I’d never get pregnant. When I did, they said I couldn’t bring her to term. But I knew she was my miracle baby. I almost died bringing her into this world, but I would do it again and again if I had to. She was so tiny. It was almost a month before she was out of—” Libby interrupted her. “Annabelle.” “Yes?” “Look at the ground.” She looked. “The snakes are gone. I’m going to call Marengo to me now.” She called to her horse softly. He trotted over and tossed his head. Libby reached for his reins. “Hold on to the saddle horn. We’re getting the hell out of here.” When they were about three-quarters of the way home, Libby drew both horses to a stop. She peered long and hard at Annabelle. “It’s time you and I had a talk.”
She was so angry nothing could prevent her from giving Annabelle a piece of her mind. Annabelle looked fearful. Libby realized with a start that the woman desperately needed a friend. Libby wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about that idea, but there were benefits to achieving some kind of truce with her. So while Caleb often accused her of being too softhearted, Libby chose to be kind to Annabelle—not just because Annabelle needed a friend, but because Libby needed a break from the constant bitterness that infiltrated everyone and everything when Annabelle was around. Libby took a deep breath, suddenly unsure exactly how to begin. “I wish I knew what to say. I wish I could find just the right words to tell you—just how much you are loved.” Annabelle burst into tears, followed by laughter and more tears. She was the very definition of hysterical. Libby waited. When at last she could speak she said, “I’m sorry. It’s just that we’re out here in the middle of this Godforsaken cowboy country and you sounded like you were reciting words from some sorry-ass country song. You know, ‘I lost my dog, my horse got snake-bit, my man left me and the mortgage is due’—that sort of song.” Libby giggled. Annabelle was howling again. Libby couldn’t tell whether she was crying or laughing but it didn’t seem to matter. The woman was strung so tight, it would take a while for her to get unstrung. When at last she was quiet, Libby said, “I have an idea.” She dismounted, reached into Rafe’s saddle pouch and pulled out the flask she’d seen him stow in there the first day they went riding together. She held it up. “Snakebite remedy.”
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Annabelle howled and slid off Marengo. Libby took a large swallow and handed the flask to Annabelle. “I wonder if you know the full extent of the danger you put us all in, riding off like that on a horse that doesn’t tolerate strange riders well.” Annabelle was sullen. “I should be able to choose my own mount.” “See, this is exactly what I was afraid of. You’ve already forgotten what it was like to stand in a pit of snakes.” Annabelle took another pull and handed the flask back. “I haven’t forgotten. I’m just not going to stand here and listen to you lecture me.” “Then what would you say to talking. You talk, I listen. I talk, you listen. No lectures.” As they passed the flask back and forth, talking came easier. Libby learned that Annabelle lost her father when she was eleven. It was something they had in common. Her own father had died when Libby was thirteen. Three years later, when the relationship between Annabelle’s mother and Caleb became serious, Annabelle and her sister were uprooted from their lavish Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan—and plopped on a ranch in the middle of Colorado, away from everyone and everything that was familiar to them. Annabelle was fourteen, her mother thirty-five, and Caleb was only thirty. It couldn’t have been an easy transition for her—for any of them. Libby took another pull, but the flask was empty. To be fair, it hadn’t been full when they tapped it. But it was full enough so that Libby could feel the effects of the bourbon, taken straight. The sun was angling to the west. They’d been talking for nearly two hours when Libby
realized she’d better call in. Digger answered. She could hear Rafe rip the phone out of Digger’s hands. “Where are you?” “Not far. We’ll be back soon. Everything’s fine.” “Why didn’t you answer your phone? I—we’ve been calling and calling.” “I know. I saw the messages. I turned my phone off—we were too close to the Front Range, and I couldn’t chance spooking the horses anymore than they already were.” “You scared the hell out of us.” “Who is us?” “Never mind—have you killed her yet?” She could hear the humor in his voice. “Your horse is just fine. No need to worry about a thing.” “And by that you mean that you haven’t killed her, but came close.” “More than you know. See you soon.” “Elle, you can’t just go riding off like that without letting security know what you’re doing. There’s been another threat against Caleb. I’ll send a couple of guys your way and fill you in when you get back.” “Another thre—?” She broke off and looked sideways at Annabelle. She didn’t want to get the woman worked up again. She took a few steps and asked, “Is Caleb all right?” “Yes. It was just a threat. But he’s sick to death with worry over the two of you.” Libby clicked off and turned to Annabelle. “I suppose it’s accurate to say that we’re never going to be best friends.” “Probably not.”
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“Well, I appreciate it that this afternoon you and I have been able to agree that we can expect certain things of each other. And who knows, maybe one day…” “Don’t push it, Starr.” Libby smiled at Annabelle’s attempt to be funny. The day of their arrival, Annabelle’s daughter had fallen in love with Libby’s last name and started calling her Starr rather than Libby—so innocent and so very unfortunate because it drove Annabelle crazy. Annabelle sighed. “I don’t understand how Caleb can possibly think you’ll be able to handle it all. You’re softhearted, Libby. Anyone can get around you just by pretending to be nice.” “Are you pretending?” “Not entirely.” Annabelle looked grim. “But you might consider whether Caleb is.” Libby waved her hand. “I don’t want to ruin what we’ve accomplished here today.” “Well, let me say one more thing, and then I’ll drop it. Caleb doesn’t love you. He doesn’t love me or RoseMarie. He didn’t love my mother, and he didn’t love your mother.” “But how can you say that? I understand that you’d like to think he didn’t love my mother, and I get it that you don’t believe he loves you. But how can you think that he didn’t love your mother?” “He drove my mother to her death.” “You can’t mean that. You weren’t even around at the time. You were away at college.” “Actually, I was in Europe. But my sister was still home. She had just graduated high school and was about to join me when our mother killed herself. Because of him.”
“I don’t believe it. I don’t think you really believe it either.” She shrugged. Her eyes narrowed. “I won’t ever forget what you did for me today, Libby. You could have left me there, and no one would have ever known. Which is why I’m going to tell you this. My mother left a note. Rose-Marie saw it. She gave it to Caleb who never revealed it to the police. Do you know why? Because in it, she accused him of all kinds of terrible things—crooked business dealings, buying government officials. She said he was beyond cold to her, and she had nothing left to live for. And then she raced out into the storm and rode her horse off a cliff.” Libby stared into Annabelle’s eyes. She had no doubt that the woman absolutely believed every word she was saying. “And do you know what the last line of the note said? It said she could understand why Ariela had left him. Do you know who Ariela was?” Libby shook her head. “Then you don’t know everything you should know about Caleb Hamilton.” “Do you know who she is?” Annabelle’s eyes gleamed. “His first wife.” “So there was a first wife.” Libby clamped her lips together. It had to be the bourbon. She would not gossip about Caleb this way with Annabelle. “According to my mother, she is the only person Caleb ever loved. She ruined him for any other woman. So you see, Libby. You’re wrong. Caleb doesn’t love me. How could he? He never even loved my mother. And he doesn’t love you. He’s using you. I haven’t figured out why yet, but I will.”
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Libby changed the subject. “We need food.” She held Firenza for Annabelle. “Hop on.” There was a moment when their eyes locked, and Libby thought the truce might be over already. But Annabelle dropped her eyes and accepted Firenza’s reins. “It’s just as well. Your horse is a bit much for me. I don’t like them that spirited.”
Ariela. Libby was intrigued by the possibility that Caleb had really been married before Jane—and to a woman named Ariela. She wasn’t sure she believed it. But if there was one person who was likely to know, it was Luna Rafferty. Libby hadn’t realized how close Caleb was keeping her until she tried to get away to visit Luna. Every time she mentioned visiting the inn, Caleb found something else for her to learn or do. When she finally found an opportunity to slip away, Rafe met her at the stable. She had the distinct impression that he’d been instructed to head her off, and then shrugged it off as a foolish notion. “Headed out?” “Yes. I thought a ride might do me good.” “Want some company?” She was surprised. She knew he didn’t have a moment to spare. She grew suspicious, and then felt guilty about it. Damn that Annabelle, putting ideas into her head, making her think Caleb was using her—that he had some ulterior motive. And if he did, then Rafe was likely in his back pocket. These days, they were like old friends with each other. Sometimes she wondered if Caleb wished things were different, if he might have preferred to make Rafe his successor. Especially when he became impatient with her, which was often. She knew Caleb felt the clock ticking and was afraid of leaving her in charge of something she didn’t understand. Still, she couldn’t help noticing that ever since the night she and Rafe had slept in
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Caleb’s room, the two men had become closer—as if they had some kind of bond that excluded her. Libby stopped herself again. She had absolutely no reason to think that Caleb was using her or that he regretted trusting his empire to her. Such thoughts only entered her head because Annabelle was so adamantly convinced. Libby had to remind herself to trust her heart, and reject Annabelle’s bitter accusations. Yet those words crept back into Libby’s thoughts over and over. He never loved my mother. He drove her to her death. He’s using you. The only woman he ever loved was Ariela. Rafe interrupted her thoughts. “So, how about I join you? Wouldn’t you rather have me than one of those stiffs?” He jerked his thumb toward two of Caleb’s security men. “You can’t possibly get away. Besides, I have Aramis.” She patted the husky’s head. He grinned. “I can.” “No way. You’re positively crushed with business.” “Yes, but I have an ‘in’ with the boss-lady.” He was adorable. Irresistible. But was he maybe just a little over-focused on going with her? Like it was an assignment? Had Caleb assigned him to her? She did her best to push the thought away. That beastly woman Annabelle. She’s got me suspicious of everyone and everything. “Oh, you do? Is that the word around town?” “Oh, no one knows. We’ve been keeping it very hush-hush. But I know she won’t have a problem if I go riding with you. Besides…” His face sobered. “Caleb doesn’t want you riding alone until we get this Glenn Stikka thing under control.”
“Glenn Stikka?” “Caleb hasn’t told you about him?” She shook her head. Rafe’s eyes grew hooded. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Take a look.” Libby unfolded the paper and stared into the unremarkable face of a man who looked like just about any other middle-aged, middle-class man. An average Joe. How did someone as benign-looking as this man come to be such a threat? She handed the photo back to Rafe. Caleb. Rafe. Could she trust either of them? And now there was the man in the photo named Stikka. Damn that Annabelle for making her doubt them! But all she said was, “Saddle up.”
They were outside the Carter House when Libby suggested, “Maybe you’d like to look over the new construction?” “What? And miss an opportunity to get in on the gossip?” “If it’s gossip you’re after, Emma and Ruby are your best source. Pretty sure they’d tell you anything.” She grinned. Rafe eyed her. “You trying to get rid of me?” Libby felt her cheeks flame. She’d elected not to tell him the whole reason for visiting Luna. She had just said that she missed their weekly teas. It wasn’t that she mistrusted him, exactly—she just wasn’t sure she trusted him as much as she would have liked.
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She shrugged. “I thought you might like to see how things are coming along.” His face creased into an innocent smile. “And miss a chance to have some of Ruby’s sweet tea with you and Luna? I kind of miss the old gal. After all, we were neighbors for several weeks.” Libby slapped the brim of her hat against her knee to shake off some of the trail dust. “I just thought you might make yourself useful while you’re here. I know you and Caleb don’t think rebuilding the stable is necessary, but on this point I—” Rafe caught her up close. “Are you telling me what I think?” When she looked into his face, she was confused by what she saw. His blue eyes were playful, but his mouth was firm, his jaw set—in direct conflict with his eyes. “I’ve heard the two of you talking. I know you both think I should just board the horses at Caleb’s, but the inn is closer to the rodeo—easier for folks who don’t want to ride all the way to Hamilton’s. Besides, it’s good for the town.” He pulled her tighter, his mouth even more grim. His arm felt like a band of iron around her waist. “The Carter House and its stables are important to the town. It provides jobs, a place to stay, a place to eat, a place to board horses, and it’s an historical point of interest—” He brought his mouth to hers. “You’ll get no argument from me.”
Luna was a kick. At eighty-nine, she was the town’s unofficial historian and had an enduring sense of humor.
They sat in the comfort of Libby’s living room. Sun streamed in through the skylights highlighting the deeply etched traces of time in Luna’s face. Rafe sat next to Libby, his knee casually resting against hers. For a few moments, Libby was overcome. She’d missed the inn; she’d missed her rooms and her private rides with Marengo and Aramis. She missed the satisfaction that came with the simplicity of her life here at the inn. Luna caught them up on all the latest gossip. After a while, Libby appealed to Luna’s sense of pride about her longevity and asked, “So, aside from you, who would you say is the oldest Stone Hill resident?” “Well, that would be Hannah Miller. I’ve got about five years on her. But you’re mistaken if you think I’m the oldest one in the county. That would be Jute Judson’s granddaddy, Jeremiah. Lives out on the range. Never comes into town. Jute takes care of him—brings him what he needs. He’d be about ninety-two, I believe. I never really took to him. He didn’t believe in my gift—used to tell everyone I was a fraud—that I didn’t have the sight. Why are you asking after us old folks, Libby?” “I heard a name recently. I wondered if you knew of this woman, or possibly even met her. Apparently, she lived around here. I don’t know if she’s still alive. I’d guess her to be in her early fifties now—” Luna put a hand up to stop her. Her body began to sway, and her eyes closed. “You’re asking about Ariela.” It always amazed Libby when Luna got it right. “Beautiful woman.” “You knew her then?” Libby felt herself growing excited.
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“No one really knew her. Not even her husband. They tell me she’s passed. But her spirit is nearby.” Luna’s eyes opened suddenly. She looked directly at Rafe. “The spirit of Ariela hovers over you.” Rafe shifted. “I don’t mean to break up the party, but I don’t really believe in this.” Luna’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. I believe you have a gift— that you have helped people with your gift. I just can’t buy into the whole idea of someone’s spirit hovering over me.” “She has great sadness. She wants to make things right.” “Why is her spirit hovering over Rafe?” Luna closed her eyes again. She was quiet a long time and then nodded as if agreeing with someone or something. When she opened them again she said, “The spirit of Ariela is shrouded in darkness. There is much secrecy.” Luna looked directly at Libby. “You are the light.” “I don’t understand.” “They tell me you are the light.” “But what does that mean?” Luna sighed, as if she was being infinitely patient. “That is for you to figure out, dear.” “Do you know Ariela’s last name?” “Of course. It’s Hamilton. She was Caleb’s first wife.” “What was her maiden name?” Luna’s shoulders dropped, and her breathing grew shallow. She took a sip of tea and sat forward in her chair. “I cannot tell you.” “You don’t remember?”
“I doubt I ever knew it. I can tell you this. The rumors said she went back home to live with her grandmother. Somewhere in Utah. This would have been some time in the mid-seventies. If you really want to know her last name, have you checked the family Bible?” “Caleb isn’t religious.” “Not now, no. But he comes from a long line of practicing Catholics. The first church in this area was built by the Hamiltons just after the Civil War. It doesn’t exist now, of course, but I remember Caleb’s parents and grandparents were church-goers. Even Caleb attended.” She shook her head. “That was a long time ago. I’ll bet if you look, there’s a Bible around somewhere with a record of the Hamilton births, deaths, marriages—you know, family history. And now darlings, I’m tired. Would one of you help an old woman to her room?” Rafe saw to Luna, leaving Libby to contemplate this new information. She was deep in thought when Rafe returned. “You don’t really believe anything she said, do you?” “Well, it’s hard not to. She knew the name of the woman I was asking about before I even said it. I do believe that there are those who have the sight. I guess I’ve never known quite what to think about Luna.” Libby shrugged. “I don’t know, Rafe. It would be interesting to see if a family Bible exists.” “Do you know what I think would be more interesting?” “What?” “This.” He drew her into his arms. All thought of Ariela and the family Bible dissipated in the wake of his kiss.
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“I’ve missed you.” She loved the way she could feel his voice rise out of his chest when he held her like this. “You’ve been busy. And sometimes, I think you intentionally put distance between us,” she said. “Do you know what I’d like to do right now?” He walked her backward into the bathroom. She smiled. “I have some idea.” “I’d like to find out what it feels like to sit in this tub with you.” He let go of her just long enough to start the water. “This will never work.” “Why?” “I prefer bubbles in my bath.” He brushed his lips against hers. “You couldn’t forgo bubbles this once?” “I like bubbles.” “So do I—in champagne or bubble wrap—but I don’t think I can handle a bubble bath. I have to maintain a certain level of masculinity.” “I’ll risk it.” She moved just out of reach and smiled. He advanced a step. Once again, she stepped back out of his reach. He followed. She was able to stay out of reach until she reached the wall, at which point she assumed the expression of a captured innocent. Rafe grinned. “Trapped.” “Like captured prey.” She made a soft moue. “Yes, you are.” He was nearly gleeful. “And you managed it so masterfully, as only a man can.” “I am a great hunter.” “So, now that we’ve established the fact that you are a great, manly hunter, you could handle a few bubbles, right?”
Rafe began to laugh. “So, the prey outsmarts the fox.” With the most modest expression she could muster, Libby reached around him for the bubble bath. Rafe stepped back. She dropped in a generous amount, and swished it around. The delicate, provocative smell of lavender and frankincense infused her senses. When she straightened, she found Rafe naked and ready. His tan had deepened from all the hours spent outside. His torso was a bit more sculpted from the physical demands of ranch work, and his eyes were even more tender than she remembered. He moved her back against the wall and bent his head. Into her ear he whispered, “I liked it when we were here—when we had more freedom to do this.” He slid her blouse off her shoulder and kissed her bare skin. “And this.” He unbuttoned a couple of buttons and drew her blouse farther down until he had exposed her soft flesh. His mouth closed around her; his tongue flicked the sensitive tip. He used his teeth to pull her blouse down farther and pinned her hands against the wall. His knee coaxed her legs open while he softly bit her lips. “And this.” He closed her hand around his obvious desire and moved it back and forth in a rhythmic pumping motion. His lips fed on her lobe while he told her in hushed tones, “You don’t know how much I’ve missed you.” He took her mouth, trapping her tongue with his until he had devoured all her strength. She felt him undo her jeans one button at a time until she wanted to urge him to hurry, unable to wait another moment to feel him touch her. When he finally pushed them off, he lifted her into his arms and stepped into the tub. He sank slowly into the
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deep water and laid her sideways across him, her back against one side of the tub, her legs over the other. Rafe ran his hand under the water and over her belly, moving closer and closer to his target until she lunged for his hand. “Be patient, my love,” he murmured. She felt his length against her back and wondered how he could endure it. He moved his hands over her breasts, massaging them as if they were something to be revered. He brought his hand to the top of her thighs and swirled the water between them. At last he dipped his fingers into her wet, waiting folds, stroking just enough to stoke the fire, but not enough to ease it. He brought his knees up, raising her torso out of the water, and bent his head to the softness between her legs. His tongue warmed her in a way the water could not. He was a long time at it, kissing her in this most intimate of kisses until she was gasping for breath. Rafe lowered his knees and drew her back up against his chest. One hand between her legs, the other on her breast and spoke into her ear. “You wonder if you can trust me.” Something about the way he said it made her shiver. He held her more tightly. “I want to tell you that you can. I will do anything to keep you safe. But I can’t promise that I won’t break your heart. I won’t want to, but we are headed on a collision course. You sense it, don’t you?” She nodded. Whether she’d realized it or not, she had to have known. There were too many questions for which there appeared no answers. “Is it any comfort to know that it will break my heart, too?”
Libby turned her body into him and sought his mouth, begging him with her eyes to help her change their destiny. But she knew he couldn’t. Just as she couldn’t. They lay as lovers until the water cooled, but their bodies cried out for more. Libby took him by the hand and led him to the bed. “Then let’s make this last.”
“It’s time, Elle.” Rafe tried to make himself let go of her, but instead he held her more closely. “I don’t want to go back.” “You have to go back.” “No, no I don’t. I’ve missed the inn. It’s my home. My family. It’s what I know. I’ll never be another Caleb—” “He wouldn’t want you to be. But you have to go back. ” “Why, Rafe? If I don’t go back, things could remain the way they are.” “Nothing ever remains the same. And you don’t have the heart to leave him now.” Libby burrowed into his chest. He thought she might be crying, but when she pulled away, she had pasted on a tremulous smile. “Give me a minute, will you?” It was after eleven, and raining hard. Rafe called Digger and ordered a truck and horse trailer. “The old man’s been nearly crazy about you two.” “Have Paulie follow you in the Ranchero so he can take you back.” “Okay, boss. But Boss is awful mad.” Rafe hung up the phone and swore under his breath. There was probably no easing into this. He desperately wished there was some way to keep the future from tearing Libby apart. He could have slowed things down a little if he’d been able to keep her from having tea with Luna Rafferty. But he’d found out too late. It never
occurred to him that Annabelle and Rose-Marie might know something about Ariela. He should have been ready for it. Now it would be a race to keep Libby from putting all the pieces together before he had finished his business. He wondered if he could stand to act like he was helping her look for that Bible. It would give him a plausible reason to check out obscure parts of the house. Places he would otherwise not have access to. They were looking for the same thing, in many of the same places, but for different reasons. Some of what Rafe was looking for, he was pretty sure Hamilton kept in his safety deposit box. Hamilton was the only signer, and he’d given explicit instructions that, upon his death, John Canfield was to destroy the contents. Not even Libby was to see them—which meant that if Rafe didn’t find a way to access the box before Hamilton kicked off, no one would ever know what was in it. It was also quite likely that some of what Rafe was looking for, Hamilton kept in his personal safe in the study. But for the moment, both Hamilton’s safety deposit box and his personal safe were inaccessible. Still, maybe what he was after wasn’t in either of those places. It might be somewhere else in the house. Part of what he was looking for might actually be in the family Bible…if there was one. And this is where Libby might be useful. He winced at the thought. There was no way to hope he could salvage a relationship with her. Even if by some miracle he and Libby could survive the truth about Hamilton—which would eventually come out, either because Rafe was able to expose him or because facts surfaced after Hamilton’s death—he knew Libby would never be able to get beyond the fact that Rafe had deliberately posed as a cowboy—a drifter who just
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happened upon the little town of Stone Hill and manipulated his way into their lives. Libby was collateral damage. He’d do just about anything to keep her from being hurt this way—except abandon his investigation.
Libby watched the way Rafe gripped the steering wheel. “Where are you?” He was long in answering. Finally he said, “I was thinking about that Bible. Wondering where it might be. Any possibility it’s in the safe?” “I thought you didn’t believe anything Luna said.” “But you do. Tell me, Elle. Why is finding out about this Ariela person so important to you?” “Oh, did I say it was important?” The look he shot her bordered on impatient. “It certainly seemed important to you.” “I’ll admit I’m terribly curious. But apparently it’s something Caleb has intentionally kept private. I think I’ve decided to respect his privacy and leave it alone.” She stared at his profile, unable to discern his reaction beyond the tick of his jaw. She hadn’t entirely made up her mind to drop it, but if she did pursue it, she would do so privately. Rafe had as much as told her they weren’t on the same side. She sighed, painfully aware that she missed him already.
“I wish you’d tell me before you go running off like that. You went charging after Annabelle and could have gotten both of yourselves killed. Yesterday it was to do God knows what.” Although she was anything but, she attempted a mild tone. “I wasn’t aware I needed your blessing to go about my business.” “You could at least do me the courtesy of keeping me informed.” “Are you keeping tabs on me, Caleb?” “Well yes, dammit. I am. For your own safety, Liberty. Why do you think I have all this security around here? Because I like it? I don’t. I like my privacy. I have almost none right now.” “Yes, and I don’t understand why you have need for all the security.” “And you don’t need to, beyond what you know about the Stikka threat. With any luck, you’ll never need to know more than you already do.” “So only you can have secrets, is that it? And would those secrets explain why Rafe took a rifle yesterday when we went riding?” “You’re starting to sound ungrateful.” “If you made me your successor so that I would be grateful, it was unnecessary. I was already grateful, Caleb.” “Which is why I’m happy to make you my successor—but only if you’re able to learn what you need
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to know before I’m gone. When you take off like that, we not only lose precious time, but I worry. I don’t want to worry about you anymore than I already do.” He started to cough. Libby poured out a glass of water and noticed he hadn’t taken his morning meds yet. “Take these. Now.” He pushed her hand away. “I swear to you, Caleb, this entire project is over if you don’t take your meds. I will not have you ending your life one second sooner than the universe intends.” “Ungrateful child, bullying me like this.” He swiped the prescription bottles from her hand and did as she asked. “Besides, I think you knew where I was the entire time. Aren’t you the one who put Rafe on my trail? Wasn’t he reporting back to you? Or did he go rogue on you?” “Your dog misses you when you’re not here,” Caleb said, changing the subject. “Oh, and Annabelle informed me that they’re going home at the end of the week.” “Did she say why?” “Something about it being obvious I didn’t need her, that I’d never needed any of them. She’s happy enough to accept the ten million, but only because it would allow her family to live in the comfort and security any woman longs to provide for her family.” “She believes you don’t love her.” “She’s always believed that.” His entire body registered weariness. “You could change that.” “Annabelle’s very difficult—but here I am stating the obvious.”
“Caleb, do you care that she believes you don’t love her?” “It’s a moot point, Liberty. It doesn’t matter in the least whether I care. My caring won’t change anything.” “Would it surprise you to learn that she’s convinced you can’t love her because the only person you’ve ever loved is Ariela?” Libby watched a thousand expressions cross Caleb’s face—none of them good and all of them worse than the last. When he finally spoke, he said, “Really? I wasn’t aware she knew anything about Ariela. As I said, Liberty, I’m a private man. I would appreciate it if you never mentioned that name again. As for Annabelle, she will have to find her own way to resolve her issues with me. It isn’t something you can do for her, no matter how much you might want to.” Well, that was interesting. She’d expected Caleb to become angry, possibly throw her out, or give her the silent treatment. But she had not expected this controlled robot of a man. She instantly regretted having dropped the name. It was unkind to invade his privacy like that. Her only interest when she started this was to confirm that there actually was an Ariela, as Annabelle had indicated. But when Luna said Ariela’s spirit had great sadness it cranked up Libby’s intrigue. Why was Ariela shrouded in darkness? What did Ariela have to make right? Why did she hover over Rafe? One thing was clear. Caleb was not going to be the one to fill her in.
August and September were big months for the rodeo. No matter what else may be happening in the lives of the
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Stone Hill residents, they clamored to support the rodeo. It brought tourists into town well into early October. Caleb pushed back from the table with a loud scrape. “Your mind is somewhere else. I can’t teach you when you’re like this. What’s causing the distraction? Is it because Rafe is so otherwise preoccupied these days?” His eyes were stony. He still used a cane to get around, but the moment his cast was removed, he came alive. Suddenly he was everywhere, getting into everything, never missing a detail. Not just business details but people and things, as well. If the staff moved something when they were cleaning, he noticed. If the chef gave the sous-chef an opportunity to take the lead one night, Caleb could tell. If Digger and Paulie were arguing, Caleb knew about it. How he knew everything that went on, she couldn’t say, but the man was practically omniscient. So it shouldn’t have been surprising to her that Caleb had noticed Rafe’s distance. She hedged. “Well, we’ve been going at it for several hours. If my concentration is slipping a little, I think it’s understandable.” “You didn’t answer me. Are you distracted because Rafe’s not around much these days?” “Rafe has a million things to do. He’s tied up.” “But you miss him.” She nodded. “Then why don’t you do something about it? We gamble with time, all of us. It’s our most valuable commodity, yet it’s what we gamble with the most. I should know.” “Well, it’s not like I have a lot of time on my hands. I’m at least as busy is he is.”
“Things go wrong between you two?” She didn’t know what to say. It seemed so foolish to tell him that she had a feeling—just an impression, nothing definite, no proof. Just the growing suspicion that Rafe had a deep and very dark ulterior motive for coming to Stone Hill which had nothing to do with the rodeo. He’d nearly said as much when he warned her that they were on a collision course. “It’s hard to say. I’m not sure we want the same thing.” “I see. Did you know Rafe has entered the saddle bronc competition?” “I assumed he’d be entering. I didn’t know that he had. When?” “Labor Day weekend. What about you? You’re planning to do your usual event that weekend as well, yes?” “Of course. Never let it be said that I’m not willing to do my part to support the rodeo.” “Good girl. I have a request. I’d like to see you and Rafe enter the team-roping event that weekend as well. He has a real future managing this ranch, but the two of you need to learn how to partner better. You’re both so independent.” Libby tried not to let Caleb see that she was rejecting the idea outright. “That would take quite a bit of work. It can be a pretty dangerous event. Each one has to be able to trust the other to take care of his end of the steer. When would we ever find the time to practice? It doesn’t seem prudent.” “You can start right now.” “By right now you mean that you’ve already talked to Rafe about this?”
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“Yes.” “And he agreed?” “He did, yes.” Caleb looked pleased with himself. “So he’s interested in managing the ranch indefinitely, then?” “Did you have a reason to think he wouldn’t be around? That he was going somewhere?” “I guess I have sort of expected him to move on one of these days. What do you really know about him, Caleb?” “You’re worried that I’m giving a lot of responsibility to a man I don’t know, is that it?” “Well, yes.” “Although I’ve told you many times that you’re too soft, you typically have good instincts about people, Liberty—especially what drives or motivates them. But in this case, you’re wrong. You can rest assured that I’ve had him thoroughly investigated. Tell me, why don’t you trust him?” “I wouldn’t say I don’t trust him.” “But you’re uncomfortable with something about him.” “Uncomfortable may be too strong a word.” “Just tell me what it is about him that bothers you.” “Well, you’ve said it yourself more than once. He doesn’t talk like a cowboy. Doesn’t act like one either.” “He’s got the skills of a cowboy.” “Yes, at least from what I’ve seen. We don’t know yet how he’ll measure up in the competition. We haven’t seen him.” “I have.” “You have?”
“He’s out there nearly every morning practicing. I’m not surprised you don’t know about it since you’re usually still sleeping.” Caleb never missed an opportunity to point out the fact that she loved to sleep in. While everyone else was up before six, her rising time was closer to eight. To be fair, she was usually up later than the others as well. Except for Rafe, who never seemed to sleep. “What did you find out?” “That he’s a damn good roughstock rider.” “You know that’s not what I mean.” “Nothing you need to know right now. Just standard stuff. From what I can tell, he’s who he seems to be, with a few exceptions.” Caleb looked like he was thoroughly enjoying himself. “And they are?” “Well, he has an Ivy League education. Has an undergrad from Yale, sat for his CPA exam right out of college and passed it, then went on to complete a law degree from Harvard where he specialized in corporate law. Won a big case before he was thirty. Netted 7.5 million for himself from that one case, alone. He practiced until he was thirty-one and then just sort of disappeared— fell off the grid. Apparently he just walked away from it all.” “And then he pops up here and you don’t wonder about it?” “Of course I do. Why do you think I’m keeping him so close?” “I thought it was because you liked him.” “I do like him. I like the boy a lot. At thirty-three, he’s bright, talented, an experienced strategist—a skill he didn’t learn on a ranch—appears to be trustworthy, is uncommonly close-mouthed, and ranch-seasoned. And he
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just happens to have a very expensive education, with no clear record as to how he financed it.” “In other words, there’s quite a bit I need to know.” Caleb offered a sober look. “The man has many layers. I don’t know how important it is to worry about his past. It’s the present I’m concerned about. If he’s going to be around here very long, you two need to work some things out. Which is why I’m asking the two of you to enter the team roping event.” “Caleb, you’ve already entered us in the event, haven’t you? Why would you do that without checking with me first?” Caleb’s eyes were unflinching. “By now I expect you to understand that I have your best interests at heart.” “But why is entering the team roping event with Rafe in my best interests?” There was a degree of softening in Caleb’s eyes. “Some things cannot be explained—they can only be experienced. You go on now and find Rafe.”
When she didn’t find Rafe in the stables or anywhere else, Libby went to Marengo’s stall and stroked the stallion’s neck. “What do you say, boy? Want to practice a little bareback barrel racing?” The stallion tossed his head. She caught Digger’s attention. “Did you have someone set up the barrels on the back forty?” “I sure did. They’re all ready. I measured the distance m’self.” “Thanks, Digger.” She called to Aramis, “Come on, boy.” The dog nipped playfully at her heels. The three of
them walked out into the open, where she mounted the mustang and trotted off toward the south back forty. True to his word, the barrels were in place and the ground had been raked over for safe riding. She told Aramis to stay and leaned into Marengo. “Let’s start easy, boy. I know you want to run, but it’s been a while since we’ve done this. Let’s get the feel of those tight turns.” But no matter what she did, they were clumsy. Her hat flew off in the last run. She slid down Marengo’s back to retrieve it and had an idea. She pulled off her boots, jeans and shirt and left them in a pile next to her hat, then vaulted back onto Marengo. She leaned into him stroking his neck and talking in soft cadences. “We need to move as if we were one, boy. Let’s try it again and this time I won’t hold you back. You choose the speed—but watch that second barrel. It’s your nemesis.” The horse whinnied and pawed the ground. She dug her bare heels in and he shot forward. At times she was nearly flat against his mane. She turned the mustang and ran the course again, this time even faster. She was breathless as they curved the last barrel. As they raced back to the start, she saw him, sitting on his horse, his black hat tipped low. Marengo whinnied, tossing his head and pawing the earth. Libby patted the mustang’s neck and allowed him to trot over to the cowboy. “Looks good. Second barrel’s a bit of a problem. He couldn’t see it until you gave him his head.” Rafe grinned. “Don’t know if you’ve solved the problem though. Pretty sure they make you wear clothes when you compete.” She grinned back, happy to see him, even though once again he had caught her in a private moment. “What brings you out here?”
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His eyes roamed her body. “Heard you were looking for me.” She tossed her hair and leaned into the mustang. “Not anymore. We found something else to do.” She whispered into Marengo’s neck. “Do it again, boy. Just the way you did it last time.” She felt the stride of the mustang under her and the way he leaned away from the barrels just enough to clear them. She laughed when he stopped short of the finish line, snorting. Rafe brought Firenza in close to Marengo. His eyes were lazy. “How about you letting me do that with you?” Libby slid down off the horse. Rafe dismounted. “You ever ridden in a bareback barrel riding event?” “Nope.” “Well, rule number one is that you have to be one with your horse.” She pushed his Stetson back on his head and looked into his eyes. The heat was there, just like she knew it would be. She tucked her fingers into his belt and pulled him close. He caught her hand. “I’d say the number one rule is that your horse has to do what you tell her to.” He locked her arm behind her back and traced his lips over hers. Her breath caught. He tipped her back. Just when he looked like he was going to do more than kiss her, she ducked out of his hold and walked over to the pile of clothes. She shrugged into her shirt and turned. “If you’re serious, there’s still time to get some roping practice in.” She zipped her jeans and stepped into her boots. He looked surprised. She wondered if anyone had ever turned him down before. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be with him. She just didn’t want him taking her
for granted—or to think that, like a horse, she would just do what he wanted her to.
They were nearly back to the ranch when Rafe said, “That settles it, then. I should be the header. You’re the heeler. It makes the most sense, Elle.” He was probably right, but she didn’t like it. It meant everything she did depended on what he did, first. “What if your throw is bad?” He grinned. “It won’t be.” He was so supremely confident. He didn’t know— he’d never seen her toss a rope. She might be just as good as he was. But she wasn’t. And they both knew it after trying just a few practice throws. “Which is why I’m the header,” Rafe crowed. “Really? Because the heeler has to catch both legs in the throw—two targets. The header only has to catch the head around one or both of the horns. Much easier. You throw better—you should have the more difficult target.” “Yes, but the steer will be moving fast. I’ll have to catch him and then turn him back. You’re going to need my strength to hold him in place so you can catch his heels.” She didn’t even know why she was arguing with him, except that she was hot and he was so supremely right. The Colorado dust clung to her until it almost chafed. She stooped to pick up her hat in the relentless sun and knocked it against the side of her knee before heading toward the house. He called after her, “You’re stopping now?” He looked at his watch meaningfully.
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“I’m beat.” She rubbed the back of her thigh. “The tub is calling me.” But she didn’t soak long. She was focused on continuing her search. The ranch had been built by the first Hamiltons to emigrate from Scotland in 1840, well before Colorado was a state. Over the years it had accommodated six generations of Hamiltons, seven if you counted Annabelle and Rose-Marie. Parts of the main house were very old. But each generation had changed the structure of the house in some way, either to expand or remodel. Today, it was open and airy and had a very contemporary feel with honey-colored wood and large windows. She’d managed to search most of the house, including both guest cottages. But there were three places she hadn’t been able to search: Caleb’s room, his study and the attic. She’d begun her search in the day room the day after Luna Rafferty mentioned Ariela. A medium-sized room, it was used by the matriarchs of the household over the years for writing letters, planning menus, managing the household accounts and other activities of this nature. The last person to use it had been Caleb’s mother and by the way the room was decorated, it was clear that she’d been a practical woman who didn’t go in much for fuss and flounce. But she found no clues that would tell her more about Ariela, or the letter Annabelle had referred to, damning Caleb for Jane’s death. Libby found herself spending more time than she intended in the Hamilton library. The room was immense and held many family treasures. Andrew Hamilton, Caleb’s great-grandfather, who became the Hamilton patriarch around 1912, was a rare book collector. The shelves were lined with more than five thousand books,
some of them so old they fell apart in her hands when she opened them. How many of them had been read or even opened within the last hundred years? Several times she grew excited, thinking she might be getting close to discovering something only to find that it was a dead end. She found handwritten letters from the Civil War era between Daniel Hamilton, Caleb’s great-greatgrandfather, and Mary Louise Danvers. Mary Louise died of consumption before Daniel returned from the war. The letters were heartbreakingly beautiful. Mary Louise’s writing would have turned great poets green with envy. She found family trees, baptismal documents and some remarkably well-preserved tintypes whose labels indicated they’d been taken between 1870 and 1880. There were photos in carefully documented albums up through the mid-1960s, and more photos, unmarked and in unidentified boxes, including those of Jane and the girls when they first came to the ranch. But she could find no trace of an Ariela. She did find one odd-sized photo of Caleb. A closer look revealed there had been a woman in the photo, but she had been cut out. All that remained was the woman’s lacy white sleeve through which Caleb’s arm was linked. Handwritten on the back of the photo was the date, June 12, 1974. Now Libby was set to search the attic. It was the perfect day to do it. The windstorm outside would disguise any noise her movements might make and keep Caleb from catching on to what she was up to. Libby had expected to find a dark, dusty and depressing attic but instead found it to be surprisingly light, airy and dust-free. Clearly someone on staff had the responsibility to clean the attic. As she moved quietly
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through the room, she had to work to keep from being distracted by some of the older artifacts. After a while it became apparent that someone had organized everything in the attic by generation. She just had to find the right area that housed artifacts from the fifth- and sixthgeneration Hamiltons. The photo of Caleb and the woman with the lacy white sleeve was quite possibly a wedding photo. In 1974, Caleb would have been eighteen. She searched a long time, but was able to find very little after the mid-1960s. The careful labeling and other methods of categorizing gave way to total disarray as the dates progressed. Libby wondered if it had been Caleb’s grandmother who had so painstakingly organized evidence of the Hamilton history. Whoever was responsible, they had ceased their effort around the time Caleb would have been ten or twelve. Libby had gone through everything. Only the racks of clothing remained. She was getting hot and found herself wishing for an ice-cold beer. She sat back and considered her next move. The wind swept across the valley and caught under the eaves. It worked its way through the cracks and sent a small flutter through the racks of clothing, and cooled her off a bit. She stood up, determined to go through the racks, to check pockets for any small clue. She had just finished going through the last rack when she heard a muffled scraping sound. She froze, afraid she would be discovered. She heard it again. It sounded like it was right behind the clothes rack. But there was only a wall there. She was about to walk away when she heard it again. She paused. There was a sneeze beyond the wall. She recognized the sound. “Rafe?” Libby pulled the rack forward, and felt along the wall for a latch or doorknob or even a break of some
kind. She could find nothing, and was surprised when part of the wall suddenly swung open, revealing a hidden room. “Yes, yes. Come in and close the door before anyone else figures out what we’re doing and decides to join us.” Libby stared into Rafe’s laughing eyes. “What are you doing here?” He pulled her forward and pushed the panel closed. She slammed up against him. He caught her. His arms stayed around her waist, but she pushed them away and stepped back to look around. The room was probably fourteen feet by twenty feet and dimly lit. No windows. An old roll-top desk, a straight-backed chair, two green sofas and three dark gray filing cabinets lined the wall behind the desk. But something else caught her eye. Something disturbing. On the far wall was a safe. The door was open and the contents of the safe spread out over the desk. “Again, what are you doing here?” The enormity of his actions took hold. “How did you find this room? Why shouldn’t I tell Caleb right now that you’ve betrayed him? That you’ve broken into his safe or whatever it is and have gone through his personal documents.” She was distraught, and held back the urge to cry. She hadn’t realized just how badly she’d hoped Rafe would have a good reason for drifting into town the way he had. That he would be on the right side of things. But now he was showing his true colors. Was he stealing? It didn’t make any sense. Not after what Caleb told her about his financial success. Rafe pulled her into the circle of his arms and stroked her back. She tried to move away but he tightened his arms and spoke low into her ear.
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“Calm down, Elle. Calm yourself before you get us both caught.” “I don’t care—I don’t have to worry about getting caught. You’re the only one here who has to worry about getting caught.” Her voice was rising. Rafe held her more tightly. “Keep it down, Elle.” “I won’t keep it down. I won’t—” Rafe brought his mouth over hers. She tried to push him away, but he was too strong. She beat at his chest, she bit at his lips, but he would not stop the assault on her mouth. It took everything she had not to return his kiss. Instead, she grew silent, and waited. But he didn’t talk for a long time. He just went on kissing her neck, her shoulder, her eyes and her mouth again until he was apparently convinced she was not going to respond in kind. He let go of her only to take her hand. “Come and sit down.” She snatched it back. “I will not sit down. Tell me right now.” Rafe forced her into him with a one-arm embrace and kissed her again. Into her mouth he murmured, “Every time you argue with me or get loud, I’m going to do this, Elle. You can act like you don’t like it, but you do, or you wouldn’t quiet down every time I kiss you.” “You’re hurting me.” He released her instantly. “Let me show you what I found.” Rafe placed a large leather-bound Bible in her lap and opened it. It was heavy and smelled old. As if it would crumble to dust under her fingers. On the first page Libby read, “This Bible belongs to Allaster Hamilton, in the year of our Lord 1878.”
She read through the entries of births, deaths, and marriages painstakingly scribed by various Hamiltons at various times. The second to the last entry was the marriage of Caleb Barclay Hamilton to Ariela. This entry had been struck out. It was impossible to read Ariela’s last name. She could just make out the marriage date as June 12, 1974, the same date that was on the photo of Caleb and the woman with the lacy sleeve. The final entry in the Bible was “Caleb Barclay Hamilton to Jane Vinter Hamilton, September 17, 1986.”
Rafe looked pleased with himself, but Libby would not be appeased. She wanted answers. “I don’t even know where to start with you. How long have you been in here? I’ve been in the attic for hours, and you didn’t walk past me. How did you get in here? You must have heard me up here. Were you just going to let me waste all this time digging around for something you’d already found?” Rafe ducked his head and toed the floor, but she wasn’t convinced he was in any way repentant. “You want me to act like you did this great thing and found the hidden treasure, but would you have even told me if I hadn’t stumbled into you like this?” “Now, Elle” “And what business do you have going through these things anyway? These are private, Rafe. I don’t know that Caleb would appreciate anyone finding this.” She smoothed her hands over the Bible. “Including me.” “Yet here you are, doing exactly what I was doing, and giving me a hard time about it.” “Is that a litigation technique, the way you deflect all the time? Don’t think you can turn this around on me. I’m the closest thing Caleb has to family.” Even in the dim light of the secret room, Libby noticed the way Rafe’s body stiffened—but she couldn’t seem to stop talking. “My intentions are good—and why am I even bothering to explain myself to you, anyway?”
She took a breath to compose herself. She hadn’t meant to tip her hand, show him what she knew about him. She’d need to be more careful. “Let’s start with this question. Were you in here all the time I’ve been searching out there, or did you somehow get past me?” “I’ll tell you everything I know, but you have to quiet down, Elle. I don’t think now is a good time for either one of us to be discovered.” She felt a surge of anger. He kept implying that she’d been doing something wrong—or at least that she’d been doing the same thing he was. She didn’t know his motive, but she was sure it wasn’t the same as hers. And he did not belong up here, searching through seven generations of Hamilton discards. “I found two other things of interest, besides this hidden room.” “Am I really going to care?” He grinned and patted his pocket, ignoring her question. “I’ll show you what’s in here when we get back downstairs.” “Show me now. I don’t know that I will allow you to take anything out of here.” “And the other thing I want to show you is this,” he said, ignoring her again as he pulled open a trap door in the floor. “This is how I got up here. I was up in the attic earlier this week and started to look around when Clotty came up to clean. Well, I couldn’t let her see me and, as luck would have it, found this room. But then it became clear that she knew all about this room and intended to clean in here too. That’s when I found this trap door. It leads to a narrow stairway that is not regularly cleaned—I don’t think anyone ever uses it anymore. I doubt anyone even knows about it—even Caleb. It goes all the way
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down to the cellar and comes out behind one of the furnaces. There’s no stopping between attic and cellar. Oddest thing. So, now you know how I got into this room without being seen by you.” He made it all sound so plausible. Even reasonable. She felt her anger drain. “I honestly didn’t know you were out there, Elle, until I heard the hangers scraping across the racks, and then I didn’t know who it was. So I decided to be quiet and wait it out. And then you heard me sneeze.” Rafe began to return things to the safe. “What are you doing?” “We can’t leave things like this, and we have to get out of here. Give me a hand.”
He held her arm as they navigated the rickety staircase. His plan was to take her to the white guest cottage so that they could talk. Finding him the way she had raised too many questions. And he hadn’t missed her reference to his habit of deflection as a litigation technique. That meant Caleb had shared at least some of what he’d found out about Rafe. Good. It meant Caleb wasn’t trying to hide it from her. Caleb was unlike any other profile he’d ever studied. Was it possible he was wrong about Caleb? When they reached the bottom, Libby tried to pull away, but Rafe held her firm. “Come with me.” “I won’t come with you. Show me right now what’s in your pocket.” “There isn’t enough light here. Besides, some of this is going to take a little explaining. We need privacy. I’m taking you to the guest cottage.”
“You’re not taking me anywhere, and I’m not going with you, either. In fact, I’m going straight to Caleb to apologize for invading his privacy.” He pulled her forcefully up against him and kissed her. It was a near brutal act. He didn’t know yet how much danger she was in, and so far, the only way to get her to quiet down was to kiss her. When she began to respond, he knew it was in spite of herself and that she would resent him for it. He eased up, but only a little. Libby pushed him away, but he was ready and caught her back, this time placing his hand over her mouth. “Take a moment to think it through, Elle. We are going to talk, no matter how much you may think you don’t want to. You can’t get away from me because I’m stronger than you. I’d keep kissing you but that will only lead to things other than talking. I’m going to take my hand away now, and we’re going to go quietly to the cottage. Nod your head if you understand and are ready to comply.” She was slow to respond. He could feel her fury. Physically restraining her was not his idea of a good time. He deeply regretted having to do it. When she finally nodded he took his hand away. “We can’t get in,” she said dully. “The cottage is locked.” “I still have a key. Try not to fight me, Elle. We have a lot to get through in a short amount of time.” They sat in a yellow sunroom in the back of the cottage Rafe had stayed in when he first came to the ranch. He insisted on sitting next to her, unsure whether she still had it in her head to run away, and ready to stop her if she did. She maintained direct eye contact with him. That was good. It meant she wasn’t afraid of him, and
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hadn’t shut down, either. But she was angry. And very sexy. Her shorts showed off her impossibly long legs and her shirt kept slipping off one shoulder. It would be so easy to just reach over and slide it off altogether. She was such a distraction. He considered abandoning his plan to talk and wondered if he could get away with hauling her into the bedroom. She uttered a one-word command. “Talk.” Rafe pulled the folded document out of his back pocket and gave it to her. She read it but said nothing. “Do you understand what it means?” She didn’t respond. He couldn’t tell if she just wasn’t talking to him or if she was processing the information. Finally she said, “I think it means that Dane Haley went through all the money. That he spent it all. That the funds were never restored, and that what I thought was my trust fund actually comes from Caleb, not from my mother’s inheritance.” “That’s right.” “So I’ve been paying back his investment in the Carter House with his own money, is that it?” “I can see why it might seem that way, but once Caleb gave the money to you, it was yours. So, while this may be a finer point than you want to put on it, the money was no longer his and you were in fact, paying him back with your money.” She was silent. The winds had calmed. Sunshine streamed in, making the room unbearably hot. Rafe decided she wasn’t going to go running off, and got up to open some windows, trying to shake off his own uncertainty. Something was missing here. All of this pointed to Caleb as, yet again, a local hero. Or at the very
least, Libby’s hero. He reached under the wet bar and pulled out two bottles of water and handed one to Libby. “Take me through what you know about the colony.” “Is this really necessary?” “Yes. You could be helping Caleb a lot. Tell me what you know.” He winced a little at his intentional misrepresentation. He was looking for something that would discredit Caleb. It was something he was beginning to dislike having to do. “I was away at college, so I only know what my mother told me. She was deeply involved with Caleb by this time and was planning to leave it.” Rafe interrupted her. “No, I mean start at the beginning. How did your parents end up at the nudist colony in the first place? Was it an existing colony, or did they help build it?” Libby sat back. “Things were tough. My dad was a bouncer. My mom dropped out of college because she was pregnant with me, and because her parents had cut her off. But once they learned my mom was pregnant, they relented and gave her an allowance. About a year later, when she turned twenty-one, she came into her inheritance. I don’t know all the details. One day they met Dane Haley through some college friends of my mom’s. They hit it off and it wasn’t long before they were tight. “Dane was always pitching the idea of a nudist colony. It appealed to my parents—it appealed to a lot of people back then. When Dane approached them about a property that was up for auction, my mom agreed to use some of her inheritance to help him buy it. Neither of my parents understood that this made them part owners in the ranch. Even if they had understood, they would have rejected any acknowledgement of ownership as
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materialistic. The colony’s philosophy was that no one owned anything. It was all about sharing. Everything belonged to the universe.” She paused to take a drink. “Over time, Dane convinced my parents to turn management of the inheritance over to him. After my dad died, it was easier for Dane to take advantage of my mom. Eventually, he tried to get her to marry him. When she wouldn’t, he moved on to other women, and of course now it’s common knowledge that he spent their money, as well as my mother’s, quite recklessly.” She took another drink of water and stretched her legs out in front of her. Rafe caught them as he moved past and sat down next to her again, swinging her legs into his lap. Libby stiffened. He thought she would pull away. But she surprised him. She stretched out against the arm of the sofa, one shoulder entirely exposed. “The summer before I went off to college, Caleb and my mom started dating. He wasn’t comfortable with her living at the colony. Eventually she moved to the ranch and lived here until they went their separate ways. She rented a room in town, and when she was too sick to care for herself, she called and asked me to come home. That’s when I realized she was broke.” Libby swiped her hand across her face to catch a tear. Rafe gently removed her sandals and began to massage her feet. He expected her to object at any moment, but until she did, he was going to keep finding ways to touch her. “I asked Caleb to help me look into the possible mismanagement of her inheritance, and he got John Canfield involved. It took nearly three years, long after my mother died. Restitution was made to three women—
me included, or so I thought. The colony disbanded, the ranch was sold, and Dane Haley went to prison.” He’d been watching Libby closely. There was no doubt in his mind that she was being truthful and believed every single word she’d said. The time had come. The only way to protect such innocence was to tell her at least part of who he was. “Caleb told you he’s had me investigated?” “You knew about that?” “I’ll take that as a yes. Has he told you what he found?” “A little.” “You used the term ‘litigation technique’ so you know I’m a lawyer?” She stared into his eyes. He felt his soul churn. “Why wouldn’t you just tell me that? Why would you want me to think you’re just another drifting cowboy?” “Elle, I’ll tell you everything as soon as it’s safe. Do you understand that this document says Caleb is responsible for restoring funds to the other two women, as well?” “But why would he do that?” Rafe shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s easy to understand why he took care of you, but why he helped the other two women isn’t clear. What is clear is that Dane Haley not only stole the money, he spent it as well. He went to prison, but no matter what they ordered him to do, he had no ability to make restitution. So Caleb did it.” He moved his hands up to her calves. They were warm and firm and made him want to touch more than just her calves. “Why are you really here, Rafe?” “Because I’m investigating Caleb.”
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“What for?” He shook his head. “I’ve already told you more than I should have.” “But you think he’s done something bad.” “Many things.” “A moment ago you said it wasn’t clear why Caleb made restitution to the other two women. You think he was somehow involved?” “No, I don’t think he was involved with Haley in any way. I just don’t see a clear motive for giving money away to those women. It’s the kind of thing people will do when they want to launder money or involve someone in an investment scheme.” “Would it surprise you to learn that, about seven years ago, he deeded back the land to every local rancher whose paper he held? Against the advice of counsel?” “I knew about that.” He moved to the soft space behind her knees, kneading gently. “Did you find any motive there?” Rafe shook his head. “No. It appears he was simply doing an uncommonly kind thing.” Libby slapped her hand over his and pulled her legs away. “Stop that and tell me what you’re investigating him for.” “If I could, I would, Elle.” “What’s to stop me from telling Caleb what you’re up to?” “I’m pretty sure he already knows. I wish you wouldn’t though. If he’s who we think he is, the longer he thinks you’re ignorant about it, the better.” “Are you trying to frighten me?” Rafe pulled her legs back over his and held them. “No. But there is something I’m trying to do.”
“Not so fast, mister. How do I know you’re investigating him? And, even if you are, how do I know your investigation is legitimate?” “He’s been under FBI investigation for nearly two years.” She looked like she’d been punched in the stomach. “I’m sorry. That’s all I can tell you.” “But this is ridiculous. He’s a difficult man—even ruthless at times. But a crook? I don’t believe it. Do you believe it, Rafe?” “I did believe it before I knew him, yes. Now, I honestly don’t know.” “The things you can’t tell me, is there a lot?” He nodded. A tear slipped, and Libby swiped at it with her hand. There was no more waiting. He shifted his position and leaned over her. “I could lose my job and possibly even go to prison for sharing with you the things I’ve told you today. It’s the best I can do to let you know I am not the bad guy. You can trust me to watch out for you.” “This is what you meant by a collision course.” He nodded again. And because there was no more waiting, he kissed her. She kissed him back with such urgency that he knew he was close to losing control. He was angry about only telling her half the truth. Angry about the things she didn’t know. The things he didn’t even know for sure, yet. So angry, he needed her. He pushed the side of her top that kept slipping off her shoulder farther down and caressed her bare flesh. She had to be the sexiest woman he’d ever met. He freed her breast and lowered his lips seeking both comfort and release.
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Her hands locked into his hair and held his head in place. He couldn’t get enough of the way she felt in his mouth, the way she was both erect and soft. He swirled his tongue, stopping just long enough to free her other breast and take it into his mouth. He was dimly aware that things were backward. He should probably be comforting her. But she seemed to understand that, in this moment, there was no more waiting—there was simply no force in the world that could keep them apart. He eased her out of her shorts, and then stood to take his clothes off. When he dropped his jeans, she sat up and took him into her mouth, pulling at him in a soft, ebbing motion. Her mouth felt warm and snug like a second skin. Beguiling. She drew him in deeper and would not stop, even when he warned her. He tried to withdraw, but she took him even then. Afterward she licked him the way she might the tip of an ice cream cone. Her acceptance of his body was so complete, he was nearly undone. In that moment, he realized for the first time what it was like to be loved without expectation. To be loved even though she knew he was going to hurt her. What was she doing to him? Worse, what was he doing to her? He knelt down between her legs and kissed the inside of her thighs until he found her center. He smiled, remembering what it was like to watch her at the edge of the waterfall that first day. He spread her the way he’d wanted to every moment since he first saw her—the way he’d only been able to a few times—and stroked her with his tongue until she begged him for more. He covered her with his mouth and drew her out over and over, rocking her as she mewled. When at last she quieted, he picked
her up and carried her into the bedroom, kicking the door closed behind them.
He awoke, tangled in gold, her back pressed into his chest. His arms still encircled her as though he had just caught her after a chase. Soon enough, he would have to let her go. Again. Each time he let her go, he faced the possibility that they might not find their way back to each other. He thought it was hard the first time, but it had been nothing compared to this. His body stirred. He needed her one more time before all hell broke loose. He found his way inside where, lost in the instinctual movement of their bodies, he could forget that he hadn’t told her the worst of it. He’d told her the part that might damn Caleb, but he’d withheld what would surely damn him. Not yet awake, her body answered, innocent and without fear. Like a lamb to slaughter. Her voice eased out low. “None of this changes the fact that I’m going to tell Caleb what you’ve told me.” He sighed and stopped. “I knew you would.” She pulled away. The loss of her was so great, he shivered. But she didn’t leave him. She rolled him onto his back and reclaimed his body, riding him deep and slow. Every stroke nearly forced a confession.
Paulie clicked the stopwatch. “About the same as last time. You’ve both improved—especially Miss Liberty. She’s not missing anymore, and she’s faster than you.”
Rafe looked unconvinced. “Really, because it felt like my last throw was pretty fast.” Paulie scratched his head. “Watch says it wasn’t no faster than the time before. She’s faster’n you, all right. But she can’t hold the steer back.” “Oh for crying out loud,” Libby stomped her foot. “I’m right here. Stop talking about me like I’m not here.” Paulie grinned. “It’s just that you get a mite worked up when I tell you that you ain’t holding the steer good enough. He keeps gettin’ away from you.” She looked back and forth between Paulie and Rafe, sweat pooling between her breasts. They’d never get their timing right if they couldn’t even decide who was doing what. But it wasn’t just that. They couldn’t agree on which horses to use, their own or rodeo stock. They couldn’t agree on other things, too, like when they were going to practice, or how long they were going to practice. When to take a break, or who was the best person to coach them. Still, Libby knew none of these things was really the problem. The problem was that they didn’t trust each other. Libby pulled her hat low. The brim shaded her eyes just enough so that she couldn’t see Rafe’s face. “That’s a wrap for me.” “What? But we still have a lot of work to do.” “Not today.” She could feel him watching her as she headed for the house. She couldn’t get inside fast enough, and slammed the door behind her. Caleb called from his study, “How’d it go? Getting any better?” She didn’t answer him and headed straight for the shower. They’d been at this for a week now, and instead of getting better, they were getting worse. Libby stood
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under the showerhead and let the water drench her body. She missed him. She missed him so much that at times she was on the verge of tears. This was a new experience for her and not one she was enjoying. Alone in the shower, she finally let them go. But the water could only wash away her tears. It did nothing to ease the ache. Caleb was waiting for her when she emerged. “Things aren’t improving, I take it.” “No. I think it’s time to admit this was a bad idea and drop it.” “Quit, you mean.” “I suppose I do.” “Why do you think it’s going so badly?” She sat back and willed herself to be patient. “We don’t agree on anything. We can’t get our timing right. We can’t keep the steer between us long enough for either one of us to rope it.” “That’s not what I mean. I know it’s not working because the two of you can’t agree on anything. I want to know why you can’t agree on anything.” “We don’t trust each other.” “Yes, and that was the whole point.” “Well it’s not working.” “Because you informed on Rafe?” “He knew I was going to tell you. I told him I would.” “So, you think the problem is that you didn’t choose him over me?” “Yes.” He looked disappointed. “Liberty, the real problem is that you had to choose one of us over the other. You shouldn’t have had to do that. I’m sorry it’s come to this.” He paused to consider her. “Your loyalty to me is
admirable. But stop and think for a moment. You told me what you learned about Rafe because you were afraid for me. You would only be afraid for me if you thought I was guilty. If I wasn’t guilty, Rafe could poke around all he wanted and it wouldn’t matter in the least. He knows now that your loyalty to me is so strong, it includes protecting me, even if you think I’ve done something wrong.” “But I don’t! I don’t think you’ve done anything wrong.” “Liberty, why do you think I let him stick around when I know what he’s up to?” “Because of me.” “Yes. And because anything he finds out might be of help.” “I don’t understand.” “And you don’t need to. Not now, anyway.” This was so like Caleb, to draw her in and then shut the door. She was almost used to it. “I’m going to withdraw us from the competition.” “Really?” He stared hard into her eyes. She knew that look. This was a battle of wills. He was exercising control. “Is it that important to you?” “Isn’t it to you?” She knew they weren’t talking about the event anymore. Caleb chuckled. “My advice is to let Rafe be the header.” She stomped her foot. “I will not. That gives him far too much control.” “Rafe is physically stronger than you are. Let him do the heavy lifting. You’re faster than he is. As a heeler, you’re the one who gets the job done. It takes less muscle,
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greater speed and, some would argue, more fluidity. If the two of you take advantage of your natural abilities, you’ll find the balance you’re looking for.” He stopped to shrug. “That’s the way it works in business, anyway. I’m probably not the most qualified to be a relationship coach.” He was looking tired again. His last report from the doctor was as disappointing as all the others. The disease was progressing. She leaned in and kissed his cheek, then offered her arm. “Come on. I’m starving. Let’s get some lunch.” Caleb seemed much revived after the meal and asked Libby to go riding with him. “Really? Are you sure you’re up to it?” “Only one way to find out. Call Digger, will you? Have him saddle King. Tell him to pack a rifle. I suppose you’re going to ride that untrustworthy mustang of yours?” He gave her a half-smile. “You worried we’re going to run into a cougar?” “We’re going to run into something.” He might have been joking, but he almost sounded resigned. Caleb was given to mood swings these days. Or perhaps it was just that she had only known him to have one persona: that of an unstoppable force. These days he was almost tender, and when he was able to corral his patience, he was an insightful teacher. Digger helped him mount King. Caleb pulled the rifle out of the scabbard and checked it. He nodded. To Libby he said, “Let’s go.” At Libby’s insistence, they walked their horses until she was convinced he could handle his seat. To her immense surprise, the man seemed to come alive in the saddle. It reminded her of those days so many summers
ago when he’d taught her to ride. To look at him now, she’d never know he was sick. “Where do you want to ride? Did you have any place in mind?” Caleb smiled. “I do. Have you ever been to Turtle Rock?” She shook her head. “I haven’t been there in more than thirty years.” “I’ve never heard of it. What is it?” “Prettiest little lake you’ve ever seen. There’s a flat rock right next to a waterfall about three feet high. The lake is fed by cold springs, so even in this heat, parts of it would be icy cold.” Libby smiled. “I think I’ve been there.” “Yes?” “If it’s the place I’m thinking of, I taught Rafe to swim there.” “You taught that boy to swim?” He looked at her meaningfully. She laughed outright. “I see your point. You think that if I can teach him to swim, I can find a way to work out our team roping issues.” He smiled, but said nothing. She could tell he was exhausted and trying not to show it by the time they arrived. She did her best not to fuss over him and pulled a lap blanket from her pack. Digger must have put it there just in case. Caleb stretched out under one of the giant oaks, his hands clasped behind his neck. “I’ve missed this. It was our favorite.” His voice had a dreamy quality. She sat cross-legged next to him and listened.
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“It was 1971. I was fifteen. She was fourteen. She came here for the summer all the way from Escalante, Utah to visit cousins who had hired out at one of the local ranches. Ten of them living in a two-room shack up by the old mine. It was criminal. “She had black hair about as long as yours, always curling wildly. Her eyes were hypnotic, even at fourteen. First time I saw her, I fell in love with her.” He was quiet for a while. Finally he turned to Libby. “You caught me completely by surprise earlier when you brought up Ariela. Every day for thirty-three years I have tried to stop thinking about her. When I was a much younger man, I vowed I would never again say her name—that I would go to my grave without ever speaking of her again. But watching you and Rafe so much in love, I can’t stop thinking about her. Remembering her. Wondering what happened to her. What it would be like if things had been different.” Libby considered objecting to his statement that she and Rafe were in love, but Caleb started to talk again. “We were too young to date. Even if we’d been old enough, my mother and father would never have allowed it. She could have had all the money in the world, and they wouldn’t have allowed it because she was part Ute, part Hispanic. So we met here as often as we could. Took me all summer to get up enough nerve to kiss her. I thought I would die from the want of her. She was so natural about her beauty—like you are, Liberty.” He shot her a sideways glance. “I hope I’m not embarrassing you, talking like this.” Libby wasn’t at all embarrassed. “For some reason, I’m compelled to tell you about her and I can’t for the life of me understand why. She
loved the water. Swam like a fish. The first time I saw her naked I could only stare. Swimming has never been quite the same since.” He smiled at Libby, his eyes distant with soft memories. “I wanted to run away with her then, but she wouldn’t. When she went back to Escalante at the end of the summer, I’d made up my mind to follow her. My father found out and packed me off to military school where he thought I’d forget about her. I lived for only one thing. To see her again the following summer. But she didn’t come. Later I found out that my father had paid her family to keep her at home.” Caleb paused and looked at Libby. “Why don’t you check my saddlebag? Pretty sure there’s a flask there. And bring the rifle.” Libby thought about all the reasons he shouldn’t be drinking, but said nothing. He took a swig and closed his eyes. “Three years later, I heard she was back. I’d just turned eighteen. I waited for her here every day. Finally she came, as I knew she would. She took my breath away. I thought she was a goddess. I ripped my clothes off and jumped into the water. She hesitated and I’m embarrassed to say I begged her. She unbuttoned her blouse. Her movements mesmerized me. When she was naked, she stood in the sun and held her arms out, letting me see her. Finally she came to me. We swam together to the rock…and that was my first time.” He looked at Libby. “You must think me a romantic fool.” “I’m delighted to say that I do, yes.” She grinned. “What happened next?” Caleb’s face darkened. “We spent most of the summer meeting secretly. I thought my father didn’t know until he sat me down one day and told me it was fine to
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cavort with a woman like Ariela, but if I had any serious ideas about her, I could forget them. He would disinherit me if I thought I was going to marry her. I was furious. We ran away within the week and got married.” Caleb paused. “We were gone a month. I was pretty sure my father would change his mind. I was his only son. I didn’t think he’d really disinherit his only son. It would have meant the end of the Hamilton bloodline. He didn’t want to be responsible for that.” Caleb paused. “Instead, I am.” He looked at Libby. “I regret not having children. Don’t make that same mistake, Liberty. You and Rafe would make a fine family together.” He took another swig. “When we returned, Mother smoothed things over with Father and everything settled down. My father took me into the business and started training me, then talked me into going off to college. He wouldn’t allow Ariela to come with me. Said she’d just be a distraction. Assured me they would take good care of her. I came home as often as I could, about once every two months. Each time I came home, I could tell she was growing more and more unhappy. Discontent might be a better word. She was restless. She and my parents didn’t get along the best. I thought she wasn’t trying hard enough. Things got better when I came home for the summer, except that my parents were never comfortable about the fact that ours was what they called a ‘mixed marriage.’ Things are so different today. But then, well, it was difficult. They kept Ariela quite cloistered.” He shifted his body and closed his eyes. She thought he’d dropped off when he picked up the story again. “It was all I could do to go back to school at the end of that summer. The only way I managed to pull myself away from Ariela was to tell myself that I had a plan. I
was going to carry a double class load and finish early. But once I was back at school, I became so immersed in my studies, I didn’t make time for her the way I should have. I loved school, and I loved her more, but I was torn. She accused me of having two lovers. In a way she was right. Military school had shut me down, but college opened me up to rich new ideas. Especially about business. I came home less and less often that year because I had to choose. I decided that school couldn’t wait. Ariela, on the other hand, was my wife. It was her duty to understand, and to wait. Do you remember when I said that time is our most valuable commodity, yet it’s what we gamble with the most? That’s what I did. I thought Ariela and I had the rest of our lives.” “But it was reasonable to think that, Caleb.” Caleb half raised up on one arm. “No, Liberty. You’re missing the point. Our actions need to align with our priorities. Ariela was the most important thing in my life. But she wasn’t my priority. I kept telling myself she could wait—we could wait. I neglected her. I knew she was unhappy and uncomfortable living with my parents. I just expected her to wait while I got my life in order. I gambled with time, and lost. The sad thing is that I didn’t even know I was gambling.” His outburst robbed him of energy. He was quiet for several minutes. Finally, he continued. “I hadn’t been home for three months. Then, just after finals when I was packing to come home, I got a call from my father. It was unusual for him to call long distance like that. I knew it was bad. At first I thought he was talking about Mother because he kept saying ‘she’ this and ‘she’ that. Eventually I came to understand that Ariela had…”
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Caleb’s voice broke. His eyes were tightly closed, but Libby saw the moisture collect. When he spoke again, his voice was studded with torment. “She—Ariela ran off with a ranch hand. I never heard from her or saw her again.” He broke into a whisper. “I felt something inside me break and snap off that day.” He paused to drink. “The year after she ran off, my father helped me have the marriage annulled, and we never spoke about it again. I’ve thought about her every day since then, but I never said her name from that day to this. Not even when I received a registered letter in 1991 informing me that she’d died. Apparently she requested that I be notified upon her death. She was thirty-six.” Libby took the flask from Caleb and swallowed long, then gave it back. “After the annulment, I threw myself into business. Nearly nine years passed, during which I had no interest of ever marrying again. Finally, my parents grew tired of waiting and arranged for me to meet Jane. Although she was five years older, they thought she was a good match. Accomplished, good family, Caucasian.” He glanced at Libby. “I never should have married her. There was no room in my heart for anyone, and certainly not a wife. She told me frequently that I’d made her life hell, and I probably did. Not intentionally. But I can’t deny that, three times in my life, I unintentionally hurt women who loved me because I was too selfinvolved.” He sighed. “I should have married your mother, Liberty. I loved her deeply. She was the only other woman I ever loved. But I felt so guilty about Ariela and Jane, I refused to marry again. I was so convinced it
would be as disastrous as my first two marriages. I couldn’t face another failure like that. “She left me when she learned how sick she was. She couldn’t believe that I loved her enough to take care of her. That I’d want her around even if she was sick. Since I wouldn’t marry her, she thought that meant I didn’t love her. I didn’t find out until very late in her illness that she was sick. I’m sorry, Liberty. I failed your mother, and it was all so avoidable.” They each took a pull on the flask. A crane swooped in low and landed on the flat rock. The sound of water falling over water was the only accompaniment to the heartache each felt. Finally Libby asked, “What was Ariela’s last name?” Caleb sighed. “Cabrerras. Ariela Lucia De Avila Cabrerras.” Libby drew a sharp intake of breath. “Yes, Liberty. And now you’re thinking the same thing I’ve been thinking for the last four months. Rafe is very likely the son of Ariela and that ranch hand she ran off with—Rodriguez. He bears a strong resemblance to her. I suppose the bastard got her pregnant and wouldn’t marry her, and that’s why he has his mother’s last name. Sometimes I look at him and can’t stop myself from thinking that he could have been mine.” Suddenly, Marengo brayed and began to paw the ground. Caleb jerked up, rifle cocked. Aramis burst through the trees. A cougar leaped. Caleb fired. The cougar flopped to the ground and then struggled to get up. Libby heard a second shot. It hadn’t come from Caleb’s rifle. For an instant, she was afraid. Had someone been tracking them? Rafe trotted into view, rifle still trained on the cat.
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“Everyone okay?” “All but the cougar,” Caleb replied. Rafe leaned over the cat’s lifeless body. “Nice shot.” “Yes, but it was your shot that finished him off.” Rafe shook his head. “Naw. He wouldn’t have made it more than another few seconds. You got him through the heart. A clean kill.” “Nothing about a kill is ever clean, my boy.”
Rafe pulled out his cell phone. “Yeah, they’re here. You were right. We’ll meet you at the south access road.” Libby watched as Rafe helped a very pale Caleb back onto his horse. He never even once looked at her. They walked their horses about a quarter of a mile, where Digger waited for them at the old access road. Libby was angry with herself. Her instincts had warned her that an outing like this would be too much for Caleb. But instead of listening to them, she’d given in to the urge to please him—to give him the opportunity to take what might be his last ride. It was understandable, but at the very least, she should have asked Rafe to come with them. Still, if Rafe had come along she would never have learned about Ariela. She caught herself, instantly contrite that she might, even for a moment, value what she’d learned about Ariela—and Rafe—over Caleb’s health. Libby hung in Caleb’s doorway until Gabby shooed her away. “And take that tall drink of water with you.” The nurse gave Rafe a swat and closed the door behind them. Libby hooked her thumbs into the waistband of her jeans. “I’m going to wait here until she’s done, just to make sure he’s okay. He’s probably way overdue for his meds.” Rafe looked as though he could barely contain himself. “Elle, what were you thinking? Were you thinking at all?”
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She couldn’t believe her ears. He was angry? This— this—imposter was angry? She felt herself come unleashed. “What was I thinking? What were you thinking? What are you thinking, Rafe? Did you think we wouldn’t figure it out? I might not have, but did you take Caleb for that much of a fool?” Rafe’s jaw ticked. They stared at each other. Libby felt her entire body quiver. He was stiff in his reply. “I don’t know what you mean.” “Were you ever going to tell me that you’re Ariela’s son?” She watched as Rafe paled. “It must have been a riot for you, listening to Luna and watching me try to work out the clues. What possible reason could you have for hiding the truth like that? Unless you’re on some kind of a misguided revenge mission.” Rafe appeared to be frozen in place. He didn’t even blink. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why you’re investigating Caleb—to see what kind of dirt you can dig up. I wanted to think well of you, Rafe. I wanted to believe that maybe you were trying to clear him.” “I hadn’t intended for you to learn about it this way—” “But what could you possibly hope to gain by taking your anger out on Caleb? Why aren’t you targeting someone who deserves it—like that Rodriguez character!” “Who?” “Well I don’t know his name. Rodriguez—your father. You know, the ranch hand Ariela ran away with while Caleb was at college.” Libby was so angry she
wanted to slap him. Why did he just stand there? Had it really never occurred to him that he would be found out? Caleb said Rafe looked a lot like Ariela. That alone would probably have been enough for Caleb to suspect who he was. “So tell me, Rafe. Do you still have family hiring out at one of the local ranches? And is Rodriguez your daddy’s first name or last name?” Rafe opened his mouth several times but never uttered a word. Finally, he turned and walked away.
He had to get out of there before he said anything else. His impulse to argue with her was so great that he knew it meant he was out of control. Besides, he had to think. Decide what to do next. He strode out into the evening where he could enjoy a cigarette in peace, and then kicked the fence when he remembered he’d run out of smokes weeks ago. He stormed to the barn to borrow a pack from Paulie, then sat out on one of the corral fences as the sun dipped below the horizon, smoking and brooding. His stomach rumbled. They’d been just about to sit down to eat when he had realized Libby and Caleb weren’t around. Digger confirmed they’d rode out around three but didn’t know where they were going. Rafe panicked. They could be anywhere. Caleb hadn’t been on a horse since before the storm. Digger assured him that Caleb had taken a rifle but that information did little to comfort him. Rafe’s phone buzzed with a text from Libby. Caleb’s hungry. Meet in dining rm. Rafe nearly snarled. He couldn’t remember ever feeling this trapped. He snuffed
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out his cigarette, tipped his hat low and slunk off into the night, Aramis at his heels. “Go home.” The dog continued to trot at his heel. “Go home, boy.” Aramis ignored him. Rafe swatted lightly at the dog’s rear. “Go on. Get out of here!” Aramis moved out of reach but kept pace with him. “Oh, dammit to hell.” Rafe reversed direction and headed toward the house. He didn’t know what was coming. He didn’t have a plan. He was walking into this blind. Everything he’d ever learned told him this was foolish, even reckless. Yet all it had taken was Libby’s dog to convince him to set aside caution and send him trotting back to her—trotting back to them both. Caleb and Libby were seated at the dining room table waiting for him when he strolled in, a determinedly casual look on his face. Caleb looked tired, but considerably better than before. “Have a seat, my boy. I’m hungry and I understand you waited dinner for us. Let’s eat.” No one mentioned anything about his parents. Rafe wondered if Caleb was toying with him. If perhaps he was toying with both of them. It was the longest meal Rafe could remember. Between the gazpacho, the salad, the roasted fish, and dessert, he kept expecting one or both of them to bring it up. But neither did. When the meal was over, Caleb said, “I’d like both of you to come into my study.” When they were comfortably settled, Caleb said, “I think it’s time the three of us talk about you, Rafe. Who you are and why you’re here.”
Rafe did his best to appear amiable, but his insides were churning. Caleb Hamilton was either the coldest bastard he’d ever met or—Rafe wouldn’t let himself finish the thought. “I’ll start. It might make it easier. The first time I saw you, I noticed the resemblance. When you told me your last name was Cabrerras I felt like a horse had kicked me. Do you remember what I did next?” “You covered your face with a napkin and asked me if ‘Rafe’ was short for something.” “And you said it was short for Raphael.” Rafe nodded. “Raphael is the name your mother and I had chosen for our son, if we were ever lucky enough to have one. We used to talk about it all the time that first year we were married.” Rafe waited. “After thirty-three years, you’d think it wouldn’t matter to me that she took the name we’d chosen and used it to name the child she had with someone else.” Rafe was careful not to show any reaction. “Today I told Liberty about your mother, and that I’ve believed since the day I met you that you’re her son. I’ve been assuming that your father is Ramon Rodriguez, a ranch hand who worked briefly for my father. I don’t mean to be insulting. Perhaps it’s someone else.” “Why would you think that?” Caleb looked uncomfortable. “You’re right, of course. You have no obligation to tell me who your father is.” “You don’t know?” “I’m sorry. I don’t. I didn’t keep up with your mother after she left. I was tooI’m sorry, Rafe. I don’t want to
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say anything uncharitable about your mother. Suffice it to say that when she left, I never tried to find her. I regret having made that decision. I regret even more that every time I stopped to rethink it, stubbornness kept me from trying to contact her. From trying to make things right. But I was so devastated that she would run off with someone else.” “Run off…?” Rafe didn’t even know how to finish the sentence. “You didn’t know? This is exactly why I haven’t had this conversation with you, Rafe. I knew I would blunder.” Caleb appeared to be wholly unable to continue. “I think what Caleb is trying to say is that we’d like to know who your father is, if you want to tell us. If you’re looking for him, Caleb might be able to help you. And if you have questions for Caleb about his life with your mother before—before she left, he’s willing to tell you about it.” Rafe looked at them trying to figure out his next move. He couldn’t think clearly. He was trained to say nothing in circumstances like these. Finally he shrugged and muttered, “No, I’m good.” “Would you at least be willing to tell me how she died?” “Bad heart.” He could barely get the words out. Caleb nodded. “She was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, bar none.” Rafe stood up suddenly. “If that’s it, I’ve got work to do.” “Are you angry with me because I’m not your father? That I let your mother run off and didn’t try to work things out? Because believe me, Rafe, you would make any man proud to call you his son.”
Rafe moved blindly toward the door, digging in his shirt for a cigarette as he went. What had he been thinking, to come here like this?
“Go after him, Liberty.” Libby shook her head. “Go after him. Haven’t you learned anything from me? I told you about Ariela so that you won’t make the same mistake. Go after him. He needs you. You need each other.” She was adamant. “He doesn’t want me.” “Are you sure? Because that’s not what I see. He doesn’t want you like I didn’t want Ariela.” “It’s not the same at all.” “Do you love that boy?” “I’ve never been in love before. I can’t say for sure.” “Is he the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning?” She nodded. “And the last thing you think about just before you fall asleep at night?” She nodded again. “Does your heart leap when you see him? Do you catch yourself finding reasons—even foolish reasons—to be around him? Does he make you angrier than anyone you’ve ever known? Do you ache to be in his bed? Do you believe in him, even though you don’t know all the facts?” Caleb didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you’re in love with him.” He waited a moment to let his words sink in. “Do you realize that he could walk off tonight and you might never see him again? I promise you, there is nothing
bleaker than that. Go after him, or be an even bigger fool than I was.” Every word he said resonated so deeply with Libby, she knew she had to go after him. She kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Caleb. And for the record, I wish he were your son, too.” “If he were, you’d be disinherited.” She half-giggled over her shoulder, “I’d just have to marry him then.” She ran to her room and slipped into the white dress she’d worn that first night when they grilled steaks. There were so many unanswered questions. But tonight, she didn’t need answers. She just needed Rafe. And he needed her, whether he realized it or not. It wasn’t difficult to find him. He was sitting in the dark on the porch swing in back of the cottage. She sat down beside him. When he didn’t acknowledge her, she wrapped his arm around her shoulders and snuggled in. “He was just trying to help you feel comfortable about who you are, and that he doesn’t hold it against you that you’re the son he never had with the woman he loved most in the world. He thinks you felt like you had to hide it.” “Is that what you think, too?” She held his hand over her heart. “What I think doesn’t matter nearly as much as what I feel. You’re a good man, Rafe. The rest, whatever it is, are just details.” He seemed to consider this. She changed positions, choosing to face him and straddled his lap with her legs. She rubbed his shoulders. “I know you were angry with me for taking him out on a ride. You care for him, Rafe. Whatever war you have
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going on inside you about Caleb and your mother, it doesn’t change the fact that you care about him.” She smoothed the hair from his face and let the straps of her dress fall. When she knew she had his entire attention, she reached back and released her hair from its ponytail. She could feel his eyes follow her every movement. She unbuttoned the first three buttons of her dress and stopped, waiting to see what he would do. But he was a stubborn one and appeared to be satisfied to simply watch. She unbuttoned the rest of the buttons and let the dress fall around her. She took his hands and placed them on her hips. “Love me.” She felt him stir beneath her; yet he said nothing. She leaned into him and kissed his neck, just below his ear, then dipped to his mouth. He kissed her back and then stopped, waiting to see what she would do next. She inched back on his legs just enough to loosen his belt and open his jeans. When she had freed him, she eased herself over him, once again amazed at the way he filled her. When she was fully seated, she arranged her skirt around them, and her hair around her nakedness. She looked into his eyes. “I’m not moving again until you kiss me.” He made no move to kiss her. She gripped him with her pelvic muscles, but made no outward movement. His eyes closed and he let out his breath. She gripped him again, willing herself to do nothing more than that. His eyes opened. She smiled and waited. He didn’t move, but his eyes softened. She knew it was only a matter of moments. She gripped him over and over, but the man had amazing self-control. His body emulated a statue. When she
realized she wasn’t going to wear him down this way, she tried another tactic. “Alright then, if you’re not interested.” She began to lift herself up and was almost free of him when he pulled her back and held her fast. Her body seized from the movement. He began to rock the swing back and forth with his feet. The gentle swinging motion kept them both fully aroused. “Kiss me,” she whispered. “You kiss me.” She leaned forward and kissed him. He barely responded, making her do all the work. When she was about to give up, he gripped her firmly and plundered her mouth. She began to twist and moan, wanting only to feel him so completely rooted inside her. But he stopped her. “Be as still as you can for as long as you can.” He ran his hands over her shoulders, her back, and along her arms, all the while rocking the swing in a slight motion that nearly drove her wild. They rocked and held each other with their eyes long after the night bird’s song had finished and the bullfrogs had sung themselves out. Finally, he placed his hands under her and began to guide her up and down. “I’m the header,” he chanted. “And you’re the heeler. I have the brawn, you have the speed.” He grinned. “Say it with me. ‘Rafe is the header and Elle’s the heeler. Rafe has the brawn, Elle has the speed.’” She giggled and repeated it with him over and over until it became their mantra.
“Wake up sleepyhead.” He was lying on his stomach and didn’t move.
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She leaned over him to give him a kiss. “Wake up. It’s almost light and we have work to do.” He flipped onto his back and caught her to him, then rolled her over until she was pinned. “Do you know what happens to sassy women who wake me up?” He growled a little for effect. She grinned. “I know what you’d like to do. Now get off me and let’s get going.” “Are you sure that’s what you want?” “You’re the header, I’m the heeler. You have the brawn and I—” she broke out of his relaxed grip and leaped off the bed, standing just beyond his reach, “— have the speed.” He gave her a lazy, almost disinterested look. “I don’t need steer or horse. I can practice just as well with you.” He hooked his foot around the back of her knees. She fell forward. He caught her, turned her on her stomach and held her hands out flat against the bed. “See what I mean? Now that I have you immobilized, I can just turn you onto your left side like this, and pin you.” He held the length of her against him and folded his body into hers. “Now, where did I put that rope of mine?” She giggled. “You’re wasting time. Later you’ll find a way to blame me because we didn’t get enough practice in.” He silenced her with his mouth. “Bully.” It was all she could get out before he rolled over her with obvious intent. But she took advantage of his momentum and moved so fast, he rolled right off the bed. She danced out of the room fairly singing over her shoulder, “And that, my friend, is what you can do when
you have the speed of a heeler. See you out there in a few minutes.” It was a full ten minutes before he showed. She’d already saddled Marengo and was exercising him lightly in the purple light of pre-dawn. “You couldn’t bother to saddle my horse?” Her heart skipped. The man certainly had a wicked grin. She shook her head sadly. “This is the Wild West, son. There ain’t nobody here gonna do you any favors. You’re on your own.” “Sure that’s the stand you want to take?” She eyed him from her horse as he went about saddling Firenza. “I’m sure,” she said, deliberately baiting him. He swung up onto his horse and walked the mare over to Libby. “Even though this is a team sport?” His eyes were dangerous. “Well, I’ve had occasion to notice that you are exceptionally good at some team sports.” “Which ones in particular?” His eyes grew molten. “I could probably show you better than tell you.” “Show me now.” She used one hand to open a button. Then another. And another. Rafe’s eyes grew wide. And still another. When she had unbuttoned them all, she drew her shirt open just enough to tease him but not enough to let him see. “Well, I think you’re quite good at this.” She slid her hands up under her shirt and massaged herself. The movement caused her shirt to slip open. Libby held her hands over the very tips of her breasts. “What do you think, Rafe? Is this one of your stronger team sports?” She thought his eyes would pop out of his head. She let her
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hands drop and took her time about buttoning up. She was nearly done when he hooked her around the waist and dragged her onto his horse. She was facing him. The saddle horn pressed up against her spine. “Let’s see that again. I’m not positive yet that it’s a team sport. At least not the way you did it.” Libby smiled but made no move to open her shirt. “Do it again, Elle.” “I have a suggestion. You start at the top. I’ll start at the bottom. We can meet in the middle.” She undid her bottom button. Rafe grinned and opened her top button. Libby undid the next button up. Rafe opened the next button down. Marengo snorted and walked away in search of sweet grass. Firenza shifted her weight. When they met in the middle, Rafe’s hands closed over hers momentarily. Libby undid the final button. Rafe locked his hands behind her back and drew her close. “You’ve convinced me that this is a team sport.” He kissed her neck, her mouth and pushed her shirt open until his lips met bare skin. He was just about to take her into his mouth when they heard a screen door slam and Digger’s familiar whistle. Rafe positioned Firenza so that Libby’s back was toward the ranch and buttoned her up. “This might be a team sport, but I am the only member of your team. You are mine. I don’t intend to share you with others.” He double-checked to make sure he got all her buttons. “You’re making me crazy, Elle. I’m losing my mind over you.” She looked into his eyes and placed her hand on his heart. “It’s not your mind I’m after.” He kissed her and kneed Firenza over to Marengo. They practiced roping for two hours before going in to
breakfast. When they were done, Caleb was waiting for them. “You’re improving.” “I think so,” Rafe said. “You don’t know?” “We didn’t time it.” “But if you were to guess, what would you say?” Rafe looked at Libby. They conferred quietly and Libby said, “Maybe fifteen seconds.” Caleb smiled. “Toward the end there you were running between ten and twelve seconds. You need to get that closer to four seconds to win, but I want to commend you. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. Your timing is much improved. Teamwork is all about trust and timing. Nice job, both of you.”
No matter how much she objected, Libby couldn’t talk Caleb out of hosting the Labor Day annual ball. For as long as there had been a Labor Day ball, it had been hosted at the Hamilton ranch. Caleb would not allow it to be any different this year. “This is my last Labor Day ball, Liberty.” Despite her concern for Caleb, she found herself caught up in the planning and was quite distracted from her usual routine. Caleb was tiring more easily than ever, and Rafe was once again up to his mysterious ways, disappearing unexpectedly and at times keeping himself distant from her. But never for more than a day or two. And he never neglected his ranch responsibilities. Libby had just finished up with the Labor Day ball committee and was seeing her guests out, when she noticed the door to Caleb’s study was closed. Caleb always kept his door open unless he was meeting with someone, but she knew he was in his bedroom, napping. Libby made a mental note to check it out after everyone was gone. She walked outside with the group to wait for the valet to bring around the cars, when Rafe appeared. One of her guests caught sight of him. “My, my, Libby,” she murmured. “You been holdin’ out on us, hon? You got this kind of livestock on the place and none of us knew about it.” She licked her lips and nearly purred. Her eyes narrowed to slits, like a cougar’s when stalking prey. Libby couldn’t get them out of there fast enough.
“I’m going, I’m going,” the woman giggled. “But you can’t hide a man like that for long, now that we all know about him!” Later, when Libby went to check out Caleb’s study, she found the door open. But Caleb was still sleeping, so he hadn’t been the one to close it. She looked for Indigo. “Were you using Caleb’s study for any reason this morning?” “No, Miss.” “Did you see anyone go in there?” “Only Mr. Rafe.” “You saw Rafe go in there?” “Yes, miss.” “Was he in there long?” “I couldn’t say, miss. Mr. Caleb was calling for me.” “Wasn’t Caleb napping?” “Yes, Miss. But he needed help.” “And was Rafe still in the study when you got back?” “I never came back. I spent most of the morning in Mr. Caleb’s room. In case he needed me again.” “Thank you, Indigo. Just one more question. When you saw Rafe go into the study, did he close the door behind him?” “Yes, miss.” Libby got ready to meet Rafe for another roping practice before lunch. They’d shortened their average time to seven seconds. Rafe was hoping to shave another two seconds off, maybe three. The sun was high. Usually they practiced at sunrise when the air was cooler. But their event was scheduled for early afternoon. It was time they practiced in the heat. Rafe had taken his shirt off. She wished she could do the same.
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He gave her a smile when she took her place opposite him, separated by about four feet of open corral. “I see you took your shirt off,” she said. He grinned. “You could, too.” “Would you care to dare me?” He grinned and waited, calling her bluff. She gave him a lazy smile and crossed her arms at her waist to take off her t-shirt. Rafe brought Firenza down on them before she could show more than her midriff and yanked her shirt down. “Dammit, Elle, some things aren’t funny. It was all in fun. You took it too far.” His face was dark. “I wasn’t trying to be funny. I’m hot—and I called your bluff. If you can take your shirt off, I figure I can do the same.” “Stop it, Elle. This isn’t a little pre-daylight fun. The boys are all around, and I’ve got Digger lined up to help us today. He’s coming out here any second—see, there he is.” “You’d care whether they see me naked or not?” She’d never seen him this way. “Of course I’d care. You don’t—” He tried again, “You can’t have the kind of freedom here that you’re used to at the inn.” “Oh, I don’t think they’ll mind.” She started to lift her T-shirt again. Rafe yanked it down so hard, she thought it was going to rip. “But I do care. I told you once, I’m the only player on your team.” “Really? Because how would I know that? Seems to me like you’re not on my team at all—seems you’re playing pretty hard and fast for another team. What were you doing in Caleb’s study today, anyway? I know you
were in there, and I know you didn’t have his permission, or you wouldn’t have had to close the door.” She felt herself growing more and more angry. It made her reckless. “Are you accusing me of something?” She eyed him. “Should I be?” “Anything I say will only sound like an excuse.” She crossed her arms. “Try me.” “No, Elle. I don’t think I will.” Libby didn’t know what to do next. Confused, she tried to ride off, but Rafe was too fast for her. He caught Marengo’s reins and pulled the horse close, talking low. Marengo bobbed his head up and down, as if in agreement. Rafe slid from Firenza and mounted Marengo, seating himself snugly behind Libby. He circled one arm around her waist and raised an arm to Digger. “We’ll be back in a few minutes. Take a break.” Digger hollered back, “I can’t take no break from somethun I ain’t started yet.” They cantered off toward a grove with enough foliage to give them some privacy. As they rode, Rafe slipped his hands under her shirt. At first he simply held her close, his arms just above her waist. When they reached the grove, he slipped her T-shirt off and covered her breasts with his hands. She loved the feel of her back against his chest, and the way his hands touched her body with reverent hunger. He spoke low into her ear. “I love you.” She turned her face to the side to better see him. He kissed her. “I love you,” he said again. “This is not the right time or place to tell you. Nothing has changed, Elle. We’re still on a collision course. If things turn out the way
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I think they will, you’ll hate me. But I am in love with you.” “Then couldn’t you stop right now? Couldn’t you stop and let things be?” “No.” She started to slap at his thighs. “Why? Why can’t you just let him alone? He’s going to die anyway. And you and I—you and I—” “You and I, what?” “We could go on like this.” “I don’t want to go on like this. I have a life, Elle. I need to get on with it. We both need to get on with it. Every day that we’re caught in this web is another day that I fall deeper in love with the woman who’ll be hurt the most because of it. And when that happens, she—you won’t be able to understand that whatever my goal once was, now it’s all about protecting you.” “Then stop. Stop now.” She began to cry. “Please, Rafe, stop it now.” “I can’t.” “You were in his study today, weren’t you. Did you finally get into the safe? I know that’s what you’ve been after all this time. You finally found a moment when no one was watching, is that it, and broke into his safe—” “I didn’t break in. He gave me the combination.” “He what?” She pivoted her body. Rafe pulled her legs up over his and looked into her eyes. “See, you think he’s guilty, too. Otherwise you wouldn’t keep trying to protect him. But, Elle, he’s not even trying to protect himself any more. He’s given me full access to all his private records, including the combination to his safe. Told me he’d agree to let me see what’s in the safety deposit box as well, if I wanted. He
hasn’t left the house, and no one else has access to it, so I know he hasn’t had a chance to cover anything up. I’ve never seen anything like it. I honestly think he wants me to get the job done before he goes, so that it won’t all come down on you.” They stared into each others’ eyes. Finally she said, “Tell me again.” “I love you.” She began to cry. He pulled her up against his chest. She felt her tears run in rivulets over the softly matted dark hair. “I love you, Elle. I’ve never said that to a woman before. I thought it was because I never had the time to fall in love. Now I realize it has nothing to do with time at all. It’s because I hadn’t met you.” He rocked her in his arms until she was quiet. When she pulled away, he slid her shirt back on. He held her face with both hands and looked into her eyes. “No matter what else happens, I love you.” He turned her forward on Marengo once more. At the sound of his command, Marengo walked out of the grove toward the corral. Rafe wrapped both his arms around her waist. “Want to skip practice?” She shook her head. “No. I want to slice another second off our time.” Rafe whistled for Firenza and then called to Digger. They took their places once again, side-by-side, separated by about four feet of open corral. Rafe gave the order, “Let ’im go.” Digger released the steer. It raced out into the corral throwing giant clods of dirt. Rafe’s rope caught him in a clean horn catch around both horns. With lightning speed and precision, he took a dally wrapping the rope twice
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around his saddle, careful not to catch his fingers in the rope, and then turned Firenza to the left. The steer veered left. It was Libby’s turn to throw her loop under the running steer’s hind legs. She threw and caught his heels, then dallied tight. They backed their horses up until the steer was stretched. “Time!” Libby called. “5.3 seconds.” They stayed at it until they ran out of fresh steers and their time was down to 4.8 seconds. Libby dropped from Marengo’s back, and patted the stallion’s hindquarters. “You’re a champ!” She walked him over to Paulie, who handed her an apple. She fed it to Marengo, gave the reins to Paulie, and slipped away before Rafe was finished seeing to Firenza. She drew a bath and sank into the bubbles. I love you, Elle. She heard it over and over. Never once had she thought to doubt him. Now, alone in her bath, she wondered who was going to end up being the bad guy. Rafe or Caleb.
Rafe had been over it and over it until his eyes were so bleary he was nearly blind. He’d spent more than a week wading through Hamilton’s paperwork and computer records on C corporations, S corporations and LLCs, general partnerships and limited partnerships, and more than a dozen sole proprietorships. Everything was there. Every tax return, every addendum, every signature, every legal document, every line item—everything. All investments were aligned under the corresponding business entity and/or personal accounts. It was exceedingly complex, beyond anything Rafe had ever seen. The man was brilliant. It was suspicious as hell. No one could be this brilliant. But there was nothing out of place. He had to be missing something. No one was this clean. The sheer complexity of Caleb’s business holdings alone would make it almost impossible for there not to be at least innocent mistakes. But Rafe couldn’t even find evidence of that. When he was unable to discover anything, he decided to bring in Caleb’s attorneys and CPAs and make them go through everything, item by item, company by company, investment by investment. But there were no discrepancies between their records and Caleb’s records. Rafe sat back wondering if it could be true, fighting with himself as he always did. Half of him wanted to nail Caleb’s ass. The other half of him desperately wanted
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Caleb to be exonerated. He stood up and poured himself a Scotch. Caleb had the best single malt. He closed his eyes, trying to determine his next move. Trying to remember how he got into this in the first place, two years ago.
“But why me?” Rafe looked into the face of Carson Tillers, an old buddy from his college days who was now a profiler for the FBI. “Because you’re restless. The big wins all feel the same these days, don’t they? Doesn’t have the same rush it used to, am I right?” He was right, but Rafe wasn’t about to admit it. “You said yourself the reason you’ve had so many wins is because you have a gift for finding what’s hiding in the details. Besides, this guy is guilty as sin. No one’s been able to bring him down. He’s been in our sights for years. He’s even cocky about it. He’ll give you access to everything and sit back and enjoy watching you come up with zilch.” “Sounds like a cold bastard.” “You don’t know the half of it. Are you ready for this? He’s your biological father.” “What the hell—” “You heard me.” “My biological father is dead.” “Who, Ramon Rodriguez?” Rafe nodded. “Rodriguez was not your biological father.” “I don’t know that for a fact. My mother told me one story when she was sober and another when she was drinking.”
“What did she tell you?” “When she was drinking, she would tell me that my real father was a very rich man who was cruel to her. He had tossed us out like yesterday’s news when I was a baby because he didn’t want anything to do with us. She claimed she was married to him. When she was sober, she said Ramon Rodriguez was my father. I never believed her ramblings and Rodriguez told me himself that he was my father.” “She never said who the rich guy was?” Rafe shook his head. “Never.” “Well, if your father wasn’t the rich guy your mom was always talking about, where did that pile of cash you used to finance your education come from? And the money you inherited when you turned thirty?” Rafe eyed him. “Sorry, old man. We had to investigate you before we could offer you the job. Pretty sure I know more about you than you know yourself.” “Then you know my mother was a housekeeper for Taylor Lord, who owns the biggest ranch in Utah. He liked me. Taught me to ride, to rodeo, to run a ranch. The money came from him.” “You sure? Because I’ve got a fact-checker who says otherwise.” “That’s what my father—Rodriguez always told me.” “Why didn’t Rodriguez teach you those things?” “He was never around long enough.” “I have to hand it to you, Rafe. Your mother was an alcoholic who barely managed to keep her job, and the man you thought of as your father was a drifter who never married your mother, and was gone more than he was around. You sure got the short end of the stick when it
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comes to parents—until now. Want to see proof about who your biological father really is? Come and work with us. You don’t have to become an agent. You can contract with us. Charge more that way. Help us get this guy.” “Let me understand what you’re saying. You have proof that Caleb Hamilton is my biological father, and you’ll show it to me if I agree to work with you?” Rafe turned and was about to walk out the door. “Nah, I’m not that much of an ass.” He tossed Rafe a file. “Here’s the information. You let me know what you want to do. Personally, if it were me, I’d want to nail his ass to the wall. Oh, and there’s a DNA kit in there. We don’t need it—we already have incontrovertible proof. But if you want DNA, just send the kit in. It’s up to you.” Two weeks later, after he reviewed the DNA test results, Rafe opened the file Carson Tillers had given him. He read everything cover to cover, then snapped the file closed. Hamilton had been under investigation for more than a decade. It first started when he deeded back ranch land to the original owners or their descendants, supposedly without taking a penny. At that time he was suspected of possible mob connections and a scheme for laundering money that had something to do with deeding back the ranches. Nothing could ever be proven. He was later investigated for tax fraud, but again, nothing could ever be proven. In 1999, he fell under scrutiny for possible high-tech crimes. It was rumored that his virus-protection software was actually a program designed to bring about a worldwide computer crash when the century changed from 1999 to 2000. Again, nothing could ever be proven. In fact, everyone looked a little foolish when the Y2K panic turned out to be just
that—nothing but baseless panic. Each time Hamilton had cooperated with the investigation to the fullest extent, seeming almost to welcome their analysis. Most recently, a complaint had been lodged against Hamilton by one of his former partners, Glenn Stikka, who claimed to be a victim of a Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Hamilton. This was the most plausible accusation to date, in Rafe’s mind. Hamilton was a veritable genius. He had layered so many new business entities on top of each other that it was entirely possible the new money coming in wasn’t being invested as promised. Hamilton had a strong track record of refusing investors and restoring funds to seemingly unconnected parties for purely altruistic reasons. This kind of behavior was flagged as a hallmark of a Ponzi scheme, and efforts were redoubled to bring Hamilton down. Rafe pulled out his cell and dialed. “I’m very expensive.” “Name your number.” “Eight thousand a week. No matter how long it takes.” “Done.” It took Rafe ten months to complete all the required training in white-collar crimes, high technology crimes, and public corruption. From there, he got a job working in the finance department of a company owned by Hamilton under which an intricate web of companies existed. But Rafe was unable to find anything. He moved from company to company, working his way through the web, doing his best to keep a low profile. When his efforts failed to produce any proof of illegal activity, the only thing left to do was to find a way to investigate Hamilton on his own turf.
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Investigators, no matter how good they are, can only find what exists. If there were any discrepancies in recordkeeping, and proof of it existed, it would likely be in Hamilton’s personal records—records he kept in his personal safe, and in his safety deposit box. Rafe bought himself a used Silverado that looked like it had seen better days; had Firenza, his horse of several years, moved to a stable in Grey’s Canyon in case he needed to use her for rodeoing—he had no idea how far he’d have to take things; and had intended to roll into Stone Hill quietly that hot day in early June. But the damn thing had broken down on the side of the road, seven miles outside of town. And before he could make a call, Liberty Starr careened around the corner and slammed into his life. At the time, he didn’t have any romantic notions about Caleb Hamilton. He harbored nothing but bitterness. Any bastard who would throw a woman with a small child away wasn’t worth even a moment’s regret. He would enjoy the day he brought down the man who ruined his mother’s life. And he would bring him down. Rafe always found the hidden pieces. Now, after more than a year of investigating this man—of living to bring him down, Rafe found himself more conflicted than he thought possible. He was in love with Libby, the woman who would inherit what was rightfully owed Rafe. He had a genuinely deep fondness for Hamilton, who, if he could be believed, didn’t even know he had a son. Rafe had never believed his mother’s story about a rich man. When Carson Tillers came to him with proof that he was Caleb Hamilton’s legitimate son, he was shocked. So, it wasn’t some fantasy his mother cooked up. There had been a rich man, after all. After he got over
his shock, he grew coldly determined to nail the guy. But Caleb claimed Ariela ran away. He’d looked Rafe in the eyes and said he would have been proud to be Rafe’s father. He was either the coldest bastard in existence, or he really didn’t know that Rafe was his son. Rafe wanted to believe the latter, and was angry to find that it mattered. The conflict ran so deep that he was second-guessing everything he did lately. Maybe he wasn’t trying hard enough to find the evidence that certainly existed somewhere. And when he did find it—because he would find it, he always found it—it meant he would lose the only woman he’d ever loved. Possibly the only woman he would ever love. Rafe had long since determined that Glenn Stikka was very possibly dangerous. Stikka was so enraged over his alleged mistreatment at Hamilton’s hand that he’d made a number of threats on Hamilton’s life. The day Libby caught Rafe spying on the ranch from Dead Man’s Bluff, he was trying to get a handle on the level of security Caleb had. He had been glad to see that Caleb was taking Stikka’s threats seriously, since Libby was a periodic guest. Rafe scowled and remembered Tillers’ parting comment before Rafe went under cover. “And the best part about all of this is that after you bring this guy to justice, you’ll inherit all his millions.” Rafe rubbed his eyes and looked down at the sea of manifests, investment statements and legal documents. He didn’t want a penny of it. In the morning, he’d check out the safety deposit box. It was the only thing that remained. But he honestly didn’t expect to find anything. Rafe stumbled off to bed, wondering what the morning would bring.
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Rafe glanced over at Caleb. The man’s face was gray, his mouth set in a thin line. He seemed to have aged overnight. “You sure you’re up to this?” Caleb nodded. Rafe gunned the accelerator, wishing this next part was already behind them. Once they were inside the bank, the process of adding Rafe as the only other person to have access to the safety deposit box only took a few minutes. But to Rafe, it felt like time had stretched out into the next year. He left Caleb sitting in the lobby with several members of his security team while he went into the vault with the bank employee. Hamilton’s safety deposit box was on the small side. He took the box into a room and sat down. He closed his eyes, stretched his arms, cracked his knuckles and took a deep breath. He opened the box. The only thing inside was an envelope. Rafe reached inside, withdrew the envelope and emptied it out on the table. What lay before him made him blubber like a child.
Libby awakened to find Rafe lying on his side next to her, his head propped with one hand. “You’re beautiful when you sleep.” She stretched and yawned. “Only when I sleep?” “For now, we’re talking about how you look when you sleep.” “Beautiful, I know.” “You’re kind of taking the wind out of my sails.” “Something tells me you’ll get over it.” “Guess I’ll have to.” He swatted her thigh. “Let’s get to it.” “Now hold on there, cowboy. You’ve cut practice every day for the last week, and now you wake me up at oh-dark-thirty and expect me to hop out of bed because you say so?” He grinned. “Well, to be fair, you set a bad example walking off the way you did. So, sure—I cut a few practices. But I was just giving you time to get your head back in the game. What do you say? Shall we get out there?” She stretched again and let the sheet slide down her body. “I was planning a long bath and some breakfast— peach pancakes, I think.” “You were planning a bath?” He wiggled his eyebrows. She pushed him away. “You’re not invited. Besides, I’m not getting up yet.”
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Rafe rolled off the bed and went into her bathroom. He turned on the water, and returned to the bed. She threw a pillow at him. “I said you’re not invited.” He grinned. “I’m just helping things move along. I’d hate to go into the competition tomorrow cold.” “You may as well turn off the water. I’m not ready to get up yet.” She turned her back to him. He lay down beside her. “Are you sure?” She didn’t answer him. “Are you sure?” She still didn’t answer him. He gave a resigned sigh. “All right, but don’t say I didn’t try.” He rolled off the bed, taking her with him and carried her easily to the tub. He tested the water with his toe, then dropped her in, careful to protect her head. Water sloshed over the edge of the tub, drenching him. He looked completely taken by surprise. Libby laughed. “Serves you right. Well, you might as well get in, now that you’re wetter than I am.” Rafe peeled off his clothes and slid in across from her. “Want to play longboat?” he asked. She giggled. She had no idea what he was talking about, but she loved this playful side of him. “I might, but I don’t believe I know the rules.” Rafe curled his fingers around her calves and pulled her closer. “There’s only one objective to the game of longboat.” “Oh, only one? Sounds a bit boring.” “Yes, I can understand that it might. But only because I haven’t explained the objective yet.” “Which is?”
“We’re going to find the perfect place to dock the longboat.” He grinned triumphantly. She looked at him, her face intentionally blank. “I still don’t understand.” “Here. I’ll show you,” he said, guiding her hand. “You get to steer the longboat.” He took her fingers and wrapped them around his fully aroused longboat. “Can you think of a good place to dock the longboat?” “How about in your pants, so we can get some roping practice in before the day starts and we’re in everybody’s way.” She stood up and got out of the tub. He looked crestfallen. “Really, you don’t want to play longboat?” She couldn’t help it. She giggled. “I don’t want to have to tell Caleb that the reason we didn’t do well in the team roping competition is because we practiced longboat instead of roping. Do you? So get your lazy self out of my tub and let’s get to it.” Rafe grinned. “You’ll recall that was my original intention.” “Yes, and then you became overly interested in my dock.” She already had her jeans on and was pulling on a sleeveless T-shirt. “Meet you out there. Better get dry clothes or you’ll slide right off your horse. And after we practice, I am going to have a platter full of those peach pancakes.” They practiced well into the morning, but the best they could do was 4.9 seconds. They quit when Caleb sent Indigo out to bring them in. “Don’t wear yourselves out today. Rafe, you get overconfident with your throws. Libby, don’t be afraid to back Marengo up faster once the steer is roped. But your
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timing’s good, and you both looked like you were having fun. I know you’ll do well tomorrow. Now, how about some peach pancakes?” Libby and Rafe exchanged looks and couldn’t keep from laughing. When Caleb left the room, Rafe muttered, “Is there anything that goes on around here he doesn’t know about?” Before Libby could answer him, Caleb called from the outer room, “Not likely.” After they’d gorged themselves on peach pancakes and bacon, Rafe turned to Caleb. “I’m going into the city this afternoon. I’ve got some business there to wrap up. I should be back before dark. I’d like to use the helicopter. Get there and back faster. Any objections?” “None at all. Let me call my pilot.” “Already done.” Caleb’s face was solemn. Libby looked back forth between them. “Anyone want to let me in on whatever’s going on?” Both men chorused, “No.” “No?” “No.” Caleb repeated firmly. With Rafe gone to the city and Caleb snoozing in his chair, Libby decided to drop in on the Carter House and catch up with Ruby and Emma. She might even be able to fit in tea with Luna Rafferty. Besides, she wanted to pick up a pair of dress shoes to go with her gown for the ball tomorrow night. It had arrived yesterday and she was quite pleased with it. But when she arrived at the inn, she found that Ruby had her hands full with a crowded restaurant and all the picnic baskets people had ordered for Labor Day weekend at the rodeo. Emma was also preoccupied with a stream of guests coming and going. It meant business was good, and
it also meant something else. Caleb was right. She’d built a successful business that practically ran itself. Between Emma’s august management and Ruby’s much-heralded culinary wizardry, the Inn was a crowd pleaser. Libby wasn’t needed there anymore. She was struck by how much things had changed in a four-month stretch. Libby knocked on Luna’s door and invited her to tea. The old woman was delighted. When Ruby heard, she stopped what she was doing and put together a delectable tray of scones, lemon curd, Devonshire cream, tea sandwiches, fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate, and poppy seed cake. Libby and Luna talked about how Libby was doing living at the Hamilton ranch, what rodeo events she was entered in and what her dress for the ball was like. And then, with amazing clarity of memory, Luna asked Libby how her search for the truth about Ariela was going. “Well, as it turns out, apparently I was the only one who didn’t know about Ariela.” “What are you saying, my dear?” “Rafe is her son, so of course he knew all along who we were talking about.” “He must have had his reasons for keeping it to himself.” “Yes, although I don’t know what they are. Caleb also knew he was Ariela’s son.” Luna shook her head. “No, he doesn’t know.” Libby smiled patiently. “He knows. He suspected it and then confronted Rafe.” “No, no. He doesn’t know. She is saying he doesn’t know.” “Who is saying that?”
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“Ariela. She tells me that Caleb doesn’t know. She keeps repeating ‘he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know.’” “Is she here with us, Luna?” Luna nodded. “Yes, although she’s drifting away. I can hardly hear her now. She wants you to find something.” “What am I to find?” “I can’t hear her. She’s saying ‘find something’ and ‘day room.’ Does that mean anything to you, dear?” Libby poured out more tea for Luna and added a drop of milk. “Not at the moment. But I’ll think about it.” “She’s very troubled. Very troubled.” Luna’s head began to nod. Libby adjusted a pillow behind Luna’s back and placed an afghan over her lap. She took the cup from her hand and set it back on the tray. Luna dozed, her head bobbing against her shoulder, while Libby considered this new bit of information. Caleb doesn’t know—what? Find—what? Something in the day room? Luna awoke with a start. “You must find the secret room. There’s something in the secret room Ariela wants you to see.” “I know about the secret room. We found the family Bible. It contains a record of Caleb’s marriage to Ariela.” “No, it’s not the family Bible. It’s something else. She says you’re the only one who can find it. Well anyway, dear, you think about it and I’m sure you’ll work it all out.”
Rafe didn’t make it back until after midnight. Libby was waiting up for him. The first thing she noticed was that he’d gotten a haircut and a shave. She’d never seen him
this clean cut. He looked different. As if he belonged to another world. It took her a moment to adjust. “What are you still doing up? Are you nervous about tomorrow?” “I hope we don’t disappoint Caleb. But no, I’m not nervous.” “Aren’t you going to ask me if I am?” He was tired but still playful and a little wild. “Are you nervous?” she asked him softly. “I’m nervous that you’ll kick me out of bed tonight, like you did the bath this morning.” “You haven’t been invited yet.” “Then I’m nervous you won’t invite me.” He pulled her close and kissed the corner of her mouth. “Am I invited?” He ran his lips down her neck from her ear to her shoulder then brought them back to her ear. “Invite me, Elle.” He dug his fingers into her hair and walked her backward until she was pinned against the wall. “Invite me, Elle.” She circled her arms around his waist and raised her face to meet his kiss. He caught her lower lip and bit lightly, drawing it into his mouth. His lower torso kept her pinned against the wall while his hands ran down along the sides of her body and back up until he seized her breasts, and began to kiss their soft curves. “Invite me, Elle.” She was so breathless she could hardly make a sound. Instead, she nodded. He kissed her again and took her by the hand. When they reached her bedroom, he removed her clothing and laid her on the bed. He disappeared into the bathroom and came back with several towels. He covered the bed with the towels,
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rolling Libby first to one side and then the other until she was on top of them. He leaned over and whispered into the back of her ear, “Lie on your stomach.” She heard him twist off a cap and smelled a bouquet of something she couldn’t quite identify. “What is that?” “Essential oils. A mixture of vanilla, patchouli and frankincense.” He poured it over his hands and began to massage the bottoms of her feet, working various pressure points in her heel, her arch, and around her toes. He worked his way slowly up her calves, and then poured a liberal amount of oil on her backside. He stroked in a firm circular motion, following the terrain of her body across its most rounded part. She moaned with abandon. He moved across her back to her neck, and then gently flipped her over. He oiled her torso and stroked up and around until he closed in on her breasts, where he stroked and lathered and stroked until she cried out for him. He moved to her thighs, stroking ever upward. When he reached the arch of her pelvis, he placed one hand palm down over the arch and used his other hand to apply gentle pressure, teasing and tapping as he inched closer and closer to the most sensitive area of her body. Finally he oiled again and slid his fingers back and forth over either side of the soft skin between her thighs, squeezing the soft folds together. She tried not to scream, remembering that they were not alone in the house, but she was almost beyond control. “Invite me in, Elle,” he whispered into her ear. She was desperate in her compliance. “Come in. Oh, God, Rafe, come in!”
He pulled her well-oiled bottom to the edge of the bed and slid his longboat in at last, docking it for the night.
Rafe shook his head. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I’d like you to reconsider.” “But Rafe, it’s too late to pull out now.” Rafe raked his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry. I had no idea you were going to be on a float in the middle of a parade going down Main Street.” “Rafe, every year for as long as I can remember, the Hamilton float has been a part of the parade. It would ruin everything to pull out now.” She could see his jaw was set. “But you don’t even know if there’s a risk. I wouldn’t care so much except that this is likely to be Caleb’s last—” Libby burst into tears and threw herself against Rafe’s chest. “There’s no way to know whether it’s safe. I won’t take a chance with you, Elle.” He disentangled her from himself long enough to sit on the sofa in her bedroom, so that he could hold her close. He brushed a length of hair away from her ear. “We don’t know if this guy will try anything. We don’t even know if he’s around. But we have to take the threats seriously. He’s managed to get too close to Caleb in the past, too many times.” “But if you’re with me on the float, it would be reasonably safe, right? And you’ve sent his photo around. Everyone knows who to look for.” “Dammit, Elle, I don’t know who you think I am. I can’t protect you from flying bullets.”
Still, she could tell by the look in his eyes and the lack of conviction in his voice that she’d wheedled him into it, even though it was against his better judgment. “All right. But only one of you can be on the float. No sense making it easy for him to take you both out with one shot.” Rafe looked grim. Libby was nearly in tears again. She’d expected the three of them to ride the float together. She slid her arms around Rafe and buried her face so he wouldn’t see what a wreck she was. Caleb’s health, everything she was working so hard to learn, trying to accept her love for Rafe even though she knew he might destroy Caleb—it was taking its toll on her. “Are you crying again?” “No,” she denied, clearly not telling the truth. “Well, see if you can stop long enough for me to give you something.” He moved her just enough so that he could lean forward to reach under the sofa. He pulled out a flat medium-sized box wrapped in paper with handpainted pink and red tea roses. The package was tied with a white bow. He placed it in her lap. She couldn’t help it. She began to cry again and buried her face back into Rafe’s chest, afraid he would laugh at her. He didn’t. He kissed her forehead and smoothed his hands over her back until she was calm again. “Open it.” She didn’t need another invitation. She unwrapped the box, careful to tear the paper as little as possible. She lifted the lid where layers of pink and white tissue paper protected whatever lay beneath. “At this rate, we’ll be late for the parade and all your pretty wheedling will have been for nothing. I promise, it
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won’t bite. Go ahead. Open it.” She heard the excitement in his voice and saw love in his eyes. She pushed the box aside. It was so rare that she saw the little boy in him like this—hopeful, uncertain, vulnerable, yet not afraid to believe in magic just a little. She took his face in her hands. “Before I open it, I want to tell you something, Rafe. I love you.” She might have said more, but his mouth claimed hers and his arms crushed her against him until she was gasping for breath. When he released her she giggled. “Well, this is certainly going to be a good day.” “You don’t know the half of it,” he told her, his eyes more intense than she’d ever seen. Libby turned back to the box and lifted the layers of tissue. Inside lay a creamy buckskin vest with intricate embroidery and beading. She couldn’t resist touching it. The leather was like butter. She recognized some of the beads; there were lapis, carnelian, jade and blue chalcedony among others. There were no buttons. Instead, the vest laced together with rolled leather. It was one of the loveliest things she’d ever seen. “My grandmother made it a long time ago. She told me one day I would meet someone and know that she was the one it was meant for. She was right. I was hoping you’d wear it today.” Libby closed her eyes, willing the tears away, and then stood up. She draped the vest across Rafe’s lap and unbuttoned her blouse. She took it off, walked over to her lingerie drawer and chose a low-cut black lace bra. She put it on and walked back over to him. His eyes were wide. “I’ve never seen you wear a bra before. You look—amazing.”
Libby took the vest from his lap and slipped into it, then hesitated, wondering whether to lace it from the bottom up, or top down. Rafe moved in, his hands already looping the vest together from the bottom up. When he was done, she twirled for him. Rafe lunged for her but she stepped out of reach and stood in front of the mirror. It was a perfect fit. The vest was cut to show just the right amount of curve. The length of it came to her navel and was trimmed by fine strands of buckskin fringe weighted by tiny beads that swayed when she moved and hung just below the rim of her jeans. Rafe stared. She turned away from the mirror. “How do I look?” she asked again. He spoke slowly; his eyes never wavered from hers. “My grandmother was dying. From her deathbed, she told me where to find the vest and asked me to get it for her. She’d made it a few months earlier because she’d seen the woman I would one day marry in a dream. The woman had dark blonde hair and green eyes with brown flecks.” “She did not say green eyes with brown flecks.” “She did.” He turned her into the mirror and moved behind her. They watched each other, their eyes reflected in the glass. Rafe slid his arms around her waist under the fringe. “She saw you.” He brought his hand up and turned her face sideways to kiss her. “She saw you.”
Over breakfast she tried one more time to get Rafe to agree to let Caleb ride the float. But this time it was Caleb who was firm. “I’ll watch from the bell tower. Indigo will be with me. I want
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security on the float with the two of you.” She knew that was the end of the argument, and she didn’t have the strength or the patience to fight them both. “And there will be security with you, as well.” Libby noted that sometimes Rafe sounded just like Caleb. Caleb nodded. “By the way, nice vest, Liberty.” Libby blushed. She couldn’t have said why, exactly. After what Rafe had told her about his grandmother, wearing the vest felt like a public declaration of their feelings for one another. “It’s a promise vest, if I’m not mistaken. One of the marriage traditions in the Ute culture.” Libby looked over at Rafe. What would he do with that comment? Rafe didn’t skip a beat. “I believe that’s what my grandmother called it. Yes.” “You gave it to her then?” Libby watched as Rafe met Caleb’s eyes. “Technically, it already belonged to her.” Caleb smiled. “Good answer.”
The square had come alive with rodeo fever. The Carter House float was right behind the Hamilton ranch float. Libby had a moment of regret about not riding with Emma and Ruby, but the inn was really theirs, now. If they continued to show a profit by year-end, she’d already made up her mind to help them buy her out. The money they used to buy her out would actually go into trust for them. They’d lost their home in the same storm that put Caleb in the hospital, and had been living at the inn ever since. It’s where they belonged. And anyway, what was
the point of having millions if she couldn’t use it to help people? Ruby and Emma pointed to Libby’s vest and whispered to each other, their eyes full of secretive laughter. Emma called over, “Do you know what you’re wearing, little missy?” Rafe came up behind her and slid his arms around her waist. “She knows,” he called back. Libby teared up again. Honestly, what was wrong with her? She turned to fill her hands with candy and small toys and tossed them into the crowd. She got a little too close to the edge of the float and nearly lost her balance, but Rafe caught her around the waist and pulled her back. Her eyes were filling with tears again, and she felt a little dizzy. There was so much going on—so much she was still adjusting to. “Don’t make me put you on a leash,” he growled. She knew he was joking, but his eyes were like twin storms. “I just got a little too close—” “Stay away from the edge. In fact, don’t move out of arm’s reach.” “You’re being silly.” “Then let me be silly.” Well, really. Who could argue with that, she wondered. As they passed the bell tower, Libby and Rafe waved, unable to see Caleb, but they waved just the same. Tears threatened again and Libby buried her face in his chest. “Oh, Rafe. It’s so unfair. Caleb is just learning to enjoy life, and he’s getting worse. You’ve seen it, haven’t you?” “Yes. I have.” His voice sounded strangled.
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She pulled away and swiped her eyes, then dove into the candy and showered the crowd. Labor Day weekend at the rodeo featured an arts and crafts fair, concession stands and amusement rides. This year, at Ruby’s suggestion, the Carter House was represented by a concession stand built as a miniature replica of the inn. Ruby sold her most tantalizing gourmet dishes packed in picnic baskets. Half the proceeds would go to charity. When Libby and Rafe went to check it out, they found it mobbed by hungry tourists. Libby felt the tears threaten again. This was the first year they’d done the concession stand, and it was just one example of how good Emma and Ruby were at running the inn. There was no way to stop her tears when she realized that, with their help, her dream for the inn—that it would be about more than just luxurious surroundings and epicurean delights— had been realized. Rafe used his bandanna to dab away her tears. “Hungry?” She shook her head. “I don’t think I want to eat until after.” “Why, you are nervous, aren’t you?” She toed the dust with her boot. “A little.” “Okay, then here’s the plan. Let’s go check on Caleb and get him settled. I invited Emma, Ruby and Luna to sit with him. I know he doesn’t know them well, but that way he won’t be alone with just security to keep him company when we’re competing. Ruby has a special basket set aside. I just need to pick it up from the concession stand here—Good Lord, are you crying again?” “Of course not,” she said, even as the telltale tears filled her eyes.
“Which reminds me. I have something I want to tell you.” “Yes?” “Oh, but not now.” His hand closed around hers. “You big tease. Why not now?” She spread her fingers, interlocking them with his. “We’re too busy looking for Caleb. I want your full attention when I tell you.” “And when will that be?” “I think the best time is to tell you just before we do our team event.” “Really? I have to wait that long?” “Well, now I’ve made it into a bigger deal than it is.” “We’ll see.” She squeezed his hand. She had no idea what he wanted to tell her. She didn’t even really care. She just wanted this day to go on forever. They caught up with Caleb and moved with the crowd past the food vendors, the crafts, and finally, ringside to the Hamilton box, security following close behind. Libby clapped a hand over her mouth and then leaned into Rafe’s ear. “Is there enough for security, too?” Rafe smiled. “They have their own basket.” “They can’t share ours?” “Ours has all kinds of things in it to alter our behavior. Oysters, alcohol, chocolate.” He looked at her suggestively. “And theirs?” “They have PB&J and iced tea.” “You’re not serious.” “I’m not. I don’t know what they have. They gave Ruby a list. She took care of it. Don’t worry, Elle. They’ll be fine. They know how to take care of themselves.”
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Ruby, Emma and Luna arrived with even more food. Caleb opened a bottle of wine and filled their glasses. Ruby handed Libby and Rafe tumblers of iced tea. Caleb made a short speech of welcome and then tucked away his more formal demeanor. Suddenly, Libby saw him as he must have been as a boy, falling in love with Ariela. He was playful, charming, outrageously funny and a bit colorful in his storytelling without ever actually crossing the line—he just brushed up against it a bit. He reminded her of Rafe. Luna leaned forward and whispered in Libby’s ear, “Have you had a chance to find that secret room, dear?” Libby shook her head. “Don’t wait too long, dear. You are the light.” Libby frowned. “Don’t try to understand it literally, dear. Ariela’s message is one that can only be understood by the heart.” Rafe walked Libby to Marengo’s stall, and then to the line-up of barrel racers where Libby was number twenty-two and would be the last to race. “You ready for this?” he asked. She nodded. “Okay. Before I go, I just have one thing to say.” “Yes?” She could feel her mouth grow tight. She was really quite nervous. This always happened, no matter how many times she competed. He grinned. “I’ve never seen anyone sit a horse the way you do. Don’t forget to tell Marengo that you want to win. If he knows what you want, he’ll break his neck trying to give it to you.” He grinned and leaned in. “And no matter how good you look in that vest, I’ll be remembering how you looked when you ran the barrels, naked.”
She laughed and managed to hold back the tears that threatened once again, until he was gone. There were advantages and disadvantages to being last. The advantage was knowing what time she had to beat. The disadvantage was having to wait. The average run was about thirteen to fifteen seconds. Libby sized up her competition—twenty-two contestants. Anything could happen. But contestants six and eighteen were likely the ones to beat. They were known around the county for their lightning speed and accuracy. It would go fast, she knew, yet she could almost feel the wait aging her. Marengo was quite spirited. She’d done this race with him before, although she’d raced the most with White Cloud. But White Cloud no longer had the speed, and Marengo was the best bareback ride she’d ever had. The greatest challenge would be controlling him. He was frisky and wanted to run. Ninety feet between barrel one and barrel two—sixty feet to the score line. One hundred and five feet between barrel one and barrel three. She did this every time she competed. The mental process helped her relax. She heard the announcer call, “Five second penalty” and realized the rider must have knocked over a barrel. “Total time for number five is twenty seconds.” Six was up. Libby did her best not to listen but couldn’t block out the final score. “That’s 12.9 seconds for number six.” Thirteen to fourteen seconds was generally a winning time. Number six would be nearly impossible to beat. You are the light. Why did she have to remember that now? What did it mean? Don’t wait too long. You are the light. I’ll be the light all right. I’ll have to be—only lightning speed and precision will beat number six.
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“14.4 seconds for number eighteen.” She stroked Marengo’s neck and spoke low. “Today we are going to be the light and fly around those barrels.” “That’s a disqualification for number twenty-one.” Libby couldn’t see but suspected the rider had missed a barrel. Ninety feet between barrel one and barrel two—sixty feet to the score line. She had the flag. Marengo shot forward. Libby remembered Caleb’s coaching from so many years ago. The approach to the first barrel is critical. It determines a successful ride pattern. Your horse is as important as you are. Remember to tell your horse what you want. She took the first barrel. Marengo was flying. She leaned in and whispered, “I want to win, Marengo. Let’s win this one.” She took the second barrel so closely that she had to lean away from it to keep her leg from brushing it. Any contact with the barrel, even a tap, would disqualify her. She was focused on the third barrel and then rounded the final curve in the cloverleaf. She was headed home. “Come on, boy. Be the light with me.” They sailed over the finish line, the flag went down and the clock stopped. Libby walked Marengo for a few minutes before giving him to Digger. In the background she heard the announcer say, “Folks, we’re going to take a little recess here before we announce number twentytwo’s time and establish the winner of this event.” She slid off Marengo and stroked his neck. “Thanks, boy. You’re the best ride I’ve ever had. No matter what.” Digger walked the horse back to his stall.
Rafe was waiting for her at the gate. “They haven’t announced your time yet but I saw the clock stop at 12.75 seconds. You have the fastest time, Elle.” “Do you know what the problem is?” “Sounds like someone is claiming you touched the second barrel with your leg.” The judges sent officials out to examine the second barrel and talk with the second barrel spotters. After a few minutes the announcer was back. “Okay, folks. Thanks for your patience. We just had to check a few things out. Number twenty-two’s time is 12.75 seconds, and that’s our winner. Number twenty-two takes the bareback barrel-riding championship.” Libby stepped up to accept the trophy, but donated the cash prize to Stone Hill’s youth center. She signed the donation form with a flourish, anxious to get back to the others in time to see Rafe’s saddle bronc competition. She could hear the announcer introducing the competition as she made her way back, aware that Rafe would be one of the first to ride. Just as she was seated, Rafe broke out of the shoot on a bronc specially bred for strength, agility and bucking ability. This was no powder puff event. It was dangerous. The bronc Rafe had drawn had a reputation for throwing its rider and then stomping him. Most broncs will try to buck their rider off and then run away. Not this one. The announcer couldn’t contain his excitement. “New to this area, but not a stranger to rodeoing is Rafe Cabrerras, and just look at that boy go! The longest anyone’s ever ridden this bronc is 11.3 seconds. There’s the flag. He’s passed the eight second mark.” Rafe rode the bronc like it was as easy as riding a hobbyhorse. Libby knew it required far more than brute
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strength to ride a bucking bronc. It required style, grace and precise timing, as well. Rafe’s stirrups were freeswinging and the only thing he had to hold on to was a braided rein of cotton, yet he made the bronc look like a gazelle. Caleb sucked in his breath. “Look at that boy go. He’s up to 11.2 seconds.” The crowd roared as the announcer called, “He’s at 11.4 seconds and still holding on. We have a new records, folks.” Libby felt all the air go out of her lungs when Rafe finally let go at 11.6 seconds and hopped the fence. As soon as Libby saw that Rafe was safely off the bronc, she took off running as fast as she could to get to Marengo before their team roping event. He was already mounted on Firenza and waiting for her, Marengo’s reins in hand. He tossed them to her. “Hop on.” “Aren’t you forgetting something, mister?” “Nope—hop on.” She mounted Marengo. He drew Firenza close. She held her breath. Whatever it was that he’d been waiting to tell her now was the moment. “I just thought you’d like to know that I closed my investigation of Caleb.” “You have?” “Yes.” “And?” “He’s been cleared.” She began to cry. “Here we go again.” He handed her his bandanna. “You might as well keep it.”
Libby dabbed her eyes. “Is that why you took the helicopter to Denver yesterday?” “Yes.” “Why didn’t you tell me last night?” “I was still waiting for you to tell me that you loved me. I didn’t want clearing Caleb to influence your feelings about me.” “Pretty controlling of you.” He grinned. “I would think you’d be used to it by now.” “You’re just like him, you know. You might as well be his son. You should have seen how proud he was of you, watching you ride that bronc.” “What did you think?” She was elaborately casual in her answer. “Oh, I’ve seen it before.” “You have?” She smiled, reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a scrunchie to tie up her hair. When she was done she said, “Yes. Every time you make love to me.” She kneed Marengo who leaped forward. “Well, come on,” she called over her shoulder. They took their places side by side, with four feet of empty corral between them. It was over in 4.4 seconds. Rafe caught the steer in a faultless half-head catch and pulled the steer up so tight, Libby almost miscalculated her throw around the steer’s hind legs. They stretched the steer taut so fast, Libby was sure they’d beaten their practice time. The crowd roared its approval as the steer loped off without injury.
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Libby took a bite of Ruby’s tarragon chicken. It was heaven. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until she started eating. Caleb broke open the champagne. “To the best team ropers I’ve ever seen.” Libby protested, “But we didn’t win!” Caleb sighed and looked at Rafe, who rolled his eyes and smiled. Patiently he said, “The win was for the two of you, nothing else.” “Ah, that.” Libby chuckled. “Well, then let’s hear your best toast, and make it snappy because I intend to drink champagne and do nothing but enjoy myself the rest of this weekend.”
It was after six when they left the rodeo. “I’ll be at your bedroom door at eight-fifteen.” “You’re rushing things a bit, aren’t you there, cowboy? We have a dance to get through, first.” His face fell. “You’re going to make me go to the dance?” He was just short of believable. “Nice try. I’ll be ready with my dancing shoes on at eight-fifteen. And then we’ll pick up Caleb on our way into the ballroom. I don’t want him going in alone.”
She heard a soft knock at her bedroom door, and was surprised to see Caleb. He looked handsome and almost healthy in his dinner jacket. “I hope you don’t mind. I asked Rafe if I could have a moment with you before he takes you into the ballroom.” “Of course. Come in.” “That gown suits you, Liberty. You’re very lovely.” Libby’s gown featured a strapless, heart-shaped bodice of white satin with gold and silver threads woven in a scrolling pattern throughout. The bodice belted at the waist with a two-and-a-half inch satin belt. The chiffon skirt billowed out from the waist in soft folds of silver and gold over a white satin underskirt, and fell to the floor with a slight train in back. “I was hoping you would do me the honor of wearing these tonight.” He handed her a dark green velvet case and sat down on one of the sofas in the anteroom of her bedroom. Libby sat down next to him. “Go ahead. Open it.” She opened the case. Inside lay a diamond and emerald necklace and matching drop earrings. They were elegant, tasteful and the perfect complement to her dress. “Oh, Caleb. These are lovely.” Libby stared, but dared not touch. Tears threatened but she blinked them back. “I don’t know what to say except thank you.”
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Caleb helped her with the necklace. It was cool and heavy against her throat. “You may want to do something different with your hair to show off the earrings. Shall I send Tyra in? I know you’ve never used her, but she used to do your mother’s hair quite beautifully.” “Is there time?” “You are the belle of this ball, Liberty. We all wait for you tonight. I’ll keep Rafe with me so that he doesn’t hound you. Call me when you’re ready.” Tyra kept it simple. She pulled the hair back from Libby’s crown, away from her ears, and curled it until the lot of it fell in a cascade away from her face and down her back. She felt the weight of Caleb’s earrings and when she looked in the mirror, they winked back at her. When Caleb and Rafe came for her, Caleb stepped back to let Rafe have the first look. Libby watched as the grin on Rafe’s face disappeared. He looked nearly stricken and didn’t move or say a word for several moments. Libby did her best to keep her composure, but it was unnerving to have him stare at her that way. At last he spoke. “You are breathtaking. I knew you were lovely, but I didn’t know—I didn’t realize—” He raked his hand through his hair. “I’m doing this badly.” He looked to Caleb for assistance. Caleb smiled and stepped forward offering Libby his arm. “The boy thinks you are a vision. He’s quite right. Rafe, give her your arm.” To Libby’s mind, Rafe was the vision. His dark hair was slicked back. He was closely shaven and his eyes even more cerulean, bordering on sapphire. His dinner jacket was a faultless fit, and the cut of his pants did little to hide his generous endowment.
The doorway to the ballroom had been turned into a garden arbor brimming with pink quince and Queen Anne’s lace. Caleb squeezed her hand. “Shall we?” The three of them walked arm in arm through the arbor and into wonderland. The ballroom looked like an autumn garden. It felt to Libby as if they were floating as they moved through pink and red cabbage roses, white lilies, lavender alstroemeria, yellow freesia, purple and red bittersweet and pink yarrow. Their scents intermingled and added romance to the evening’s magic. Caleb had worked with Indigo and Tyra, and occasionally consulted with Emma on the details of the ballroom. He’d flatly refused to reveal anything about it to Libby. Even with Rafe on her left and Caleb on her right, Libby nearly stumbled from the sheer joy of it all. Caleb was exonerated! The three of them were now liberated of any suspicion they might have about one another. She would no longer have to fight to love a man she didn’t trust. Rafe! Now that he was no longer searching for evidence of wrong-doing, and now that it was out in the open that he was Ariela’s son, he could be free of conflict, too. It was everything she’d ever hoped for except— Caleb’s health. She had continued to hope—she still hoped—that Caleb might somehow recover. An orchestra was playing in the background. One or two couples were dancing, but the evening hadn’t really officially begun. Guests were seated and nearly all the tables were filled with neighbors and friends. Libby thought there must be close to three hundred people. Buffet tables were exquisitely laid and laden with food under the careful supervision of Ruby. Elegantly sculptured fountains flowed with champagne, and there
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were open bars in each corner of the room. The expansive dance floor had been polished until it glittered from light thrown by the candle-like chandeliers. “Oh, Caleb, you’ve outdone yourself.” He smiled. “I’d like the two of you to stand up with me as I welcome our guests.” They walked over to the orchestra. Caleb asked them to pause for a moment. The ballroom fell quiet. “Good evening my friends. You honor me with your presence here in my home this evening. Before we begin, I hope you’ll indulge me in a short—very short, I promise—speech. My heart is full tonight. There is so much I would like to say—so let me choose my words carefully. Tonight I’m joined by Liberty who is not only a dear friend—she is like a daughter to me. And didn’t she represent Stone Hill well today in the barrel racing competition?” The room warmed with applause and cheers. “And now I want to introduce this young man. Some of you have already met him. He won the saddle bronc competition with 11.6 seconds on the clock.” They were greeted with more enthusiastic applause. “I’m proud to say that he is the son of my first wife, Ariela. And if he’ll agree to it, I hope to adopt him and make him my son too. Tonight the ballroom has been transformed into a romantic autumn garden. It looked this way the first time I danced with Ariela. She was fourteen. I was fifteen. We danced outside under the cover of the night because, according to our parents, we were too young to date. I’m giving tonight’s ball in her honor. Please, let romance find you tonight.” Caleb gave a bow to Libby and Rafe, and then quietly asked them to help him to their table.
Libby couldn’t stop the tears. The eyes of both men glittered suspiciously as well. Caleb turned to Rafe. “I know that wasn’t quite fair of me to announce it like that. I should have talked with you first. I’ve been thinking about this for some time. I went ahead because tonight might be the last opportunity I have to announce you to the world the way you should have been. The way you would have been, if Ariela—if you had been our child. I didn’t tell you about it because, frankly, I was afraid you would refuse. Now, even if you refuse for whatever reason, the world—our world knows who you are.” Rafe growled in his throat and swiped at his eyes, clearing them of any moisture before it became obvious. “We can talk about this later.” “But you’ll consider it?” “We can talk about this later. We have to think about Elle.” “Oh, don’t let me get in the way. This is between the two of you. Personally, I think it’s a fabulous idea. I hope your mother would, too.” Rafe’s eyes grew dark. “I’m trying to be polite about this, but you have to give me some room. We’ll talk about it later.” His voice softened. “For now, I’d like to take your advice and let the romance find me—us.” He looked meaningfully at Libby. “May I have one dance with her before the two of you go off into the night?” “We have all night. We’re not leaving you,” Libby said. “No, my darling. But I’m leaving you. Let me have this dance before I say good-night.”
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They waltzed to Joe Satriani’s “Always With Me, Always With You.” The last strains of the music drifted away when Libby heard a shout. Women screamed. The crowd parted, and Libby saw the man from the photo Rafe had showed her, Glenn Stikka, waving a gun. “If no one else will bring him to justice, then I will. My kind of justice. Caleb Hamilton stole my life. He wasn’t just satisfied to take my job and steal my money. Oh, no, he had to take my wife and daughter, too. And now I’m going to do to him what he did to me—I’m going to kill him and everyone he cares about.” A shot rang out. Caleb fell, and Libby felt herself being pulled to the floor. At first she thought it was from the weight of Caleb’s body and then realized that Rafe had tackled her and was now covering them both with his body. Pandemonium set in. Libby heard the sound of a man being brought down and guests skittering out of the way. And then it was silent. Rafe lifted her from the floor. “All you all right?” He looked stricken. “Yes.” She saw relief flood his face. “But I don’t think Caleb is.” Rafe bent over Caleb and barked. “He’s still breathing.” Caleb had caught a bullet in the shoulder. Security called for an ambulance and hauled Stikka away. Caleb’s nurse ran to him and began to treat the wound. “How is he?” Libby bit her lip. The nurse replied without looking up, “It’s little more than a graze. He was lucky.” “Liberty, tell everyone the danger has passed. Encourage them to stay. Tell the orchestra to start playing.” Caleb tried his best to sound imperious, although he hadn’t the strength.
But Libby wouldn’t leave his side. “Rafe?” Caleb’s eyes implored him to take over and reassure the guests that everything was fine. Libby watched Rafe walk calmly to the microphone. He adjusted the stand and angled the mic, then leaned in and asked, “Is anyone here hurt?” There was an uncomfortable silence as Rafe waited for a response. The guests shifted around and looked at each other. “No? Good. Well, I guess you could say that we’ve had a little unplanned excitement here tonight, haven’t we? Caleb’s taken a bullet to the shoulder, but if you ask him about it, he’ll tell you it’s just a scratch.” A hint of laughter trickled through the crowd. Rafe waited for it to pass. “Now that we know everyone is all right, we hope you’ll take your seats. We’re bringing champagne around to the tables. Security has taken the intruder away. We know he was working alone. There’s no reason to be afraid that something like this will repeat itself tonight.” Libby saw doubt and confusion as people avoided eye contact with her, and with Rafe. Some merely dropped their gaze, others actually turned away. “Think about it this way. Statistically speaking, you’re probably safer here right now than anywhere else in the world.” Libby thought people still looked unconvinced. “It’s like that old joke. You know the one. A cowboy wanted to bull ride more than anything else in the world, but he was afraid. So he said to himself, ‘I’m going to use the law of averages to help me ride a bull.’ He waited until the end of the day when the meanest bull had been ridden by all kinds of cowboys. And then do you know what he did? He hopped on that bull and rode him. Why?
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Because after that mean old bull had been bucking cowboys all day, he was tired, and less likely to have it in him to buck this boy off. Law of averages says the more something unusual happens, the less likely it will happen again anytime soon in that same place. That’s what we’ve got here, folks. How many of you would have guessed we’d have this kind of a disturbance at tonight’s dance? Not many of you, right? Probably not any of you. Now that it’s happened, it’s even less likely to happen. See what I mean?” Only a few heads nodded. “But our minds are easily tricked. We tend to think that because something happens, it’s likely to happen again. But in a case like this, just the opposite is true. Raise your hand if you are a member of the security team.” More than a dozen men raised their hands. Libby knew there were at least a dozen more who remained undercover. “Take a long look around. There are a boatload of security men here tonight. So you can see that with the law of averages, and all this security, this is one of the safest places to be right now.” A little more laughter filled the room. “Let me explain what just happened. That man worked for Caleb at one time, and tried to convince him to make an investment. Caleb declined, believing it to be a bad investment and advised him to do the same. But the man didn’t listen. He invested all his money and he was wiped out. His behavior became so erratic and his threats so profuse, Caleb had to fire him and eventually his wife and daughter left him. Caleb Hamilton is an honorable man, and the claims made against him tonight are false.”
A jeering voice came out of the crowd. “Yeah, but he holds paper on all the ranches in the area. Might be legal, but it’s hardly honorable.” Libby jumped up. “Raise your hand if Caleb holds paper on your ranch.” No one raised his hand. Somewhere from the back the same voice shouted, “That doesn’t prove anything. People are too proud to admit it.” Caleb asked Libby to sit down, but Libby wouldn’t be stopped. “Where’s Mick Janson?” She scanned the crowd until she located him in the far corner with his wife. “There you are. Does Caleb hold paper on your ranch?” “No, ma’am. He deeded it back to me seven years ago.” “Dandy Ranken—where are you?” Dandy stepped forward. “And your ranch?” He shook his head. “Nope. In 2002 he signed it all back to me. Coulda knocked me over with a feather. I’m free and clear. He did it for Tim and Ruben and Amador, too. I don’t think he holds paper on any of our ranches. Where’s that champagne? I say we raise our glasses in a toast to Caleb Hamilton. He didn’t have to give us our ranches back. He owned them fair and square.” Against his protests, they drank a toast to Caleb as he was being wheeled out of the ballroom on a stretcher with Libby and Rafe close behind. “Rafe, Liberty, you cannot go with me to the hospital.” “Just try to stop us.” Libby was adamant.
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“Indigo will go with me. And I’m surrounded by security, although I’m convinced after Rafe’s attempt to introduce logic and reason, the danger has passed.” He chuckled and then winced at the pain. “We have guests. If they leave now, tonight will be all about the man with the gun. If the two of you go back in there and bring this party back to life, it can be what I hoped it would be. A night for romance.” Libby wouldn’t hear it. “I’m going with you.” “Rafe, she’ll hate me for this, but I’m going to say it anyway. Get your woman in line and make her see reason.” Rafe chuckled. He summoned up a very commanding voice and turned to Libby. “Woman, get in line. See reason.” Libby looked at the faces of the two men she loved. Rafe was trying not to laugh and Caleb was furious that Rafe was not taking him seriously. She started to laugh. The laughter gave way to tears and more laughter. Rafe pulled her to him. In the same commanding voice he said, “Woman, you’ve been crying all day. I’m going to have to take you in hand.” Libby watched as Caleb adjusted to the idea that it was ludicrous to try to handle her in this way. “Point taken,” he conceded and offered a weak chuckle that set Libby and Rafe off again. “Indigo, please call me the moment he’s seen the doctor.” Indigo nodded to Libby. Rafe took Libby’s hand. “Let’s go do what the man asked.” Although she would have said it wasn’t possible, the rest of the evening was like magic. Rafe danced as well as
he did everything else. She would have liked to do nothing but dance the night through. But in Caleb’s absence, they both had an obligation to their guests. Rafe was across the room talking with some of the members of the rodeo commission. Libby was deep in conversation with the director of the Humane Society and watching out of the corner of her eye as woman after woman invited Rafe to dance. He’d already danced with three of them before the music slowed. She felt him come up behind her. She knew he’d come. His hand found hers. They locked their fingers together and moved into the music. “You didn’t want to dance a slow one with someone else?” She couldn’t keep the grin off her face. “What do you think?” “There you go again, deflecting questions—never really giving an answer.” “You must like it.” She leaned into him and kissed the soft skin between his jaw and his neck. “Why do you think that?” “Because you keep hanging around.” “I’m hanging around? You’re the one who keeps hanging around!” He pulled her close and dipped his head until his face was less than an inch from hers. She was nearly breathless waiting for his kiss. “That’s right. I’m the one who keeps hanging around, and don’t you forget it. Everywhere you go, there I’ll be.” “Now you sound like a stalker.” He held her even closer. “Count on it.” “I wonder if I need to call security.” “I’d like to see you try.” He closed the distance between them with his kiss.
It was after four in the morning when the last of their guests left. She should have been exhausted but instead she felt wildly alive. Rafe closed the door and turned slowly toward her. His gaze licked her body like a hungry flame. She smiled, waiting. “Do you have any idea what I’d like to do to you?” “Some.” “Only some?” He moved a step toward her. She waited. He moved another step closer. “Shall I tell you?” “If you like.” She sounded calm, yet she was anything but. He moved another step closer. “Or would you rather I show you?” “Do you really want to know?” He didn’t move. “Yes.” “I’d like you to tell me first, and then show me.” He smiled and took another step. He was only an arm’s length away from her. “That’s my girl.” He swept her into his arms and began to sway, even though the musicians had long since left. “First, I’m going to look at you. Just stand here and look at you. You are always beautiful, but tonight you were like something magical. And now, I’m going to walk around you and stare the way I’ve wanted to stare all night—the way I saw man after man stare at you. I’m going to study your shoulders and note that your arms are
the most inviting I’ve ever felt. I’m going to gaze at your breasts and continue to debate with myself, the way I’ve debated every time I’ve seen you, about whether you’re more tantalizing with clothes or without. It’s a debate I believe I’ll never be able to settle.” He let go of her and began to circle around, his eyes roaming her body. He ceased his movement and his arms found her once again. She rested her head on his shoulder. “And then I’m going to unwrap you. Would you like that, Elle?” She waited. “After I’ve unwrapped you, I’m going to look at you until neither of us can stand it. And then I’ll let you unwrap me.” She shivered and he held her even more closely. “And then I’m going to make love to you all day long. Every time you try to fall asleep I’m going to wake you with the feel of me so deep inside you, nothing else will matter. Except that I love you. I love you, Elle.” He kissed her long, and then began to speak low and soft into her ear. “Tell me that’s what you want, too.” They were both startled when Rafe’s phone rang. She loved that even though his attention was diverted, he held her. She loved the way he answered, growling, “Whoever you are, this better be important.” She loved the way his arm tightened around her, but when she saw his face go white, a cold feeling washed over her. Something bad was coming. She tried to pull away, but he crushed her to his chest. “It’s about Caleb, isn’t it?” She buried her face in him and began to cry. “That was Indigo. He said that about an hour after he arrived at the hospital, Caleb took a turn for the worse.
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He’s better now. They were able to stabilize him, and it looks like he’s out of the woods. He said if we come now, they’ll let us see him. Do you want to get changed, first?” Libby was already racing to the car.
Caleb was stabilized and sleeping by the time they arrived. “It was a reaction to the bullet. It was coated in a special compound that’s designed to get into the bloodstream and paralyze the heart until it stops. One of your security team dislodged the bullet from the wall and brought it with him. Smart guy. Without that bullet, we wouldn’t have known what to treat him for.” The doctor assured them that Caleb was out of danger. They stayed until Caleb was conscious. But he became so disturbed to find them there, he refused to rest until they went home and got some sleep themselves. On the ride home, Libby said, “You know what we haven’t talked about yet.” “What’s that?” “Caleb’s request to adopt you. How do you feel about it?” “Did you know he was thinking about something like that?” “No, but I’m glad he was. Any objections?” “Do you mind if we talk about it later? I’m exhausted and I really haven’t had time to sort it all out yet.” “What is there to sort out?” He sighed. “You’d be surprised. Are we sleeping in your bed or mine?” “I have an idea. Let’s go to the cottage. That seems more like ‘ours’ rather than yours or mine.”
“I’m sorry, Elle. This was supposed to be the most romantic night of your life.” “Why would you think that it wasn’t?” He smiled. They were asleep almost before they could get their clothes off, their bodies plaited together like a double helix. They woke up around two, and went straight to the hospital. Caleb was in good spirits. “Looks like I’m coming home day after tomorrow. They want to try this new treatment so I’ll need another day or so here.” “I’ll stay with you.” “No, Liberty, you won’t. I can’t have you here when you’re supposed to be taking care of things.” No matter how hard she tried, he wouldn’t allow it. “I’ve spent a lot of years alone, and I won’t have you neglect the business to stay here and make sad eyes over me.” And so they went home. But there was nothing that needed her attention. Rafe, on the other hand, went to check out all things ranch- and rodeo-related. She was at a loss as to what to do with herself when an idea struck her. She buzzed Rafe on his cell. “Did you find anything else in that secret room? Something you haven’t told me about?” For once he didn’t hedge. “There were some other things that might be of interest about the family in general but nothing that was pertinent to the investigation.” “What about your mother. Was any of it pertinent to her?” “No. Only the Bible.” “You’re sure?”
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“I promise, Elle, if it was there, I would have found it. I didn’t find anything.” She believed him. So the secret room in the attic couldn’t possibly be what Ariela had meant. Libby tried to remember exactly what Luna had said. He doesn’t know. Caleb doesn’t know. There’d been something about finding something in a secret room. But she’d found the secret room and there wasn’t anything there. Libby wracked her brain to remember whether Luna had said anything else. And then the words “day room” came back to her. But Libby had already searched the day room in one of her earliest searches. Maybe Ariela hadn’t meant the day room at all. Although she couldn’t have said why, Libby went to the day room anyway, Aramis at her heel, and sat at the desk where all the previous matriarchs had sat writing letters and handling the household business. She looked around the room and tried to imagine where the day room was in relationship to the secret room in the attic. With a jolt she realized the day room was under, or very nearly under, the secret room. Libby looked at the walls. The day room was at the end of the house but only one of the outside walls had windows, and this seemed unusual to her. Might this mean there was a secret room on the other side of one of these walls? She walked over to take a closer look, but noticed nothing unusual. She was about to give up when she saw a light switch. Not only were there no overhead lights, but it was in an awkward place. To use it meant that someone would have to walk clear across the room past the table lamps, to turn them on. Maybe it wasn’t a light switch at all. Acting braver than she felt, she flipped the switch and a door slid open.
Libby felt the pull of intrigue as she stepped inside the room. Aramis refused to follow her. She felt along the wall to find a switch. The dim light threw shadows at odd angles. Unlike the attic, this room was not furnished and had not been cleaned in a very long time. In fact, it was quite creepy. There were several boxes, all unmarked. Libby looked through them but found nothing. Old menus, guest lists and invitations, inconsequential photos—nothing but clutter. She moved to the back wall and felt for anything that might be a safe. There was no safe on the wall, but there was a trapdoor on the floor like the one in the attic. It took all her strength to heave open the door. At first it appeared to be nothing but an empty square space where someone might hide something, but no one had. Then she realized there was a trap door at the bottom that was much smaller and opened more easily. Inside this trap door was a metal box about the size of a small toolbox. She lifted it out and stepped into the brighter light of the day room. The box was a rusted gray metal, and it was locked. Libby sat back, momentarily deflated. Not one to give up easily, she reached into the desk and pulled out a letter opener and pried the lock open. She lifted the lid and stared down at a stack of letters tied with a blue ribbon. The faint scent of violet wafted up and Libby was charmed by the idea that someone had used violet-scented stationery on which to write letters. She hesitated. She wasn’t even family. What business did she have reading these letters? She should wait and save them for when Caleb returned home. She closed everything up and carried the metal box to her room, where she buried it under the clothes in her bottom drawer. There it remained for a full ten minutes, until she
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pulled the box back out, opened it, and lifted the stack of letters. She untied the ribbon. The envelope of the topmost letter was dated May 10, 1995, and was addressed to Caleb with the notation “Please read my letter first, before reading any of the other letters.” Libby opened the envelope and began to read. My Darling Caleb, I wonder if I will ever find the courage or the character to give you these letters. They are from your beloved Ariela. I make no excuses. Instead, I ask that you open your heart—if in fact we’ve left you with even a small piece of it intact—and remember that we did what we did because we love you. Libby read on, forcing herself to read every word even though she was nearly blinded by tears. She had to exercise discipline. She wanted to race through it and then pore through the other letters—letters from Ariela to Caleb. But there were so many shocking revelations in the first letter, she almost couldn’t believe what she was reading. When she finished the first letter, she looked through several of Ariela’s letters, then folded them all up and put them away. She’d seen enough to know that she had to show Rafe. Very likely, it would have been more appropriate to wait until Caleb came home and show him first, but Rafe deserved to know without any further delay. She would show him the minute he came through the door.
Rafe waited until he saw Libby’s light go out, and then went to the cottage instead of his bedroom. He hadn’t had any time to think, to sort out his feelings. The moment he’d seen what was in Caleb’s safety deposit box, he’d known he had to have him exonerated immediately— before he died. The man deserved it. Rafe pulled the envelope he’d taken from Caleb’s safety deposit box out from behind the dresser mirror where he’d put it away for safekeeping, and emptied the contents out on the bed. The envelope contained only two things. A photo of Caleb and Ariela on their wedding day, and a letter penned in Caleb’s deliberate handwriting to Ariela. Rafe stared at the photo of his mother and father, then read the letter slowly. It affected him as strongly this time as it had that day in the vault. My Darling Ariela, This is all I have of us. Where are you? Why did you run away? I long to be in your arms again. I mourn the children we never had. If only I knew where you were, I would beg you to come back. To forgive me for whatever it was that drove you off, and let me love you the way I’ve longed to all these years. The way I long to, still. Yours ever, Caleb
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Rafe remembered the look on Caleb’s face when he’d emerged from the vault. Naked vulnerability. He’d allowed Rafe to look into his soul. Rafe felt ashamed. In the car he said, “I’m prepared to close my investigation. I’m going to Denver tomorrow to see that you’re exonerated.” Caleb nodded. “I’m sorry. You told me that the contents of your safety deposit box were strictly personal and I didn’t believe you.” Caleb shrugged. “You did what you had to. It would have been dishonorable of you to let it go without making sure.” Rafe took a deep breath. “I’m going to ask Libby to marry me. Any objections?” “No, but I’m curious as to why. Why are you going to ask her to marry you?” “Because when I read your letter to my mother, I realized that if I never saw her again, I would feel exactly the way you did when you wrote that letter.” Caleb winced and offered a ghost of a smile. “Well, son, if it takes a peek at my soul to help you understand your feelings for Liberty, then I’d gladly do it again.” The very next afternoon, Rafe had gone to Denver to meet with Carson Tillers. Carson had given him quite a hard time. “I don’t know, Rafe. Just because you didn’t find anything doesn’t mean he’s innocent.” “With all due respect, you hired me because I’m the best. If there were anything to find, I would have found it. The man is clean. I even went back and looked at all previous investigations. We never found anything because
there isn’t anything to find. He’s an uncommonly brilliant man. And a kind one at that.” Carson shook his head. “I knew there was some risk that you’d go soft because he’s your father. Sounds like that’s what happened.” Rafe felt himself grow dangerously angry and leveraged all of his training to remain calm. “I didn’t go soft. The man never knew he had a son.” “How can you believe that?” “Because I found proof that he didn’t know.” “Which leads me even more to the conclusion that you went soft.” “I had already completed my investigation and determined that he was not our guy before I found proof that he never knew I existed.” “I’m not inclined to exonerate him. I think we’ll just send the next team in and see what they can find.” Rafe had anticipated this. “You could do that. But if you do, I’ll join with his attorneys to block your efforts. I don’t think you want me as your opposition. You trained me too well, if you know what I mean. Hamilton has a strong harassment case, and he knows it, but he’s never lifted a finger against any of you because he has nothing to hide. He’d rather keep making himself accessible to you than to prosecute, because he’s an honorable man. He believes you’re just doing your job. But I want it stopped. You’ve investigated him on a whim and little or no probable cause. Exonerate him and move on to the real crooks.” Carson was quiet a long time, studying his fingernails. Finally he said, “Done. You ever going to tell him you’re his son?”
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“That’s my business. I’ll hang around until you’ve written your report. Shouldn’t take you more than an hour to handle the paperwork. I’ll take a hard copy of it with me. You can mail my final check.” He grinned. “I’m in a hurry. I’ve got a helicopter waiting for me, so I’d appreciate anything you can do to speed things up.” Rafe sighed. On the flight back from Denver he’d made up his mind never to tell Caleb. It would only cause him more heartache and possibly mess things up for Libby. She was his intended successor and that’s the way it should stay. Rafe needed nothing more than to know that Caleb had truly never known he had a son. Rafe didn’t even need to know why his mother’s version of the story was so different. There was nothing he could do for her, now. But he could make sure that his father, Caleb Hamilton, never felt the regret of not knowing he had a son. It would all stay where it belonged—in the past. Or at least that’s what he had decided, until Caleb announced to everyone in the ballroom that he wanted to adopt Rafe. Adopting him would bring Rafe into the family. Libby would want Caleb to change his will, and it was even possible that with the new adoption proceedings, it might be discovered that Rafe was Caleb’s biological son. Rafe had thought he could protect both of them. Now, everything was going to shift, and he couldn’t do anything to stop it. He didn’t know what to do. And although he didn’t need it, somewhere deep inside, he longed to have his father know that he was his son.
It was nearly light. When he didn’t find Libby in her bed, he checked his. She was sleeping soundly. He looked at her a long time. Things were about to change, and he wanted to be there for both of them—help them through it. He needed to tell Libby before he spoke to Caleb. Make sure she understood that he wanted no part of the money. He in no way wanted to change the legal or business arrangements Caleb had already made. She stirred and all he could think was that she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He knew he could look for a lifetime and never find someone who spoke to his soul the way she did. She had chosen to set aside her mistrust of him, and simply love him. If the situation were reversed, he might not have been able to do the same. She stirred again. One slim leg kicked out from under the sheet. His brain seized on an idea the moment he realized she was naked. He left the room as silently as he’d come, stole into Libby’s bedroom, grabbed a pair of jeans and a top, then headed out to the stable, where he saddled Firenza and tucked Libby’s clothes into his pack. He slung a rope around Marengo and led them to the back of the house, then tethered them to the porch railing. He crept back into his bedroom, and sat down on the bed beside her. He pulled the sheet down and gazed at her body. She opened her eyes. “Stalker.” He leaned in and kissed her. “You’re in my bed. I hardly think that qualifies me as a stalker.”
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“It’s not even light out—oh! Wait! I have something to tell you.” He put a finger over her lips. “Me too. And I want to do it right. It’s not something I can just blurt out.” “But I—” He kissed her again to quiet her. “You have to wait your turn.” She gave him a sleepy smile. “If you’d come home last night I would have already told you this.” He put his finger back over her lips. “How about if we take turns. I’ll go first. Here, let me help you sit up.” He propped her up against the headboard, enjoying the way her breasts swayed and her hair sprawled across her body. She sighed. “I’m listening.” “I have the horses out back. It’s not quite light.” “It’s not even a little light.” He frowned. She offered a coquettish smile and drew her hair away from her body allowing it to cascade down her back. He scooped her up, sheet and all and headed for the door. “I sense a total lack of cooperation here.” “Wait! Is it my turn yet?” “No more waiting.” She giggled. “Whatever you have planned, there’s a lockbox in my bottom drawer. We have to take it with us.” He dipped her so that she could open the drawer and pull out the box. “Proceed,” she said. He carried her out, boosted her onto Marengo’s bare back and draped the sheet around her. “Let’s keep you covered until we’re out of sight.”
He swung into Firenza’s saddle, hooked the lockbox, and told Marengo to follow. “Where are you spiriting me off to?” “I think you’ll recognize it soon enough.” “Are you taking me to Turtle Rock?” “Where?” “It’s where I taught you to appreciate swimming in that new and unusual way.” He laughed. “Nope.” When they were well out of sight, Rafe dismounted. “I’d like to make this something we will remember forever.” “Something we’ll tell our children?” He chuckled. “Not until they are very old.” In the lavender light of earliest dawn, he took off his shirt. Libby’s eyes grew wide. He unsnapped his jeans and lowered the zipper. Libby let the sheet slide off her back. He kicked out of his jeans. The sun was still behind the Rockies. It sent a pink glow out to join the lavender. Rafe stood in his briefs and reached for the sheet. She let him have it without protest. She looked like Lady Godiva, sitting bareback on a wild mustang stallion, with only her hair for cover. He slid out of his briefs, tucked everything in his pack, and swung back up into the saddle just as the sun crested. They rode side by side, listening to the call of the mockingbird, the blue jays and the gentle whooshing noises that occasionally Firenza or Marengo made when they let out their breath. Rafe reached for her hand. Their arms were just long enough to clear the horses and interlock. Finally he let go of her hand and spoke. “I was planning to wait until we got there, but I can’t hold it in
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for even another second.” He looked to see if she was ready to listen, or whether she was still intent on telling him her news. She smiled and nodded. “Promise me you’ll listen to me all the way through. That you won’t go running off.” “I can hardly go running off. I’m naked.” “Never stopped you before.” She chuckled. “I had a different routine in those days.” “Promise me.” “I promise that, no matter what you tell me, I will be calm, I will listen all the way through, and I will not go running off so that you have to chase me. At least not because I’m angry. I do rather like it when you chase me.” She gave him a wicked grin. He took her hand again and stopped the horses. “Caleb Hamilton is my biological father.” She clapped her hand to her forehead. “I knew I should have gone first.” “What?” “That’s what I was going to tell you.” “But how could you possibly know?” “Why do you think we brought along that rusty old lockbox?” “It has something to do with Caleb being my father?” “You don’t get to know any more about it until it’s my turn.” She grinned. “When and how did you find out?” “Two years ago. The FBI told me.” “What!?” “Two years ago I was approached by the FBI and asked to investigate Caleb Hamilton. I’d never heard of
Caleb Hamilton in any context except as a business mogul.” “Ariela—your mother never told you about Caleb?” “Never by name, and never when she was sober. I always believed Ramon Rodriguez was my father.” “And when she wasn’t sober?” “She sometimes said my father was a very rich man who threw us out when I was a baby. That he didn’t want anything to do with us.” “But that’s not true. He never knew you existed.” “How do you know this, Elle?” “How close are we to where you want to go?” “It’s a little ways yet.” “Then let’s stop here.” She slipped off Marengo’s back and waited for him. When he dismounted she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. He felt the curve of her body against his and pulled her into him until part of him nested between her legs. She let go of him and stepped back. “You really want to hold that thought awhile. This is important. But Rafe, why didn’t you just tell him you were his son?” “At first, I wanted to bring him down. Thought he was the world’s worst bastard for throwing my mother out and turning his back on us. As I got to know him, it was difficult to believe he was the crook that he was accused of being. The day he said he believed I was Ariela’s son—the son he would have liked to have had with her—I looked into his eyes and wanted to believe he was telling the truth, but it was the first time I ever considered that he might not know about me. It was a shock to realize that he might not even know I had been conceived.” “When did you find out for sure that he didn’t know?”
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“When I investigated the contents of his safety deposit box. The only things in it were a wedding photo of my mother and Caleb, and a letter written by Caleb to her telling her that he mourned the children they’d never had. That he didn’t know why she’d run off but that he would take her back in a moment because he still loved her. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever encountered. And it scared me, too.” “Why?” “Because it made me realize that if you were to suddenly disappear, I would feel exactly the same way.” She came to him then, offering herself in the way that women have offered themselves to men over the ages—providing the greatest comfort any human being has ever known. He held her fast against a trunk with lowhanging branches and dipped into her over and over. She pulled herself up and he dropped to his knees, tasting her until he felt her body shudder in release. He caught her and laid her on the ground where he dipped into her again, easing himself inside the warmth of her, his hands underneath her rocking until their bodies detonated into one another. Afterward, they lay on their backs staring up through the trees. He rolled over and kissed her breasts. “I love you.” She turned her head toward him. He could see she was still a little breathless. “I love you.” “This kind of ruins what I had planned.” “What do you mean?” “I thought we’d do this once we got to where we’re going.” “Seems like we’re just getting started. What happened to the guy who said he was going to make love
to me all day long?” She bit his ear. “Now, are you finally ready to listen to me?” “Yes. You’ve been very patient.” She hopped up. “Where are you going?” “To get the box and a blanket.” They spread the blanket out under a tree. Libby sat down and propped herself up against the trunk. She patted the space between her legs. Rafe sat down. She wrapped her legs around him. “You have some reading to do, my love. Start with this one. It’s from your grandmother to your father. He’s never seen this or any of the letters in this box.” She handed him his grandmother’s letter.
Chapter Twenty-Three My Darling Caleb, I wonder if I will ever find the courage or the character to give you these letters. They are from your beloved Ariela. I make no excuses. Instead, I ask that you open your heart—if in fact we’ve left you with even a small piece of it intact—and remember that we did what we did because we love you. You need only to look to any history book of any country, of any age, to see evidence of the terrible things human beings do to each other in the name of love, and the blind desire to provide protection. But hindsight is cruel, and I know now that we were terribly wrong. Your father and I are leaving for Europe this morning. When we return, I hope to have found the strength to look into your beautiful eyes and tell you about this in person. My son, I am writing to you in the event my character fails me, and we never speak about this. Rafe stopped reading and looked questioningly at Libby. “I’m right here. Keep reading.” She kissed his cheek and held him, her arms and legs wrapped tightly around him. You were so young when you fell in love with Ariela. The world is different now, but when you met her in 1971, we lived in a world of racism and prejudice, of classism and
socio-economic discrimination. Your father and I grew up believing that multicultural marriages were wrong, not just in our eyes, but in the eyes of God. All we could see was that Ariela was a half-breed, part Hispanic, part Ute. She was unspeakably poor. Her father was an itinerant rodeoer and ranch hand. She had no education, no training in the social graces. She was in no way prepared to step into the role of your wife. Your father and I were also young. Too young, too inexperienced to know that the only requirement necessary in a life partner is love. Where there is enough love, anything can be overcome. I know now that Ariela would have learned. She would have made you a proud wife. In this box you will find letters from Ariela. My darling Caleb, I ask that you finish reading my letter to you first, before you read her letters, because it will provide the context you need to understand her letters. The day you ran off with Ariela, I thought I would die. When you sent word that you had married her, your father and I felt betrayed. Your father felt betrayed because all of his plans for you, his hopes, and dreams were destroyed that day. I felt betrayed because you dared to love a woman and I was no longer the most important woman in your life. Forgive me, Caleb. Mothers are jealous women. We easily let go of our daughters, but we cling to our sons. Your father and I agreed that if you would come back, we would do everything in our power to make you think that we had made peace with your marriage and that we welcomed Ariela into the family. Once you were confident she was welcome here, we’d find a way to get you back on track and away from her. It was almost too easy. Your father and I were quite a tag-team. Any time
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you were out of the room, we worked on Ariela, finding fault, suggesting ways she could and should improve herself. When we convinced you to go off to college, we redoubled our efforts, scuttling her out of the room any time we had guests. Even now I am simply not able to admit to you all the things we did to make your wife miserable. You have a son. Ariela did not run off with Ramon Rodriguez. We paid that man to take Ariela away from you—back to her mother in Escalante, Utah. Rafe began to cry. Silent tears ran down his cheeks and over Libby’s arms and legs. You see, during your last visit home, Ariela became pregnant. I could tell right away because she had such terrible morning sickness so early in her pregnancy. For three months we told her how wrong it would be to bring a child into this world now. We tried to buy her off. We embarrassed her. We frightened her. We shamed her. But she was steadfast, Caleb. You would have been proud. I would have never believed she had that kind of strength, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. He felt Libby lean into him and kiss the back of his neck. She wrapped her legs even tighter around him. When nothing worked, we took her to the doctor and paid him to tell her that the baby was horribly deformed. That it wouldn’t live beyond a month or two. When we got her back home, we told her that God had turned his back on her. She was always so troubled that God was angry because the two of you hadn’t been married in the church.
We told her we could legally force her to have an abortion. It was the only way we would allow her to remain in the family. She refused the abortion. Finally, we showed her a telegram that she believed was from you. It said you’d never loved her, could not love a sick baby, and that you didn’t even think the baby was yours. You told her to go away and that you expected her to be gone when you came home; you never wanted to see her again. She was stricken. Took to her bed for three days. Finally, she agreed to go away. We promised to take care of all her financial needs for her lifetime, and the lifetime of the baby, should it live. I’ve never seen such a sad, sickly figure as she, the day we put her on the train. I could tell by her letters, which came later, that she was never the same. When she arrived at her grandmother’s, there was a registered letter from us waiting for her. It said we knew she’d stolen some very expensive jewelry from us, and that Ramon Rodriguez was the real father of her baby. She was never to contact you again or we would have her arrested. We told her that if her child lived, and she contacted you, we would prosecute her for theft. And, if she continued to insist that you were the baby’s father, we would prosecute her for extortion. This meant she’d go to prison and the child would end up lost in the foster system. She was such an innocent. We nearly frightened her to death. Rafe put down the letter. “I don’t need to read any more.” Libby leaned back against the trunk and pulled him with her. She stroked his arms and kissed his ear. “It’s up to you, Rafe. Your grandmother wrote this so many years
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ago, hoping some day Caleb would read it in time to right the wrong that was done. He didn’t. You’ve lived for thirty-three years never knowing what really happened. The only one who really knew was your grandmother. She put all of it in this letter because she wanted to come clean. You don’t owe her anything. But I wonder if today will be the memory you want it to be, if you don’t read the rest.” Rafe picked the letter back up. She bore you a healthy boy and named him Raphael—the name the two of you had chosen for your firstborn son. She violated our agreement by giving the child your middle name, Barclay. She used her own surname, Cabrerras, on the birth certificate and listed Ramon Rodriguez as the father. We sent her a generous allowance every month. A year passed, and then the letters started coming. She wrote to you every week for five years. It was easy to keep them from you. I had the mail brought directly to me. And then one day, the letters stopped. I guess she just didn’t have anything left to say. I hope you’ll forgive me. I read some of the letters. In them you’ll find photos of Raphael as a baby. Ariela died four years ago in 1991 of heart disease when Raphael was 14. We will continue to pay a monthly allowance to the child through a trust until he reaches the age of 25. Caleb, it grieves me to tell you that Ariela never touched the money we sent her. She went without, and saved every penny we gave her for Raphael’s college fund. Your son is in his first year at Yale. He has more than enough to get him through college and graduate
school if he so desires. From what I understand, he’s a very smart boy who looks a lot like his mother. He will also come into a substantial amount of money when he turns thirty. But until now, neither of you knew the other existed. Rafe put the letter down again and swiped at his eyes. “I know you said you didn’t believe in the visions Luna had.” “I do believe them. I believed them at the time, and I believe them now. I just couldn’t have the truth coming out then.” “So you know that today, by reading this letter, you’re helping Ariela—your mother—find peace.” Rafe swung her in front of him and rocked her against his chest. “Because of you. Only because of you. You were the only one who—who—I was driven by resentment and hate.” He kissed her throat. “But you— you pursued it because you wanted to help someone you didn’t even know—someone who isn’t even of this world.” He kissed her mouth and locked his hands in her hair. Libby held up the letter. He sighed and began to read again. There is more to confess. About six months after you married Jane, she found Ariela’s letters and read them. She confronted me about them privately. I told her they were the ravings of a mad woman. She asked me why I kept them. I took them from her and told her I owed her no explanation.
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I know that your marriage to Jane was troubled from the start. But it became more so after she found the letters because after reading them, she knew what we had done. She knew that you would never have turned away from Ariela. That you only married her because you thought your true love had betrayed you. It destroyed the woman to think that you were still in love with Ariela. The night Jane died, I knew something was wrong. I watched her ride out on her horse in the storm from my bedroom window, a foreboding in my heart. I went to her room where I found Rose-Marie reading the note she’d left behind. It was a suicide note. In it, Jane accused you of all kinds of terrible things. She said you were so cold to her that she had nothing left to live for. Finally she said that she could understand why Ariela had left you. That’s when I knew she was just trying to hurt you, because Jane knew Ariela had not left you of her own will. I took the note away from Rose-Marie, who was by this time, hysterical. I vowed silently that you would never see Jane’s note. I kept Rose-Marie closeted in her room. It was only a few hours later that Jane’s body was found. We called for a doctor who gave Rose-Marie a sedative and pronounced Jane’s death an accident. I thought the sedative had effectively erased Rose-Marie’s memory but I was wrong. She told her sister about the note. Sadly, they’ve assigned you the blame for their mother’s death. You’ll find Jane’s note at the bottom of this box, underneath Ariela’s letters. My darling Caleb, find your son. Find Raphael Barclay Cabrerras and give him your name. If you do this, you will be granting this foolish woman who was blinded by love for so many years, her only wish—for you to be happy, and to open your heart before it’s too late.
Your loving mother, Corrinne Adams Hamilton May 10, 1995 Rafe held Libby against his chest listening to her murmur words of comfort. He didn’t even know for sure what she was saying. He only knew he would never allow anything to separate them. He would die first. “So the other letters. They’re from my mother?” “Yes. Five years worth of letters to Caleb, begging him to forgive her for allowing his parents to convince her that she should leave him. She couldn’t know they would frame her as a thief. And, she couldn’t know that he would never see her letters.” “She died never realizing that he had no idea what had really happened.” “It’s so sad, Rafe. I haven’t read many of the letters. There are photos of you as a baby and a small child. Some of the letters I read don’t make sense.” “She probably wrote them when she was drinking.” “She was heartbroken. This kind of deception—it ruins lives. It ruined hers. It ruined Caleb’s. It nearly ruined yours. And if you hadn’t realized that something wasn’t right—that Caleb couldn’t possibly be the man you had thought him to be—it would have ruined my life, too. Because I couldn’t protect my heart from you.” “I don’t want to read them.” “Not now. Maybe not ever. But I’m quite sure Caleb will want to read them. And he must read his mother’s letter.” “I wonder why she never told him. After writing everything out the way she did.” “You don’t know?”
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“Know what?” He looked into her eyes, waiting. “May tenth, the day she wrote that letter, is the day they left for Europe. Their plane dropped into the Atlantic that same day. There were no survivors.” “But that doesn’t explain why these letters were never found.” “I found them in this lockbox in a trap door, inside of a trap door, inside a secret room just off the day room.” “Like the room in the attic?” “Yes, although Caleb might not even know about this room. He never used the day room; it was strictly for the Hamilton matriarchs. And the secret room off the day room, unlike the attic, has never been cleaned—it’s spooky.” She shuddered. “I’m quite sure I never want to go in there again. I think your grandmother was the last person to ever know about that room, or the secret trapdoors. When she died, all those secrets were lost.” Rafe packed the letters back into the box, folded the blanket and boosted her up onto Marengo. “Is there a reason you keep boosting me up on my horse?” “Makes me feel manly.” She laughed. “Figured out where we’re going yet?” “Yes, some time ago.” “Do you know why we’re headed there?” “To fulfill one of your greatest fantasies. Something you’ve wanted to do since the first day you saw me.” He chuckled, realizing how well she really knew him, and not minding it a bit. They could hear the water before they could see it. When it finally came into view, Rafe realized he’d forgotten how striking it was. The water spread wide
across a stone overhang and dropped like a veil into the water below. Marengo whinnied and broke away, trotting into the open area behind the falls. He picked his way across the hardened clay and shale at the lake’s edge, carefully wading into the shallow until horse and rider were just under the edge of the falling water. “Hey, slow down there. This time we’re doing it together!” Libby urged Marengo out of the water and over to Rafe, where he stood patiently letting Rafe climb up. “Here’s the fun part,” she told him. “Now we turn around so that we can stretch out against his neck.” “Now you turn around so that you can stretch out against his neck. I’m going to be very busy doing other things.” He clicked his tongue and urged Marengo back under the water until it spilled over them. Rafe opened her legs and watched as the water kissed her intimately. She lay stretched against Marengo’s back, cooing her delight. He leaned low and dragged his tongue across her. Her outer skin was cool from the water, but beneath the soft folds she was so hot that, when he breathed into her, it created steam. He kissed her in this most intimate of ways until she begged for more. He stopped and let the water cool her. Then went back for more, his own need growing beyond urgent. At last he rolled off Marengo’s back and swept her into his arms. He carried her to a soft bed of moss and eased himself in, taking his time so that he wouldn’t lose control. She shrieked the way he’d heard her that first day. The canyon echoed it back. Marengo and Firenza nickered softly as if they understood. They walked the horses slowly, in no hurry to get back. As they neared the ranch Rafe reached for Libby’s
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hand. His fingers locked into hers. The horses moved closer together as if they already knew what was coming. “Whoa.” Rafe’s voice was low. The horses stopped. Rafe dismounted and got down on one knee. He looked up at the woman he loved. “I love you, Elle. Will you marry me?”
Caleb looked from Libby, to Rafe, to Libby’s left hand, and smiled. “I see you got the deed done.” Rafe grinned. “They’re keeping me here another few days. The last treatment went well. We’re going to try another one. The doctor thinks you two are good for me.” Libby’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh for heaven’s sakes. Get hold of yourself, Liberty. The odds are very slim, but why not give it a try, since I’m already here.” “We have something to show you.” “Oh?” Libby handed Caleb the letter his mother had written fourteen years earlier. “This is from your mother. I found it in a locked box inside a trap door, inside another trap door, inside a secret room off the day room.” Caleb looked at Rafe. “Has she gone mad? What is she raving about?” “You’ll want to put your glasses on for this,” Rafe advised. Libby handed him his glasses. “Read.” Caleb was a long time reading. He had to stop several times to dab his eyes. When he was done he laid the letter down and looked at them. He opened his mouth three times to say something. Each time nothing came out. “It’s okay, Dad. Everything is okay.” Rafe squeezed his hand.
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Caleb shouted for Indigo. “Get John Canfield here. There are changes to be made.” “Well, about that—” Rafe began. “Yes?” “I was hoping things wouldn’t have to change.” “Nonsense, of course they have to change.” “But Elle’s—” “You think she wouldn’t want you included in the will?” “Of course but—” “Well relax. While the two of you have been off gallivanting in the woods and getting engaged, the three of us just bought another company. It’s going to be big, Rafe. And it’s yours. I’ve already put it in your name. The paperwork I was talking about just now was to officially name you as my biological son. Libby will not be disinherited. This new company is going to be worth more than all the rest. So, there you have it.” Caleb looked like he was going to levitate.
Libby decided this was her cue. “Actually, I think there’s even a little more paperwork to do than you might realize.” “Yes?” Caleb raised a questioning eyebrow. “I’d like to go back and finish my veterinarian’s degree. We’re going to need a good vet around here. Jared Fader is relocating to Minnesota where he has family.” “You don’t want to run the business?” “I’m happy to help, but my heart’s desire is to work with animals, and Rafe would be much better at running the ranch and the new company. Now don’t even try to
argue with me, either of you. It’s true and you both know it.” “You’re no slouch, Liberty.” “No, but Rafe is just like you.” They both grinned. “And there’s something else.” “Yes?” They chorused. “You’ll need to draw up another trust.” Caleb and Rafe looked blankly at one another. “Because next April there will be an addition to the family.” The two men still looked blank. “Hmmm, I just might be the brightest one in the family after all. April is seven months from now.” Caleb was still frowning but Rafe’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. He dropped into a chair. His face drained of all color. “And in seven months, little Raphael or Raphaella will be joining us.” Rafe leaped out of the chair and crushed her to him. She searched his face. “Are you happy about the news?” “You have to ask? When did you find out?” “Yesterday. But I already knew.” “You knew?” “Well, I couldn’t stop crying last weekend, and suddenly food doesn’t agree with me, and then two days ago I noticed my jeans were a little snug, so I began to suspect. I saw the doctor yesterday. She confirmed it. And Luna Rafferty called me today.” “Luna?”
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“Yes. Ariela asked her to thank me and to tell me that a host of guardian angels are watching over our child.” Caleb was already on the phone to Canfield. “Just bring everything. We have a lot of work to do!” Rafe murmured into her ear, “See, now that’s the difference between my father and me. You think we’re so much alike, but look at him. He hears about our baby and all he wants to do is go crazy over the paperwork. As for me, I’m planning to carry you out of here so we can celebrate this thing properly.”
My deepest appreciation to Phyllis, Lynn, Kristin, Ilene and Laura for their many contributions.
About the Author
Rebecca E. Grant believes that love is unstoppable! For Rebecca, writing women’s fiction with wonderfully erotic elements is a little like cooking. First, she likes to lay her hero and heroine out gently on a well-oiled surface, take some seasoning in her hands and smooth it into them until they’re so flavorful they’re ready to pop. Then she lets them steep awhile in a nice marinade. When they are at their most succulent, sometimes she will put them in a slow-cooking oven and turn them over and over, and other times she’ll toss them on a blazing grill to sizzle. Either way, at some point in the story, they are going to devour each other! Currently an innovative educator with a PhD in organizational development, Rebecca lives in Minnesota on the edge of a wetlands where wild turkeys and other creatures teach her balance and renewal. She loves the four seasons, long walks, early morning with a steaming cup of coffee, and late nights filled with stimulating conversation, a bottle of amusingly insouciant wine, and good friends. Rebecca began writing women’s fiction in April of 2009. LIBERTY STARR is her first published romance.
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ISBN: 978-1-4268-9017-8 Copyright © 2010 by Rebecca E. Grant All rights reserved. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of publisher, Harlequin Enterprises Limited, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 3K9. All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention. This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. ® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. Trademarks indicated with ® are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Canadian Trade Marks Office and in other countries. www.CarinaPress.com