Whispers In The Dark Bj James Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR MR. JULYHis Name: Rafe CourtenayHis Challenge: To rescue a kidnapped childHis Accomplice: Beguiling Valentina O'HaraTheir Destination: A remote canyon where danger will merge with desireWhen Rafe Courtenay is on a mission, nothing stands in his way. Not scorching heat and rugged terrain. Not a tempting female whose tormented nightmares shatter the still desert nights. But Rafe, who has never truly needed anyone, needs Valentina O'Hara. And though the legendary markswoman inhabits a man's perilous world, Rafe intends to win her trust - and love - by treating her like a real woman.MAN OF THE MONTH THE BLACK WATCH: Men and women sworn to live - and love - by a code of honor. “What Are You Frightened Of, O’Hara?” (#u7f85e81c-0615-5d0b-8253-b632c30be9f0)Letter to Reader (#u50e4344a-5200-551d-96a0-671bbeb721b1)Title Page (#ueff0cb20-fed1-59f4-b609-dbc8979ffdfa)About the Author (#uafce51de-f380-5a6f-9584-586a809dc34c)Forward (#u2b31deb5-df75-5653-ac2f-5af29d73a363)Chapter One (#u5bd252d4-2785-5fe2-917f-99aa70630870)Chapter Two (#uc143590a-820d-5480-b532-7a856f8c21c4)Chapter Three (#u686be8bb-8dcc-5cfb-8a4f-13cd1e9e0b9f)Chapter Four (#u7a2b5dd8-4ba0-5683-b09f-762d4bbadc1d)Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo)Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) “What Are You Frightened Of, O’Hara?” Rafe asked softly. Valentina bristled and reddened. “Frightened? I’m not. Why would I be?” “Do I frighten you? After you slept in my arms for most of two nights, are you suddenly afraid that I would harm you?” Shaking her head and catching the sweep of her hair back, she stuttered a denial. “I never...I wouldn’t...” “You dreamed, O’Hara,” Rafe said, wishing he could touch her and comfort her as before. “Disturbing dreams. And I held you until you slept at peace.” Dear Reader, THE BLACK WATCH returns! The men you found so intriguing are now joined by women who are also part of this secret organization created by BJ James. Look for them in Whispers in the Dark, this month’s MAN OF THE MONTH. Leanne Banks’s delightful miniseries HOW TO CATCH A PRINCESS—all about three childhood friends who kiss a lot of frogs before they each meet their handsome prince—continues with The You-Can’t-Make-Me Bride. And Elizabeth Bevarly’s series THE FAMILY McCORMICK concludes with Georgia Meets Her Groom. Romance blooms as the McCormick family is finally reunited. Peggy Moreland’s tantalizing miniseries TROUBLE IN TEXAS begins this month with Marry Me, Cowboy. When the men of Temptation, Texas, decide they want wives, they find them the newfangled way—they advertise! A Western from Jackie Merritt is always a treat, so I’m excited about this month’s Wind River Ranch—it’s ultrasensuous and totally compelling. And the month is completed with Wedding Planner Tames Rancher!, an engaging romp by Pamela Ingrahm. There’s nothing better than curling up with a Silhouette Desire book, so enjoy! Regards, Senior Editor Please address questions and book requests to: Silhouette Reader Service U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269 Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3 Whispers in the Dark BJ James www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) BJ JAMES married her high school sweetheart straight out of college and soon found that books were delightful companions during her lonely nights as a doctor’s wife. But she never dreamed she’d be more than a reader, never expected to be one of the blessed, letting her imagination soar, weaving magic of her own. BJ has twice been honored by the Georgia Romance Writers with their prestigious Maggie Award for Best Short Contemporary Romance. She has also received the following awards from Romantic Times: Critic’s Choice Award of 1994-1995, Career Achievement Award for Series Storyteller of the Year, and Best Desire of 1994-1995 for The Saint of Bourbon Street. Forward In desperate answer to a need prompted by changing times and mores, Simon McKinzie, dedicated and uncompromising leader of the Black Watch, has been called upon by the president of the United States to form a more covert and more dangerous division of his most clandestine clan. Ranging the world in ongoing assembly of this unique unit, he has gathered and will gather in the elite among the elite—those born with the gift or the curse of skills transcending the norm. Men and women who bring extraordinary and uncommon talents in answer to extraordinary and uncommon demands. They are, in most cases, men and women who have plummeted to the brink of hell because of their talents. Tortured souls who have stared down into the maw of destruction, been burned by its fires, yet have come back, better, surer, stronger. Driven and colder. As officially nameless as The Black Watch, to those few who have had the misfortune and need of calling on their dark service, they are known as Simon’s chosen...Simon’s Marauders. One A telephone rang in the spartan mountain retreat. A telephone seldom used. Turning from a fire that did nothing to warm him in the unseasonable chill of late August, Simon McKinzie crossed with a heavy step to the jangling instrument. On the third ring, his square, strong hand raised the receiver slowly. His massive shoulders were bowed, his face bleak. This was the call for which he’d been waiting. The call he’d feared. “Yes?” No other greeting or identification was necessary, any informed of this line would not need it. Especially the man who called now. “I heard. I’ve been waiting.” With his back to spacious windows and Blue Ridge vistas heralding an early autumn, he listened. “Is there no other way?” His bleak expression grew bleaker. “I see.” The words were raw, bitter. Blunt fingers raked through silver hair, and, after a silent minute, he nodded. “I understand, and I agree.” Again there was a hush in the softly lit study. A hush broken only by the crackle of the fire, the tick of a clock, and the voice that recounted horror in his ear. And into a hollow stillness he pledged, “The one you need will be on the way within the hour.” There was more. More Simon didn’t need to hear, but out of concern and respect, he listened. “Within the hour,” he repeated when the somber soliloquy was done. “You have my word. “And Jordana?” Hesitating, girding himself, he asked, “How is she?” This time, as he listened, even the fire seemed mute, the clock still. A weighted sigh shredded his throat, and his voice roughened in shared pain. “I’m here, should you need me. If you need me.” Returning the receiver to its cradle, he sat at the edge of his desk. As his hands curled around its beveled edge, his mind filled with memories of a young wife and mother, her fragile daughter, and the compelling man who loved them. And with it came the desolation that only the powerful can know in the face of utter helplessness. Jordana, of whom Simon asked so earnestly and spoke so lovingly, was Jordana Daniel McCallum. A beautiful woman, a gentle woman. An American born to the power of wealth and influence, wed to more of the same in McCallum, her wild and wily auburn-haired Scot. McCallum, chieftain of his clan, laird of her heart. Her true beloved, tamed by none but his own beloved, and only because he wished it McCallum, who fought as he lived, and loved as she—with all his might, with all his heart. Now, in this worst hour, even as one who built corporate empires as a way of life, moved mountains as easily as others moved lulls of sand, and commanded the respectful friendship of those as powerful, this man, this mighty Scot could do nothing. As the woman he loved above all else lay injured, perhaps dying, and with his family under siege, he had turned in his hopelessness to those he trusted. But there was still hope. There was a way. And in the hush of his study, oblivious to towering vistas and autumn chill, as he lifted the receiver again, a silvering bear of a man became much more than sorrowing friend. Much more than an ally. Within the beat of an aching heart, in quiet wrath, Simon McKinzie was the revered and sovereign commander of the most unique organization in the world. The most proficient. The most dangerous. The most covert—The Black Watch. “Hope, Clan McCallum,” he murmured gravely as the connection was complete. “In the one I send you.” Somewhere in Virginia, on the shore of the Chesapeake, another telephone rang. A voice answered softly, commenting on the beautiful day, thanking the caller for patronizing a business that did not exist, and inviting the statement of his need. Interrupting the pleasantries, drawing a ragged breath, with steel in his words Simon McKinzie began. Two A panther stalked the shadowy corridor. Dark, lean, silent. A sartorial contradiction in a black blazer neatly buttoned, trousers perfectly creased, and pearl gray shirt of immaculate detail. A tie of rough silk, loosened, drawn down a fraction from the open collar, completed an air of barbaric elegance. The clinic had closed hours ago, the tranquility of deserted thoroughfares broken only by light steps and muted voices of the midnight shift. This handsome intruder could have been a concerned physician returning for late rounds at the end of a protracted evening out. One look into the wintry blaze of his startling green eyes was enough to warn that he was not. The nurse in charge would have stopped him as he passed her by. Should have, but the pain in the brief glance he spared her nailed her immutably in her seat. The savagery of rage lying like a mask over his stark face made her more than grateful for the protective enclosure of her station. As he moved beyond her bright island into the second shadowy extension of her floor, she stared after him, her mind a jumble of stunning, vivid impressions. Surely she was only imagining. But was she? Had she? Had she only imagined him? The look? The manner? The man? Could anyone truly be so uncivilized beneath an urbane veneer? His face? Did its harsh lines rival chiseled stone? Could hair be that thick, that dark? And which of a thousand clichås would describe it? Blue-black? Iridescent? Soot? Did it blaze beneath the pale light with silver fire? Were any eyes so green? So desperate? So kind? Kind? “No!” Biting her lip, she struggled in a mental fugue, determined to convince herself of her mistake. It was past midnight, she was tired. She was wrong. But even that resolve faltered as her competent fingers, hovering unsteadily over a hidden switch, curled, one by one, into her palm. Security could continue in a ceaseless and rarely changing routine, she wouldn’t be summoning them. If the breach in protocol meant her job? What was a paycheck when one faced a stalking brute looking for someone to eat? “After all,” she muttered as she picked up her pen, pretending to go about the business of charting the nightly needs of her patients, “why put a paltry stumbling block in the path of the inevitable?” Why, indeed, she wondered as she waited and listened. There was but one door past her station, one suite. But Nurse Carstairs wouldn’t have needed that obvious fact to spell out the destination of this grave and formidable transgressor. From the moment he’d stepped onto her hall, she’d needed no bolt of mental lightning to divine that he’d come in answer to a summons from the laird who waited and grieved behind its closed door. “They are as different as the sun from the moon,” she mused, putting her pen and pretense aside. Adding, without really understanding, “Yet so much the same.” He was beyond her sight, this virile intruder into the world of exquisitely specialized medicine. But, in the quiet, she heard the ceasing of his nearly soundless step. A quick rap. The scrape of a door. Then—shattering her new-found resolve that she’d seen the prowling beast—the gentle ripple of his deep voice. “Patrick.” The massive Scot stumbled to his feet, not out of clumsiness or the burden of his size, but from fatigue and worry. And from more than forty-eight hours without sleep as he kept a bedside vigil. His arms were iron bands enveloping the newcomer, but it was the smaller man whose whipcord strength offered support. “Rafe.” “Yes.” Rafe Courtenay had come to Phoenix and the clinic from another country, another continent, in answer to a summons from the only man in the world who commanded such loyalty from the solitary Creole. Backing out of the desperate embrace, but keeping his hand on a taut shoulder, he looked up at Patrick McCallum, his friend and chosen family for most of his life. If she could have seen, Nurse Carstairs would have been shocked to know how astute she’d been, that she’d imagined nothing. Rafe Courtenay and Patrick McCallum were, indeed, as different as the sun from the moon. And, indeed, the same. They were men of the same ilk, cast in the same mold. Dynamic, intense, complex and passionate. But individual. Distinctive. Different. Out of the meshing of similarity, in the complement of difference, bonds stronger than mere friendship had grown. Trust, complete, deep and abiding; honor, unflinching, unfaltering; and in all of it, love. The love of brothers, among men who had none, born in adolescence and their tenure in a most exclusive, most private academy. Enduring into manhood and the building of McCallum holdings into a corporate empire. Meshing them into the most powerful and successful consortium in the business world. If Patrick—with fiery temperament, shrewd but impetuous judgment and monumental strength—was head and heart of McCallum International; Rafe—CEO of phenomenal intellect, razor-edged insight and whipcord resilience—was its soul. Its cool, quiet strength. Its solidarity. Each was fire. Each was ice. In his own way. And through the years, more times than either remembered or bothered to count, the difference in one had served the other. It would now. Looking long into the eyes of his friend, Rafe saw him as few ever saw him. The keen, searching appraisal proved the Scot was on the edge, taxing even his Goliath-like strength, but contending, as only he could, with the threat to his family. A moment of silent communication and a bare nod reaffirmed a commitment, the joining of forces. From this moment, in his fight for the life of his wife and his child, Patrick was not alone. Together they moved to the bed, to the still, white figure of the woman who lay like a sleeping princess waiting for her prince. “How is she?” Rafe asked, his heart heavy with worry for the only woman he’d ever trusted. The woman he could have loved, had Patrick not loved her first. “Has there been any change?” Taking a bruised and scratched hand in his, Patrick laced his fingers through Jordana’s. “Beyond the trauma to her head, tests have shown she’s in no immediate danger from internal or external injuries, and no bones are broken. More than that assurance, nothing’s changed.” “Any sign that she’s coming out of the coma?” “None.” Even as he delivered the grim reply, Patrick squeezed his wife’s hand hoping for a response that never came. “Shortly after she was airlifted to the hospital in a semiconscious state, she became agitated. When I arrived she calmed and lapsed into this deep sleep. Her doctors interpret the shift in her behavior as an indication that, even with the bruising and swelling in her brain, she knew I was with her. We don’t know how much more she hears and understands, or what she remembers of the accident.” The oblique and unneeded warning did not go unperceived. Rafe wouldn’t openly discuss or question the events surrounding the present situation in any case. Nor did he need to be told that the longer the coma continued, the deeper she sank into it, the poorer Jordana’s chances of recovery. Touching Patrick’s shoulder again, in an undertone, he said, “We need to talk.” “Yes.” Releasing Jordana, Patrick bent to kiss her forehead. “I need to speak with Rafe for a bit in private, sweetheart,” he murmured. “I won’t be long, I promise.” As the two men stepped into the corridor, a nurse, who seemed to appear out of nowhere, slipped quietly into the room to take up the vigil. When Patrick was satisfied that all was well, he led Rafe to a small lounge hidden away in an alcove across from the door that led to Jordana’s suite. “All right,” Rafe said as he set a cup of steaming coffee before Patrick and took a seat by him at the small table. “Tell me what happened.” Patrick’s head reared back, his hollow eyes were wild and fierce, and more frightened than they’d ever been. “Jordana’s been hurt, so terribly hurt, Rafe. And our daughter’s been taken. I promised to take care of them and I didn’t!” “You have. You did.” “No! Somewhere, somehow, I did something wrong.” “You did nothing wrong, Patrick. Loving them more and protecting them better than anyone in the world could have isn’t wrong.” “Except, this time, I failed them.” Patrick’s heavy shoulders slumped. “What if...” His eyes closed against the unthinkable. “Dear God! What would I do without them?” “Nothing! You would do nothing without them. What you’re thinking isn’t going to occur.” “Rafe...” “Tell me what happened, Patrick,” Rafe insisted with a calming air of command. “Start from the beginning, don’t leave out a single detail.” Patrick gripped the cup as if it were a lifeline, but didn’t raise it to his lips. “There’s not a lot to tell, that’s the damnable part in this.” “Then tell what there is to tell. Begin with where and how.” Rafe would not give up, and, Patrick realized, would not let him give up. Drawing a long shuddering breath, he nodded. And, beneath the burden of his grief, shone the first glimmer of the return of the invincible Scot. “Jordana was taking Courtney to her morning dance class. A sort of motherdaughter day for them.” “Who was driving?” “Ian, of course.” “Of course,” Rafe expected that it would be Ian. It would have been unlikely anyone but the wizened Highlander, who had driven for the McCallums for years, would be entrusted to chauffeur Patrick’s blind wife and his only daughter. His precious treasures. “Was he injured?” “He was dazed by the impact, and he’ll be a little sore for a while, but nothing more.” “What did he see?” Intent, intense, Rafe leaned forward. “What can he tell us?” “There was very little time to see anything. He was just turning onto the highway from the ranch when they were broadsided by a car hidden and waiting in a service road.” “Jordana’s side taking the brunt of the impact,” Rafe ventured the obvious. As if he didn’t hear, Patrick’s voice droned on, relating the little he knew. “Three things happened almost consecutively. Ian unlocked the doors of the car and dashed to the back passenger’s side, to Jordana. A passenger in the other vehicle bailed out and ran, leaving the driver who had not survived. While Ian was at the opposite side, a third accomplice ran from the underbrush. He grabbed Courtney from the back seat, shoved her into yet another hidden vehicle, and sped away. Presumably, with the one who escaped the crash and any one else who was involved.” “Son of a bitch!” Grave and troubled, Rafe’s voice was strained. As he thought of his namesake, how tiny she was at four years, how frightened she would be, his look was laced with venom. “When did the ransom note arrive? How?” “It didn’t arrive, Rafe. It was left on the seat where Courtney sat.” “Planned down to the last hellish detail, with nothing left to chance.” There was fire blazing in the normally cool Creole as he asked, bitterly, “How much?” Patrick lifted a stricken gaze. “Not a penny.” Cold dread, gathering like a sickness in him, marked the harsh quirk of Rafe’s lips. “Then what? And, damn their souls, why? Who are they? What do they want?” “Why and what they want was outlined in excruciating detail in the note. Courtney was taken by members of a radical group that calls itself Apostles for a Better Day. She was chosen because of my friendship with Jim Brigman, and what they perceive as my prominence and political influence because he’s governor.” The Scot’s face grew grimmer, paler, in startling contrast to the dark auburn of the curling, shaggy mane that framed it. “In exchange for my daughter they’ve demanded that, by that influence, I arrange and expedite the release of their leader from death row.” “Death row!” Shock upon shock levied its toll on an unprepared Rafe. “They must be out of their collective minds. Who is this man? What the hell is he?” “A mad dog,” Patrick said levelly. “A mad dog who calls himself Father Tomorrow and who kills in the name of his cause without a qualm.” “Zealots!” Rafe’s decree was accompanied by a string of heated epithets. “Fanatics who twist whatever religion and whatever doctrine they espouse to accommodate themselves. The most deadly and unpredictable element in society.” Pushing away his cup and kicking back the chair too small for his bulk, Patrick lurched to his feet. Despite the vicious motion, helplessness and defeat were apparent in every line of his body. “I’ve spoken with Jim.” Something in his look and tone chilled Rafe even more. “And?” “No go.” Arms crossed over his chest, his back to the lounge, Patrick glared out a window at a night as black as his thoughts. “A proven killer can’t be released. Even if there was a question of guilt, the man is unstable and too dangerous. Granting his freedom would be tantamount to unleashing a monster. Jim has pledged his help in any way possible, but he dares not turn such an unconscionable creature loose on the public.” His arms crossed tighter, his fingers crumpled the fabric of his shirt. “Not for Courtney. Not for anyone. “I could give them millions, castles, islands.” There were tears on Patrick’s face, but he made no effort to wipe them away. “An empire is theirs for the asking, with not one regret for its loss. Yet, with all I have, I can’t give what they’ve demanded. The one thing that would free my little girl.” “All right. If we can’t give them what they want for Courtney, we do it the hard way. We take her back without it.” Rafe would not waste another thought on bitter recriminations, or sympathy that Patrick neither wanted nor needed. He addressed the crux of the situation instead. “How much time do we have?” “We had five days.” “Had?” “Tomorrow marks the beginning of the last three.” Glancing at his watch, discovering, for the first time in his concern, that tomorrow had become today, Rafe said nothing. “We know where Courtney’s being held.” Patrick’s wooden statement shattered Rafe’s calm demeanor as nothing else. “What the hell? You know where she is? How?” “The Apostles made no effort to cover their tracks. Their trail was so obvious, it was thought to be a ruse in the beginning. Then it became apparent they wanted us to know, and to understand how impossible rescue would be.” “Where is she, Patrick?” Rafe asked directly, his tone calm but savage. “The men who took Courtney were tracked into the high desert north of Sedona by a specially trained unit of rangers called in by the governor. At some point she was handed over to one man, who took her the rest of the way to a mountain. Hell!” Patrick slammed a fist on the table. “It’s worse than a mountain. It’s a monstrous aberration among aberrations. A spike of land as barren as the devil’s own, and no one can climb it without being seen.” The trilling burr of Scotland was thick in Patrick’s diatribe, recalling the lush and craggy highlands of his homeland. A land he loved only a bit more than the land he decried in the extremity of distress. “The surrounding terrain and the old miner’s shack at its peak constitute a veritable fortress.” The growling trill grew more pronounced. “A natural, impregnable stronghold.” “You were intended to believe rescue is impossible, but is it? Is anything truly impregnable? There’s always a way, and we’ll find it, Patrick. There lies our hope.” “Maybe.” The Scot turned stiffly toward the door of the softly lit suite, and something in his manner told the man who knew him so well that way had already been found. Rafe waited, biding his time. “Maybe there is a way.” Patrick’s head moved from side to side, bemused, dejected. “But I can’t leave Jordana. If she’s aware at all and I’m not here, she’ll know something terrible is wrong. The stress might be all that’s needed to...” With a hand at Patrick’s wrist, Rafe stopped the anguish of a man torn between two loves. “You see to Jordana, I’ll do what’s needed to bring Courtney home.” “You can’t.” The answer came quickly, flatly. “There are circumstances and conditions you don’t understand. For once, Rafe, even you can’t do the impossible. But Simon has someone who can, someone he’s sending. Our last resort.” Patrick turned again to the window, stared again, blindly, into the darkness. But in his mind there were barren, ragged peaks shrouded by the night. “Our one chance. Our only hope.” “Then I’ll help Simon’s man bring her home,” Rafe promised. Though Patrick spoke of hope, there had never been such melancholy in his voice. Not when he was thirteen, deserted by his faithless mother, failed by his grieving father and consigned to exile in a strange school, in a strange country. Lost and alone among a strange people, he had not been like this. Not even the ultimate death of his father wreaked such suffering upon him. Silently Rafe vowed he would take away the pain, and give back the hope—along with the littlest McCallum. “Three days, Patrick,” he murmured hoarsely. “I promise.” “You won’t do anything irrational?” What Patrick left unspoken was his wish that if the impossible were truly that, if one tragedy, or two, were inevitable, there needn’t be a third. “No more than you would.” A crooked grin lifted the corner of Rafe’s mouth, but left his eyes unchanged. As Patrick had been before his marriage, the Creole was an accomplished sportsman and adventurer. There was little he hadn’t tried, little he hadn’t dared. When time and McCallum International permitted, his idea of relaxing was to battle the elements in one form or another. This time, in a life or death struggle, the stakes would be higher—a life other than his own. “I promise to do no more and no less than you would, my friend,” Rafe mused softly. “In the same circumstance.” For a moment their eyes met and held. Patrick nodded, slowly, grimly, and on that understanding returned to his seat. Less than a quarter hour later, strategy outlined, each lurid detail and fact branded on his mind, Rafe left Patrick. In the next three days, while the Scot fought for the life of his wife, the Creole would go to the mountains, to fight in his stead. Rafe Courtenay would go to do battle for the life of the beloved daughter of his chosen brother. For his own namesake. For his godchild. For Courtney...the love of his warrior’s heart. Three The scene that greeted Rafe was alien, a surreal backdrop from a science fiction movie. Glaring yellow lights, falling on red rock and flying dust, lent an eerie sense of otherworldliness to the camp and its cluster of trucks and tents hunkered in the stark, rocky basin. He could, he thought, just as easily be looking down on the landscape of Mars as the high desert of Arizona. When he dropped to the ground, waving the hovering helicopter bearing the logo of McCallum International back into the night sky, he knew no place had ever been more real. Nothing he’d ever done as important “Mr. Courtenay, sir.” The shout of the young man, who addressed him from the edge of a boil of orange fog, could barely be heard above the whine of the chopper’s engine. Ducking, small backpack in hand, Rafe dashed from the whipping lash of the revving rotors. As he approached, the young ranger smiled briefly and took the bag from him. “Glad you could make it, sir.” His handshake was firm, his uniform amazingly neatly pressed into smooth surfaces and sharp creases. Only his face was rumpled from lack of sleep. The tag clipped to the breast pocket of his shirt confirmed he was Joe Collins, a second before he introduced himself. “I’ve been assigned to serve as your liaison, to familiarize you with the camp and procure whatever else you feel you need,” he continued as he escorted Rafe to his tent. As they passed by, busy people, dressed as Joe was dressed, with faces as strained and harried, acknowledged the newcomer. With only a nod or wave of greeting they returned to the work that engrossed them. “As you will see, sir,” Joe said as he stopped by one in a line of smaller tents, “we have an excellent Search and Rescue team. But this is a little beyond our field of expertise.” The last was said apologetically. Rafe responded succinctly, “This is a little beyond anyone’s field of expertise, Ranger Collins.” “Yes, sir. Thank God.” “Indeed,” Rafe agreed as he scanned the camp again, noting the propitious arrangement, the equipment, including detailed maps spread over a bevy of tables near a powerful radio. Parked at one side were a half dozen all-terrain vehicles that had seen hard and recent use. Opposite, and set a little apart, was a small remuda. He slanted a questioning look at his guide. “Horses?” “Yes, sir. A good portion of the terrain we’ve covered is accessible only by horseback. Some of it too bad even for them. Even in relays.” Setting down the bag, he shrugged, a move at odds with his perfect posture. “The gun who was brought in thinks at least part of what we walked and climbed can be crossed by a horse. A particular horse. A stallion trucked in just before you arrived.” “What horse would that be?” Interest stirred, Rafe waited for his answer. “Black Jack, from The Broken Spur.” Feeling the first real frisson of encouragement since he’d seen the desolation around him, Rafe nodded his approval. Black Jack was a magnificent creature of no little reputation among horsemen and breeders such as Patrick. The stallion had made news by accomplishing the unthinkable more than once, and only a rider of incomparable skill could handle him. “If this gun, as you call him, knows his stuff as well as he knows his horses, maybe we have a chance to make this work.” “Maybe.” The answer was noncommittal, but the look Joe Collins shot at Rafe was edged with surprise. “You were right about your Search and Rescue team. From what Patrick told me nothing has been left undone. But now there is one more thing I’ll required.” Taking a pen and small notebook from the inside pocket of his jacket, Rafe scribbled a name and telephone number. “Call this number, ask for Tyree.” Tearing the page from the notebook he handed it to Collins. “Tell him I need El Mirlo immediately, then give him specific directions to the camp.” “Yes, sir.” Collins jumped to attention, Rafe half expected he would salute. “El Mirlo. The Blackbird.” There was awe in the younger man’s tone as he translated the Spanish name of the horse nearly as distinguished as Blackjack. “I’ll see to it right away.” “One more thing before you go.” Scanning the task force, Rafe detained the ranger with those few short words before he could race away. “The gun, where is he?” Joe Collins gave him the same odd look he had before, a light flush staining his cheeks. “She, sir,” he managed at last, as if he weren’t sure how his answer would be received. Taking a fold of papers from a hip pocket he offered them to Rafe. “I was instructed to give you this, a dossier explaining who she is.” Halting in the act of slipping the notebook back in his jacket, Rafe took the papers from him, tucking them away, as well, without a glance. His narrow look swept over the ranger, pinning him in place. “She?” “Yes, sir.” Another uneasy shrug. “We thought you knew.” “Do you have a problem with that, Mr. Courtenay?” Rafe’s turn was slow, measured, the gaze that only seconds ago had held the ranger in place, swept over the woman who stood a half dozen paces away. And though there was no reason to think he’d ever seen her before, nor any woman resembling her, he was struck by a strong sense of dåj? vu. A sensation to be explored later, rather than now, as he turned his undeterred regard on her. Instead of the common uniform, she was in civilian dress. Boots, jeans, Western shirt, the customary Stetson. He noted she wore a holstered Colt belted at her hip, and no spurs on her boots. “You move very quietly,” he observed softly as he finished his perusal. “What you mean is I move very quietly, for a woman.” There was no rancor in her voice. One look warned she had little time or patience with petty angers. “What I meant,” Rafe replied patiently, “is what I said. You move very quietly, for anyone.” A slight bow afforded him the point. “Should I say thank you?” “You don’t strike me as a woman who would waste her breath on false platitudes.” She chuckled quietly, the humor genuine, giving him another point. “Just how do I strike you, Mr. Courtenay?” Rafe was not surprised that she knew him. The camp as a whole had been informed by Patrick that he was coming, and what he would expect. “That would require some thought and consideration.” The laugh again, low, smoky. In the right place, the right circumstance, a little sexy. “Of course,” she agreed. “But you’re a quick study, aren’t you, Mr.—” “Rafe. From you, I prefer Rafe.” “If you like.” By her manner she told him his name was of so little consequence at the moment, she would call him George, if he liked. “Now, Rafe.” She moved a step closer. “About that quick study.” Letting her feel the weight of his scrutiny, he took her measure slowly, with a piercing thoroughness. Another woman might have flinched or blushed, facing such total invasion of her person. But not this one. He liked that, found it challenging, as he drew his study out more than was needed. After a long, long moment, in which Joe Collins’s gaping attention bounced like a racket ball between them, Rafe’s gaze returned to settle on her face. “All done?” She stood with her hands at her hips, her feet apart, her chin jutted an unmistakable fraction. “For now.” A cryptic answer, drawing little reaction. She was a cool one. Her head tilted a bit, a brow lifted. “Well?” “Do you want the particulars?” “However you like it, Mr. Courtenay.” “Rafe,” he reminded. “Rafe,” she parroted in droll concession. Silence fell like a gauntlet. Joe Collins stared and waited. Rafe was first to react. “All right,” he mused, tugging the tie he hadn’t taken time to remove down another notch. “The particulars, as I see them. You’re five-five, without the boots, and weigh, maybe, one fifteen with them. Shoulder-length hair. Dark brown, if not black, maybe with a hint of red in sunlight. On a bet, a little unruly at times. Tied, at the moment, with whatever was handy. On the trail, I suspect it will be tucked under the Stetson.” He waited for the slight acknowledging bow of her head then resumed a concise cataloging of her features. “Oval face, high cheekbones. Fine-textured skin, a tint that suggests it tans easily and rarely bums. A nose with a slight deviation. From a break, I would surmise. Brows, arched and fine, dark as night. “Your eyes...” He paused only to draw a breath. “In this garish light I can’t say, but too dark for blue or gray, too pale for true brown. Possibly the color of old sherry?” It was a question that begged no answer as he moved on to finer, surer points. “A belligerent chin that telegraphs your moods, and a mouth made for smiling.” In a short pause in the tabulation, there was a clash of gazes. One chin angled another inch. Neither man nor woman smiled. With a restrained quirk of his lips Rafe returned to his commentary. “As Simon would expect and demand, you’re obviously in good physical condition. A little slender. Yet, I would wager, strong for your size. You’ve a trim figure, a little boyish for my taste, but appealing.” Dragging in another, slower breath, his unwavering gaze probing the shadows cast by the Stetson, he murmured, “And no matter how you dress down, no man in his right mind would ever forget you’re a woman.” The quirk became a small smile playing over his face. “Shall I go on, Miss...?” “O’Hara,” Joe Collins interjected, flustered that in his preoccupation he’d been remiss in common courtesy. “Valentina,” he finished lamely. Both their names has been buzzed through the camp. She’d had the advantage of learning of Rafe Courtenay from camp gossip and speculation. “O’Hara,” Rafe mused aloud over the name. It suited her to be Irish. It suited very well. “Shall I go on, then, Miss O’Hara?” “By all means,” she responded with the first hint of strained grace. “Perhaps you’d like to look at my teeth, to judge my age.” Rafe allowed himself a chuckle. “No need. Your face and body say you’re twenty-two. You’re eyes say thirty-two, thirty-three. I put my trust in the eyes.” “Touchå.” Another point for this man who had become her quiet adversary. “An excellent guess. I’m thirty-three.” Turning, moving toward the tent she’d just left, she stopped at a table set before it. Carefully, she lifted a cloth covering a dismantled rifle. The oiled barrel was gleaming ebony under the yellow lights; the polished stock, warm mahogany. The tool of a perilous trade, and well cared for. Her fingers trailed familiarly over burnished wood, curled briefly around the trigger, then lifted from it. Dropping the cloth over the weapon again, she faced him once more as abruptly as she’d turned away. “You disappoint me, Mr. Courtenay.” “How so, Miss O’Hara?” They were back to formalities, the fencing was over, the gloves were off. “Disappointing you is the last thing I’d want to do.” Valentina laughed. There was wry amusement in its inflection, and in her demeanor. “What you’ve described any eye or any mirror could tell. I expected better from you. More insight. More depth.” “Perhaps I choose to keep my deeper perceptions to myself.” “What? No detailed questioning of the logistics? No reservations about my skill? No sly wondering if I can really make the shot to free Patrick McCallum’s daughter?” “I don’t need to question, or wonder. I have no reservations. Not about the logistics or your skill, O’Hara. Because I know Patrick McCallum, I know every alternate avenue has been closed, leaving only the one recourse. I repeat, because I know Patrick, I understand and trust there’s no other way to save his daughter but to put her life in the hands of one person. Because I know Simon McKinzie, because you are his choice, I know you’re the best, the only one, for the job. “I don’t need your credentials.” Quietly, he reiterated his point, closing the subject. “That this is Patrick’s decision, and you are Simon’s choice, is enough.” “Except that you plan one small change.” “Yes. I’m going with you.” She did not react, and he felt no surprise that she would have drawn this conclusion from the bit of conversation she’d overheard. In his mind the reasoning was only logical. “I go in Patrick’s stead, for Courtney and Jordana. And for myself.” “You’re mistaken,” Valentina contradicted flatly. “No one goes. I ride alone. I work alone.” “Not this time.” “This time above all.” Dismissing Rafe, forestalling any protest he might lodge, without a glance, she walked past him. Pausing briefly by the ranger, she murmured, “Joey, the call to Tyree won’t be necessary. Mr. Courtenay won’t be needing El Mirlo.” “Yes, ma’am.” Joe Collins didn’t speak again, nor did Rafe, while each watched her take the path to the separate corral that cordoned the stallion. As she approached the temporary fence, the skittish Black Jack, renowned for both his sure feet and savage temperament, snorted and danced away. From his place Rafe could hear, but not distinguish, the words of her singsong croon as she sought to calm and entice the stallion to her. Rearing, hooves flashing at the air, the horse squealed his displeasure at unfamiliar surroundings and strange people. Valentina did not flinch, her quiet tone did not change. Black Jack raced the length of the back fence. He pawed the dust and tossed his rippling mane. Ears flattened, nostrils flaring, he paced, he pranced, he ignored the woman. In response, her tone rose a degree. Assuring, calming, it floated across the clearing. “Having a little temper tantrum, are you? I’m not sure I blame you. I wouldn’t like to be cooped up in a strange place, with strange people, any more than you do. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It isn’t that way. I’m here...and we’ve met before.” The stallion quieted, stared away from the hand she extended. Her song dropped again to a low murmur, her hand was steady. Black Jack snorted, his ears flicked, his head turned to her. He took a tentative step, paused, snorted again, and took another. Stretching out his neck, he nibbled curiously at her fingers. His velvet muzzle roamed over her gently curling hand and nudged at her arm. Quivering, he stood as she stroked him. Then, with a low wicker, he moved, crowding the fence to snuffle at her cheek. “Well, I’ll be damned,” Rafe muttered in an undertone. “Yes, sir.” Joe Collins exhaled a long held breath. “Me, too.” And, in that moment, it all clicked into place. Rafe understood the sense of familiarity. He’d never met Valentina O’Hara, but he’d seen her face many times. It had been years since she’d been an Olympian, sweeping the gold in her fields of choice. First with her skill with a rifle, then with her riding. The name he’d forgotten had been on every tongue, for no woman before her had accomplished as much. And none since. For a time she was the darling of the media, a household word, the season’s wonder. Then, electing not to cash in on her fame, shunning a fortune in endorsements and advertising, she had, quite simply, dropped out of sight. She’d been nineteen then, Rafe remembered as he watched her. Intrigued, he wondered where she’d been for the past fourteen years? What had she done? How had her path crossed with Simon’s? Why? When? He had no answers. Perhaps he would find some of them in the dossier given to him by Joe Collins. Some, he suspected, not all. Not the answers that really mattered. But, he vowed, he would have them, before this was done. “Make the call, Joe,” he said abruptly. “Tell Tyree to meet me at sunup. Not here, but at the wash a half mile north of the basin. Tell him the old map in Patrick’s study identifies it as the Hacker homestead.” He had given the order without looking away from the stallion and the woman. Now he turned his face to the sky. “It will be dawn soon. I need to be briefed, and there’s a lot of planning left to do before first light.” “Yes, sir,” Joe put in smartly. With a quick salute, eager to make amends for the blunder in introductions, he launched into the task. Rafe watched the ranger till he was out of sight before he turned again to the corral. Concern etched his face, uneased by the sureness and rapport established between the stallion and the woman. She was a champion, an expert rider, a phenomenal shot, and one of Simon’s chosen. But would it be enough? “Can anyone do this? God help you, lady, can you?” Wheeling about, he stalked to the tent that was his. Catching back the flap that covered the entrance, he paused, his gaze drawn again to her. “Sunup, O’Hara,” he pledged grimly. “And, like it or not, you and your new pet stallion will have company on the trail and the mountain. Then we’ll see.” His grip on the flap was hard and desperate. “God help us both, we’ll see.” “The shack is here.” In the weak, first light of dawn, augmented by the yellow glow of lanterns, Richard Trent, Commander of Search and Rescue Operations, tapped his pointer against a map mounted on a stand. “The only possible trail is here, and it’s virtually as inaccessible as the rest of the ground. We could make short work of this by helicopter. That is, if we dared. Which we don’t. These people, who call themselves Apostles for a New Day, are certifiable nuts. The unstable fringe of an unstable fringe, each a little crazier than the last. The one thing we can count on is that they do what they promise.” Taking the pointer from the map, he held it before him, his grip threatening to snap it. “If they say the little girl will be killed at the first hint of intrusion, she will be.” “You’re certain there’s only one person guarding her?” Until now Valentina had been content to stand a little apart, listening, asking no questions. “I’ll be lucky to get one shot. Two would be asking for a miracle.” “Dead certain. One man. That much we’ve proven from surveillance. His name is Edmund Brown.” Laying aside the pointer, the commander tipped back the brim of his hat. “But don’t derive too much relief from the fact that he’s alone. Next to Father Tomorrow, Brother Brown is the most sadistic in their cult. Before he found religion he collected a string of convictions and arrests on a number of charges, ranging from attempted murder to petty theft. “He was always skating on the edge of insanity. We have reason to believe the association with the Apostles finally tipped the scales.” Valentina left her place. Threading through the gathered group, she made her way to the front. Arms folded, eyes narrowed, she studied the exquisitely detailed and graphic map. She was knowledgeable about the land in general, but not specifically. “This peak,” with a short cut nail she tapped the spot as she addressed the commander, “it has the best vantage point?” “For the distance you would require, yes.” “What sort of cover does it offer?” “Some scrub, but mostly rock.” “If he should see me?” She turned an unwavering gaze on the commander. Richard Trent did not hesitate. “He’ll kill the girl and then himself.” Valentina’s sigh signaled her understanding of the gravity of the challenge she faced. “Then I’ll just have to make sure he doesn’t see me.” Rafe, who had been as content to listen, listened acutely to Valentina’s responses. A map and a woman had done what a thousand words couldn’t do. For until now, despite his quick study of the circumstance and Patrick’s own maps, he hadn’t fully comprehended the monstrous complications that tent the word impossible to the desperate gamble. If they were to succeed, the key was this woman. Courtney’s life was literally in Valentina O’Hara’s hands. The hands of an unlikely assassin. And Rafe Courtenay would be by her side every step of the way. Under the watchful eyes of the camp, Valentina led Black Jack from the corral. With her gear stored in bulging saddlebags, a bedroll snapped at the back of the saddle, a Winchester and its case strapped to the front, her preparations were complete. She was ready to ride. “Val.” Richard Trent approached her cautiously. He, as much as the rest of the camp, was astonished at her control over the stallion. But he didn’t trust it would last through any startling moves. When she halted and stood looking up at him, her impatience evident, he embarked on his last-minute warning. “Remember, this man is worse than dangerous.” “I think you’ve suitably impressed that on me, Richard.” “Don’t try to outthink him. And don’t even begin to think you can outguess him. In a pressure situation, he won’t know from one minute to the next what he’ll do himself.” Valentina stirred restively, anxious to have done with this. Now that there was enough light to see the trail, it was time for talk to end and action to begin. “You sound like Simon.” “There are worse people to emulate.” “Certainly,” she agreed. “There are.” Swinging into the saddle, she looked down at Trent. “Don’t worry, he taught me well. I wouldn’t be here if there was anyone better.” In the watching crowd, someone coughed. Black Jack jumped and backed away, fighting the reins and Valentina. Leaning over his neck, riding light in the saddle, she stroked him, soothing him with whispered words only he could hear. In a matter of seconds the stallion was quiet again. “Damn horse,” Richard Trent groused. “He’ll kill you before you ever get to the shack.” “No, he won’t,” Valentina replied as she overheard the comment she was not meant to hear. “We’ll be fine when it’s just the two of us.” “About that,” Richard braved a step closer. “A couple of us could ride along for the first two days. Make it easier going on you for that time, then back off at the last.” “We’ve been through that time and again.” She kept her voice low, but the impatient emphasis was there. “I ride alone, I work alone. Even if I didn’t normally, this time I would. I must. You just see to it the men who are there now, surrounding the base of the peak, are ready to move in on a minute’s notice. That’s all they may have, a minute.” “Val...” “No, Richard,” she said firmly. “We can’t risk any chance that there might be spotters in the vicinity who would connect me with Search and Rescue. If I’m seen, they have to think I’m just a rancher, or a dude, out for a ride. Someone they needn’t be concerned about.” “When you’re on foot? What then?” “When I go to ground, no one will see me. I guarantee it.” Curbing her irritation, she tried to speak moderately, when she wanted to shout and be done with this. “Richard, no one else can go.” “I know that’s the way we said we’d do it.” “And that’s the way we’ll keep it.” Black Jack danced away again. This time not in fright, but in eagerness to run. Drawing him to a stand, Valentina leaned down, offering her hand to the commander. “Wish me luck.” Richard Trent took her hand in his. His face was grim with worry as he looked up at her. He’d known her less than twenty-four hours. In those hours he’d learned to like her as a friend, as someone he’d like to know better. He respected her and trusted her judgment. She was right. The reasonable part of him knew it. But this was his country, these were his people, his charges. Protecting them was his job. It did not set well with him to let her go into jeopardy while he stayed. “Val...” Taking her hand from his, she cut him short. “Time’s wasting. The temperature’s rising.” “Dammit! I’d pull rank if I could.” “But you can’t. You have no authority over special agents. Certainly none over me.” Softly, she said again, “Wish me luck, Richard. I need it, you know.” Lips pursed, a hard held breath released, he nodded grimly. “Luck.” “Thanks.” She laughed and tossed her braid from her shoulders. “I’ll see you in three days. No,” she corrected. “We’ll see you in three days. Courtney and I.” Touching spurs to Black Jack’s glistening flank, she set him into an easy canter. At the entrance of the natural basin, she drew the stallion to a halt. Turning in the saddle she scanned the camp and the crew. But no eyes blazing green fire looked back at her. “Strange,” she murmured. “I thought...” Shrugging aside the thought she couldn’t complete, she lifted a hand only an instant before she turned the stallion in a whirl. Then, giving him his head, she let him run. “Three days,” Richard Trent said as she disappeared from view. “Both of you. Child and woman, God willing.” As if sensing the need in her, the stallion ran as he hadn’t in a long while. Black mane streaking behind him, tail high, his hooves pounded the hard-packed ground, taking the rough with the smooth as if there were no difference. Crouching low in the saddle, offering no resistance, Valentina urged him on. There would be tune for caution later. But, for now, it suited her purpose to be seen, as if she were someone just passing through in a hurry. Leaning even lower and dropping the reins, she caught Black Jack’s mane, letting him run as he would. Her body rocked smoothly, gracefully, in concert with the horse, as if they were one. “That’s us, boy, just passing through.” Needing no urging, Black Jack skidded down a wash and back up the other side with hardly a break in stride. Gaining level ground, racing his own shadow, he sped across the desert. Once more, with no change in his pace, he responded to the tug at his mane. Veering from the flat land, he made the turn that would begin the climb toward the cabin. Dust stirred by the stallion had scarcely begun to settle as a second horse and rider burst through a clump of stunted trees at the wash. El Mirlo slid to a halt, dancing in his impatience as he obeyed the saw of the reins. Soothing him with a touch of his hand, Rafe stared after the figures fading rapidly into the distance. “Irish,” he muttered angrily as he held his mount in check, “before you get where you’re going, you’ll break your reckless neck and the stallion’s.” As he glared after them they climbed higher. Small dots on the face of a hillside that would only grow steeper. “Your neck, for sure. And maybe mine.” El Mirlo snorted and reared, backing futilely away from the inescapable control of the reins. Rafe rode easy in the saddle, his anger giving way to intemperance. “What the hell.” The low rumble accompanied a lash of the reins as he spurred his frenzied mount on. Scrambling up the side of the wash and over the top, grim rider in tow, the gelding that gleamed as darkly in the sun as Black Jack, galloped furiously into a dusty wake. Four “Fool woman.” As he began the climb himself, and even as the words erupted from his lips, Rafe knew he was wrong. What Valentina O’Hara was doing was simply natural, a part of her skill, a very significant part of her mission. If there were observers to report to the Apostles, even the most astute would see only a rider passing through. Never a dude, as she’d suggested, but an accomplished horsewoman riding for the sake of riding, feeling her oats. No one would connect her with the camp, or Search and Rescue, for she’d left the basin by a difficult trail most would call impassable. Then, ranging widely on trailless terrain even more difficult, she’d come full circle miles from camp to begin the ride for Courtney McCallum’s life. Rafe’s ride had been as circumventive. With Joe Collins’s help he’d made his rendezvous with Tyree, and with El Mirlo had begun the race to intersect Valentina O’Hara’s path. Tyree, who knew the country like an Indian scout, had reckoned correctly. The timing had been perfect. For now Rafe would hold back, keeping her barely in sight as she began the serious climb, weaving, dodging, picking a natural trail among red rocks. If there were posted observers, they would see only a second rider, not as skilled, not as well mounted. A friend hoping to join her. Or better, lovers riding apart to a clandestine high desert tryst. “Takes all kinds.” His lip curled in distaste. In another environment he might have been tempted, but not in this. This was Courtney’s life, and perhaps Jordana’s. Both held in the balance by the expertise of a cold and calculating woman. Rate knew the type. There had been many such women in his life. Compassionless professionals to whom success was god. Who played hard and ruthlessly, as heartlessly as they worked. Users seeking success for the sake of power; and sex for the sake of gratification without the ritual of romance or entangling emotion. He’d finished with that breed, Valentina O’Hara’s sisterhood, long ago. “But I’ll use you,” he promised as he watched her take the horse through an impossible path and disappear behind an outcropping of stone. “Whatever it takes for Courtney, I’ll do.” Urging El Mirlo from camouflaging scrub, he guided the gelding over the path Black Jack had taken. There was no time to think, or project, or even for distaste as a difficult ride deteriorated. Together, they slipped and slid, in constant danger of falling. Climbing ever upward. The trail was a winding channel through and over stone. A converging animal crossing, from den or burrow to watering hole and stream. Gradually, as it became as much maze as animal track, he lost sight of her. But for one who had hunted bayous and swamps, tracking the only shod quadruped to pass through a dry and dusty land in ages was not difficult. The stallion’s scramble was marked by trodden plants, dislodged pebbles and scarred stone. Rafe had only to find them. Intent, concentration riveted, eyes and mind attuned to the discovery of the next mark of passage, Rafe drew to a startled halt as Black Jack and his rider stepped into his own path, blocking his way. “That’s far enough, Mr. Courtenay.” Reins looped over the fingers of one hand, a forearm resting on her thigh, Valentina stared down the incline at him. “I’d be obliged if you’d be accommodating and go back now.” “Sorry.” The empty apology tripped off his tongue out of habit. “I can’t oblige or accommodate in this. I wouldn’t if I could.” “You can,” Valentina insisted. “We have a short window of time, every minute counts. You’ll slow me down, waste precious seconds. You have already.” His mount stamped and snorted restlessly, eager to move again. Rafe calmed him with a touch. “It’s you who wastes time. Give it up, O’Hara, nothing will persuade me to turn back.” Valentina’s eyes were cold beneath the brim of her Stetson. “I can do this, Mr. Courtenay. I’m going to do it. And I’ll do it better alone.” “I expect you can, lady. I expect you will,” Rafe snapped, tiring of the debate. “But not alone. It’s my goddaughter Brown is holding hostage, and I’ll be there when you do what you must to free her.” Valentina cut her losses. She had no time and even less desire to debate than he. “You refuse to be rational, don’t you?” “Your idea of rationality, not mine.” “If you can’t keep up, I won’t wait for you.” With a man the caliber of Rafe Courtenay, her threat would fall on deaf ears. But she had to try. “If you get into trouble, I’ll leave you behind without a backward glance.” A muscle jerked in his cheek, his eyes narrowed. Deep in the brush a creature moved stealthily, eager that they move on. “I’ll keep up, O’Hara.” The guttural promise was short and grim. “And out of trouble.” “If you’re counting on the horse to do the work for you, don’t. The Blackbird is an extraordinary animal.” She chose the English translation over Spanish. “So extraordinary Patrick McCallum should be held accountable for gelding him. Just remember, when the trail gets really rough, he’ll only be as good as his rider.” Rafe nodded curtly. “Where you take Black Jack, I’ll take El Mirlo. That’s a promise.” “Fine!” Valentina’s check on her temper slipped. “Do as Wheeling Black Jack around in a tight turn, she leaned low as he responded to a touch of her heels, scrambling like a mountain goat up the ever steeper incline. She didn’t look back, and wouldn’t have in any case, but there was no need. The clash of El Mirlo’s hooves over stone sounded with the knell of a bell at her back. Rafe Courtenay could ride, and the Spanish gelding was truly as extraordinary as the reputation he’d established. But there was much worse to come. Eventually, if the interloper kept up, out of necessity and the need for secrecy they would go to ground, covering the remainder of the route on foot. But, though a difficult trail grew more demanding, that time had not come, and she put the fortunes of Rafe Courtenay from her mind. The terrain and Black Jack required all her thoughts, her complete concentration. Hunching lower over his great bowed neck, she clung to his mane, urging him on. The same quiet chant that calmed him in the corral, the same gentle touch that enticed him, guided him now. With his great heart he responded. Where Valentina led, Rafe followed, and the remainder of the day’s ride was silent. Only the scrape and clatter of hooves and the creak of leather marked their passage. Like a great ball of fire the sun burned in the sky, and the day grew hotter. Higher elevations brought no respite as dust churned and prickly brush clawed and clung. Sweat plastered her shut to shoulders and breasts, and trickled into her eyes. Valentina tugged her hat lower, blinked away the sting of salt, and rode harder. A little girl waited. Sparing a glance from his own tribulations, Rafe saw her hardship and her dismissal. “One tough lady,” he reminded himself when no reminder was needed. “With a heart as tough.” The comment was the last he would make in the hours to come. All his energies were expended in keeping his mount on the hillside and himself in the saddle. Engrossed in his battle, he was hardly aware when they topped a rise and the land flattened into a plateau. As suddenly, they were surrounded by a lush stand of pine. Tall sentinels in thick, scattered ranks, keeping an eternal watch. Through a winding avenue encompassed by uncanny silence, weary riders and wearier mounts trod over shorn grass. A fragrant carpet, grazing for deer and range cattle. Beyond the stand, one beginning as abruptly as the other ended, lay a small tract of land within a walled enclosure. A sheltered, picturesque expanse, as welcoming as the land before was inhospitable. As cloistered as it had been naked. As temperate as the trail was brutal. Clustered along a stream meandering lazily through this sky-high canyon were small groves of oak and maple, followed by mahogany and aspen. Each offering a welcome shield from the thrust of the sun. Where the stream was quietest and the shade deepest, Valentina dismounted. Kneeling on a stone, shoulder to shoulder with Black Jack, she drank the clear, sparkling water. Dismounting with the stiffness of grueling hours in the saddle, Rafe followed suit, grateful for the respite. As she led her reluctant mount from the stream, Valentina was pleased when he did the same. Taking care, as she had, that his horse not not drink too much, too quickly. “We’ll camp here for the night.” With the speed of long habit, she unbuckled the cinch, lifting saddle and blanket from Black Jack. “There’s daylight left. Plenty of it,” Rafe interjected. “We could make a number of miles before dark.” “There is, and we could.” The saddle lay at the base of a stone. She flung the blanket over another to dry. “But this is it for the day.” Rafe’s first inclination was to dispute the decision. But like her or not, he’d begun to respect Valentina O’Hara. The trail was a great leveler, a great teacher, and following in her path he’d learned every move had purpose. Every decision had been a judgment call. And each a sound one. As she gathered grass to scrub the sweat from the stallion’s back, he nodded abruptly. “All right.” Valentina stopped in mid-stroke, surprise showing through her guarded expression. “All right? You’re agreeing, just like that?” “Just like that.” Rafe dispatched El Mirlo’s saddle with an expertise rivaling her own. Lifting the horse’s hooves he inspected for lodged pebbles or stone bruises. Then, running his hand from withers to hock, he checked for sprains or scrapes before gathering grass himself. Val watched him in a mingling of approval and suspicion. “No argument?” “No.” “No questions?” “No questions.” Rafe halted, regarding her thoughtfully before continuing his ministrations to El Mirlo. “I expect you’ll tell me your reasons for stopping,” he murmured almost silently. “In your own good time.” Valentina had the grace to feel ashamed. Certainly, she didn’t want him here, but his reasons for coming were compelling. And, if she was honest, she had to admit she would have done the same. He was half out of his mind with worry for the little girl and his friends, and she was heckling him. The urge to apologize nagged at her. But apologies to this man came harder than most, so she simply sidestepped the issue by turning from him. She was still busying herself with the care of the stallion when he walked away. “Do we risk a fire?” Rafe tossed down an armful of wood gathered as he returned from tethering his mount in the shade of an aspen. In the waning afternoon the temperature hovered between hot and hot as hell, but nightfall would bring drastic change. At this altitude and season they would be m no danger of freezing, but they would pass an uncomfortable night denied the warmth of fire. Driving a needle through a length of leather, Valentina finished the minor repair of a bridle before she replied. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t, and every reason we should.” Succinct, implicit, and he understood. “You still think we’re being watched, and a cold camp would be suspicious?” “My gut feeling is there’s no one out there. From what we learned of the Apostles, its clear they’re smug and arrogant. The type who believe they’re infallible by divine right and, by that right, destined to strike fear in the influential and the mighty.” “Paralyzing fear.” “Exactly. And because it wouldn’t occur to them that Patrick McCallum would dare go against their demands and conditions, we have a certain degree of liberty.” “For a while, until we’re closer to the cabin,” Rafe interpreted. “If you’re guessing right.” “If. There’s always one.” Laying the bridle aside, she returned the needle to a small kit and snapped it shut. “In any case, precaution is always sensible. So, to avoid suspicion, we act natural, do as casual wanderers of the desert would.” “Make camp for the night, build a fire, cook a meal,” he added to the list. “A quick bath in the stream.” She was rising from the stone that served as her seat. “Before the temperature drops.” “I’ll gather more wood and start the fire,” Rafe volunteered. “When you’ve finished, I’ll take a dip, as well.” “Right.” A glance at the sky told Valentina they hadn’t long before the sun slipped behind a mountain and the temperature slide began. Stepping to her saddlebags, she took out a towel and soap and a change of clothes. “I won’t be long.” Hesitating, she added, “Leave the meal to me. If you insist that we travel together, we might as well be fair in the division of chores.” “Sure.” With his agreement Rafe let the matter drop. He was gathering wood from a deadfall, keeping a cautious eye for rattlesnakes, when she crossed the clearing to the edge of the stream. There was a startled instant when he wondered if she planned to bathe within view. As she followed the curve of the tumbling stream until she was beyond his sight, he was uncertain if he was pleased or disappointed. Refusing to dwell on this strange reaction to a woman who was everything he found distasteful, he let the quest for fuel take him in an opposite direction. Fire blazed in a stone lined pit, and coffee steamed over a small iron grill, when she reappeared. “Better?” With casual nonchalance he fed another broken limb to the flames. “Much.” Crouching by the fire across from him, she let its heat dry her hair. “There’s a small pool beyond the first bend. Not deep or wide enough for a swim, but perfect for a bath. A cold one.” The warning was a peace offering as she gratefully accepted a cup of coffee. “Much colder than I expected.” “The stream must come straight out of the mountain, then moves too quickly through the canyon to catch the heat of the day.” Heavy with resin, the last limb he tossed into the pit sent up a shower of sparks as it smoldered and seethed before erupting into flames. Valentina leaned against a boulder, folding her hands about the cup. A small smile played over her lips. “Having second thoughts?” “Not about the bath.” He rose from his place as she regarded him steadily over the rim of the tin cup. “About me, then? About whether or not I can do what Simon and Patrick McCallum want from me?” “About whether anyone can do what Simon expects and Patrick needs.” Tossing the last of his coffee onto the fire, Rafe watched it dance and sizzle and rise in steam, as the cup fell from lax fingers. His eyes were dark and shadowed when his gaze met hers. “Can anyone save Courtney?” Saying no more, he left the fire. While he gathered clothing and supplies for his bath, she saw the weight of the burden he carried. If she failed, he would see it as his failure, as well. If he returned to his friend empty handed, without the child who had been given to him at birth to protect, it could destroy him. Her concern for his intrusion remained constant, her need to work alone never lessened, but anger vanished. She wanted to save this child. Dear God! She wanted to save them all. As she’d wanted to save the one she’d failed. Blinking back sudden pain, she turned her gaze to the fire, surrendering to damning memories of fateful hesitation and loss. “Not this time.” She roused and muttered only to herself. “Not again.” Desperate words drifted away, lost in the crackle of fire. The past became the present, and seconds hours as she sat, held captive by the flames, yet hardly seeing them. She wasn’t sure what drew her from her mesmerized distraction. Perhaps it was a sound, or a thought. Or a need. “Rafe.” He stopped at the water’s edge, but didn’t face her. “If there’s any way, any at all, I’ll give back Jordana and Patrick’s little girl.” But first I’ll give her to you. A promise made, but left unspoken. “I’ll do my best, I give you my word.” “If!” The word was a snarl, softly savage. “As you said, there’s always the qualification. Every bet hedged. Always the little doubt, the hesitation.” Valentina’s face crumpled, her eyes grew somber. She’d wanted to give him some small measure of hope, instead she’d intensified his wariness and mistrust. Regret turned her voice distant. “Yes.” Her tone grew colder, more aloof, as she dealt with her failure. “Always.” Drawn by something in her tone, something beneath the coldness, Rafe turned to look at her, seeking to understand the sound of unresolved pain. But her attention had returned to the fire, her head down, her face half-hidden by the gleaming curtain of her hair. The sky at her back etched the rim of the canyon in vermilion. A color so vivid the flames she found mesmerizing paled and faded, reminding that darkness followed light. Then would come the cold. The sun rode the rim, sending shafts of light glancing over stone. The stream splashed and burbled, beckoning in a misty rainbow. And Valentina O’Hara stared into the fire. He watched her, so still, so silent, wondering, as before, how she’d come to be one of Simon’s Marauders. Vowing, once more, that one day he would know, he followed the path that beckoned. Their meal was finished. Plates and pans had been scrubbed with sand, rinsed in the stream and put away. Only the coffeepot steamed over the fire, a fragrant vapor blending with the lingering scent of bacon and beans. Range fare, the cowboy’s lot. Quick, no-nonsense, plentiful and filling. The fire burned down, sending little spurts of flame flicking from white-hot embers. Rafe would add more wood later. Large, green logs to smolder, then burn, then smolder again through the night. Beyond the circle of their camp the canyon was silent. Its stillness broken only now and again by the stealthy scuttle of nocturnal creatures. A summer moon sailed the sky. A perfect golden globe with a great rough face seeming so near one need only lift a hand to touch it. Leaves of the aspen shivered and quaked in the riffling breeze. Their green and gold dress, a harbinger of autumn, made more golden by the light of the moon. A log crumbled into ash. A display of sparks and flame painted fleeting silhouettes and shadows over the tumble of stones marking the boundary of their camp. In that transient moment, Valentina’s image was sketched in red rock, somber and still. As silent as the night. Like the night, her silence was brooding, not sullen. Pensive, not reproving. She had accepted him as another of the inescapable burdens of this brief measure of her life. As one who traversed this part of the world must accept the threat of rock slide, or rattlesnake, and cactus spine. And in the pensive brooding lurked the curious air of sadness he’d sensed beneath the arrogant assurance. With his gloved hand, he lifted the pot from the grill, judging from the heft of it that only one cup remained. One thick, thoroughly boiled, concentrated cup. Holding the pot poised over the fire, he spoke softly. “More?” Responding vaguely, she looked at him through eyes blinded by her thoughts, not by fire. “More coffee?” he offered again. “One cup left.” Her brows arched down in concentration, as if she couldn’t draw her mind from its preoccupation. “One?” “If you dare.” A deliberate move splashed liquid against tin in a hollow rattle and a billow of bitter steam. “The devil’s own brew, by now.” “Coffee?” “If you wish to call it that.” She moved her head in refusal. “No, thanks.” Rafe smiled, but only with his lips, as he watched her. “Wise choice.” “I haven’t always made them.” Hesitating in the act of rising, Rafe knelt on one knee. “A common human failing.” “To those for whom failure is an option.” Her gaze settled again on the fire, avoiding his. Rafe’s look swept over her, his scrutiny long and hard. “But not an option for you.” Valentina nodded her agreement. “And not this time.” She was unresponsive for so long he thought she wouldn’t answer. When she did, it was no more than a word, born on a breath slowly exhaled. “No.” Climbing to his feet, he waited for more. When there was nothing, he moved to the stream to rinse the pot, readying it for the morning and the last time. The next night’s camp would be cold and dry, after a longer day on a trail even more grueling. Over the simple fare of dinner, she’d given this terse explanation for a short, acclimatizing first day. And in her tone there had been no hint of mercy for man or beast, or woman, in the trek ahead. Mercy was the last thing Rafe expected, and far from his thoughts when he knelt by the stream. As he rinsed away the dregs, fallen leaves drifted by in the froth of icy water, brilliant and beautiful in the light of the moon. But he had no time for beauty as he lifted his eyes to the mountains. Courtney was there, trapped in a squalid shack with a madman. So far away. So far yet to go. So little time. And only one hope. Valentina. She was laying out her bedroll when he returned from the stream. In base camp he’d noted an orderliness about her, with a place for everything, and everything in its place. He saw it now, even in the wilderness. Perhaps especially in the wilderness. He wondered, not for the first time, how much of it was her nature, how much her training. One schooled by the commander of The Black Watch would never be caught off guard, never unprepared. “Turning in?” A rhetorical question, given the obvious, but he made no apology as he tended the fire. “We’ll be making an early start in the morning. At first light.” She looked up from her chore. “If you’re determined to go on.” “I’ll be ready. First light.” In the blink of an eye something changed in a subtle altering of her expression. He thought at first it was a small nuance of relief, but when she turned briskly back to making her bed, he knew he was mistaken. He’d seen only the changing of light, a softening of her features created by the flattering glow of the fire. “Pity,” he muttered, not certain why, then covered the sound with his own preparations for the night. He worked first with the fire, making it ready for the duration. Next was his bedroll, spread across from hers by the pit. And, as was his nature, there was a place for everything. A panther from the bayous would no more be caught unprepared or unguarded than one of The Black Watch. While he worked, according to his nature and by habit, his thoughts were of Valentina. She’d come, accepting the burden of the impossible. There would have been no other choice for her had she been given one. But there were others who had done the same with more humanity. Cold. With quick glancing looks, he watched her, judging her as she moved with meticulous care, emotionally uninvolved, never concerned that a child was out there. A tiny girl, frightened and in danger, was business to her. An assignment, a job to be done, no more, no less. He questioned neither her ability nor her will to succeed. Only her compassion. “An assignment, that’s all that matters. Not that it’s a child.” Anger surged black and corrosive as he slammed the pot on a stone by the fire. “Not that it’s Courtney.” For all he knew he could have been shouting. But when he found her looking at him, a puzzled look on her face, he knew his furious words had been an unintelligible growl. She hadn’t heard, hadn’t understood. “It’s nothing,” he snapped with strained patience when she continued to stare. Surging to his feet, needing to distance himself from her, with a brusque gesture he parried her concern. “Go on with what you were doing. I’ve a few things to see to before I bed down El Mirlo and then myself.” “The horse is fine.” Her eyes were narrowed, her gaze still questioning. “I saw to him and Black Jack a bit ago.” “The gelding allows very few people near him.” “He let me.” There was no challenge nor arrogance in her tone. A simple statement of truth. “I should have realized he would.” Rafe had begun to realize she shared a kinship with animals that verged on magical. He’d seen the first suggestion of her skill in the corral and the charming of Black Jack. Then more on the trail as the horse responded to her touch and her voice, taxing equine strength in answer. She shared an astonishing rapport with the horse. Yet with the human animal she kept herself apart, feeling and caring little. “He’s set for the night, but a familiar face in a strange place wouldn’t hurt.” She offered the excuse, perceiving Rafe’s need to get away. “Nor would a bit of praise from the one he’s tried most to please.” “You think so, do you?” Rafe’s comment was as caustic as his mood. His face was a cynical mask in the weaving play of firelight. Valentina sat back on her heels, her knees in the dust. With her fingers linked before her, there was a calm about her as she faced the brunt of his contempt. “An observation and a suggestion.” A slight shrug, and a tendril broke free of the orderly cascade of her hair. Swaying against the smooth line of her throat, it was silky and darkly fascinating in the absence of the many hues drawn from it by the sun. “My apologies, no interference intended, I assure you.” He had no answer for his mood, no plausible excuse, no apologies of his own. And no inclination to accept her assurance or those she offered. “I’ll see to the horse.” Stalking into the shrouding darkness, he wondered what the hell that little skirmish was all about. Why had a simple suggestion sent him into a rage and an apology made it worse? Was it simply that he didn’t like her? No. Like or dislike had nothing to do with it. He’d learned long ago in his years with McCallum American, then McCallum International, that liking was never a prerequisite for working successfully with one or dozens of people. Then why, he wondered again, and was no closer to an answer when El Mirlo lifted his head, whinnying a soft greeting. Much later, having deliberately whiled away more time than any duty or communion with his horse required, he found the camp quiet and as he’d left it. The fire burned low in a bed of embers that would ward off the chill of the small hours. The coffeepot waited for the morning. With her saddle for a pillow, his traveling companion slept the sleep of an untroubled mind. “Worry.” The hoarse command was hardly a ripple in the calm of the camp as he scowled at her over the pale blush of the fire. “Toss. Turn. Feet. Care! Damn you, care!” He wanted to shake her, make her hear and heed him. And he knew then he had the answer to his mood. He wanted her to feel, to become involved, to understand the desperation and face what she must do with more than dispassion. Rafe understood that she must be cool and poised, undeterred by clouding emotions. But he knew, as well, that she must care. Courtney needed for her to care. Rafe Courtenay needed for her to care. Drawing a harsh breath, he shook his head wearily. He couldn’t in a million years explain to himself, any more than he could to anyone else, why he felt so strongly that caring would be the key to survival. Yet, even as he lacked the words, he was convinced that when she was balanced on that fine line between success and failure, caring could and would tip the scales in Courtney’s favor. Was it simply that? That it was the extra dimension that made the impossible possible? Or was it more? “Caring.” The word rang hollowly through the imperturbable peace of the canyon. With the echo of it resounding in his mind, and keenly conscious of every worn and tortured muscle, he stretched out on his bedroll. He would not bother with taking off more than his hat, for he would not sleep. Not tonight, nor any night, until Patrick’s child was safe. Lying with his head leant against his saddle, arms folded at the back of his neck, he stared at the sky and thought of the woman who slept within a touch of his fingertips. He puzzled over her, worried about her, and struggled to find the key to understanding. Perhaps then he could replace enmity with empathy, though he knew it was the last thing she would want from him. Tracing patterns and paths of stars, as the world spun on its path through the night, he let himself drift. He had no idea how long he’d lain there—an hour, two, most of the night. Perhaps it could have been nearly morning when he heard it—the sound. A ragged, nearly silent cry that made his blood run like icy sludge through his veins, and shivers scratched with ghostly claws at his spine. There was a desperateness in the cry, and for all its softness, raw, bleeding anguish. In a frozen moment of sheer disbelief, mistrusting his perceptions, he wondered if he’d drifted into a somnolent trance, with this part of a waking dream. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925154&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. 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