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"All I can say is that the Callahans are unafraid to live by their own rules, no matter the consequences. It makes you want to live a little harder yourself. I call it Callahan fire."
Bode Jenkins, when asked by a reporter about his neighbors
Sloan Chacon stared at the note tacked to the door of his isolated cabin, an event that had happened three times before in his life. This time it had been placed while he was sleeping. Highly trained and decorated Navy SEALs did not normally find themselves in the presence of someone stealthier than they.
Sloan pulled the note off the rustic wood. It was from Chief Running Bear, the connection to his old life, and his paternal grandfather.
The instructions, as always, were cryptic.
There are many mysteries in a man's life. You are needed now, to protect the family and your heritage. Go to the Callahan ranch in New Mexico. Near the canyons you will find seven large stones, one placed for each of you. This ring of stone will be your home from now on, in your heart.
He'd known this day was coming, from the day his parents had left. They'd said "the chief will guide you"and they'd disappeared. He and his brothers and sister had split up, moved in separate directions when they were old enough. Life in the tribe was over.
He hadn't understood much then. But his parents had been right: the chief had guided them.
He'd just resented the hell out of it.
Jonas and Sam Callahan stared across the ranch land of Rancho Diablo toward the canyons. Jonas lowered the night-vision binoculars. "I see a circle of seven large rocks, and a small fire in the center. My guess is it's the bat signal, with our grandfather starring as Alfred."
"Chief business," Sam said.
Jonas nodded. "The chief's not holding a seance, so something's up."
Sam took the binoculars. "I knew the peace couldn't last forever."
Jonas waited for Sam's assessment of the fire and ring of stone.
"There are eight people. Six dudes, the chief and what may be a reasonably decent-looking chick with spiky light hair. Around our age, but hard to tell. They look fit."
"You mean they look like they're strong enough to tote diaper bags and baby gear," Jonas said. "I've bulked up with the nineteen kids on this ranch."
"Exactly. Shall we butt in?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
Sam set the binoculars down. "The chief wouldn't have let us see him if he didn't want us to know something's going on. That means he expects all of us to show."
"I'm on it," Jonas said, sending a mass text to the brothers.
Cut yourselves loose. Chief situation. "Here we go," Sam said.
"Ever think what our lives would be like without the chief?" Jonas asked his brother, hearing a rumble of thunder deep in the heart of the canyons that could only be the mystical Diablos running, a portent of things to come.
"Yeah." Sam slid into a leather jacket, stuck a small pistol in the back of his jeans. "Boring as hell."
But boring had been nice for the past year.
Sloan found the spot easily enoughthe small fire was an excellent marker. He put his pack down and eyed the dark landscape around him, checking for danger. His heart beat hard, adrenaline kicking in. "You can come out. Let's get this party started."
His five brothers slowly materialized from the shadows. Sloan waited. A few seconds passed, then his slightly built sister stepped close to the fire.
"I'm here. Now the party can get rocking," Ashlyn said.
They embraced each other. Cold night air blew down his jacket collar, but Sloan didn't care. It felt too good to be with his family again. They'd waited a long time for this moment.
He wished they could stay together forever.
But they weren't alone. Sloan stood still as six tall men appeared out of the darkness like night specters. The two groups stared across the fire, sizing each other up.
Sloan had no idea how long the chief had been standing next to him. His grandfather's face gave away nothing, and Sloan wondered why they'd all been called to this remote location.
"This is Callahan land," the chief said. "You are all Callahans."
Sloan looked at the impassive faces gathered around the fire. If this was family, it felt very strange to learn about it now. "We are Chacon."
"Chacon Callahan. You are related by blood. Your fathers are brothers." The chief met the gaze of each of them in turn. "One of you is the hunted one."
Sloan stared at the chief. "What does that mean, hunted?"
"It means one may die if the thirteen do not work together. No matter what, nothing can separate you from your purpose."
"Which is what?" Sloan demanded.
"Protecting the family." The chief looked at Jonas.
"Is there another mercenary coming?" Jonas asked.
"There was never only one," the chief said. "You knew they would send more. They are nearing Rancho Diablo even as we speak."
"If these guys have a problem, what does that have to do with us?" Sloan asked.
"Callahan is Callahan. The fight is the same." The chief gestured one last time at the clan gathered in a circle. "Get to know each other well. A single stick can be broken, but a bundle not so easily."
"I've heard that before," Sloan said. "Any further intel would be appreciated."
"Your home is here," the chief said. "Keep the ring of stone and fire in your hearts. Across the canyons, a few miles as the eagles flies, lies danger."
"If we're supposed to be a bundle," Jonas said, "I assume they're staying with us at Rancho Diablo? They're welcome to, of course, though we can take care of ourselves."
"For now they stay here." The chief squatted next to the fire, waved a hand over it. "You have nineteen children, six wives and two elderly people on the ranch, Jonas. It is best to have your cousins remain in this place so they can keep a lookout."
"I'd watch calling Aunt Fiona and Uncle Burke elderly," Jonas replied. "Chief, we can establish our own lookouts." He glanced across the fire at his new kin.
Sloan knew exactly how Jonas felt. "Why again is this our problem?"
"Brother takes care of brother." The chief let that sink in for a moment. "Remember that only blood matters. Stay together and yet separate. There is strength in all of you, but even a chain can be broken if the weakest link is not reinforced," the chief said, rising. "Here the past and the future become one. What comes now will change you all."
He disappeared, and the fire dimmed. Hoofbeats echoed eerily in the darkness.
Sloan had little patience for openended missions with little purpose, and slackers who couldn't take care of themselves. He appointed himself troubleshooter, deciding to go ahead and shoot this trouble in the head before it took over their lives. "I take it you're in some kind ofjam, cousins," he said. "Not really sure we can help you."
"I'm Jonas Callahan. And as far as I knew when I woke up this morning, the only jam in my world was on my toast. We thought we were doing just fine until you showed up."
Sloan took the hand stretched out to him, giving it a brief shake. "Sloan. These are my brothers and sister. Falcon, Galen, Jace, Dante, Tighe and Ashlyn."
Ashlyn's diminutive size caught Jonas's attention. He glanced at Sloan.
"She's not the weak link," Sloan said drily. "Trust me on that. Five feet two of meanness if you cross her."
"Good," Jonas said. "No offense, Ashlyn."
"Not a problem," she said.
Jonas looked at Sloan. "These are my brothers. Creed, Pete, Sam, Rafe and Judah."
"Seven of us, six of you?" Sloan asked.
"Guess your father was more prolific," Jonas said.
"Or he was determined to have a girl," Ashlyn said, her tone sweet.
Jonas eyed Sloan. "We'll head on now."
He nodded. Sloan glanced around at the rest of the Callahans on the opposite side of the fire. There was definitely a strong resemblance, but they didn't feel like family.
Yet they were supposed to fight for a common cause, against something dangerous that affected all of them.
Sloan didn't get it. Frankly, if the seven of them had been brought in to help these six, he wasn't all that interested.
His family could stand on their own. Too bad if theirs couldn't.
Kendall Phillips looked down at the sleeping man, unsure how to wake him. He slept like he was dead, which he probably should be, considering he'd spent the night on the ground at Rancho Diablo. In the not-quite-dawn light, she saw that the fire had gone out, perhaps hours ago.
The next thing Kendall knew, she was flat on her backside in the dust. "Ow!" Her fanny smartedand now this guest of Jonas's was on her very bad side. "Let go of me, you gorilla!"
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" he demanded.
She noted he didn't release her, and she squelched the great desire to pull off one of her high-heeled Manolo Blahniks and pierce him with it. "I'm Kendall Phillips. I was sent with coffee and to bring you in to meet the family while it's still dark. Let go of my ankle!"
She slapped his hand, but he didn't seem to mind. He slowly released her, his fingers lingering against her skinas if he wasn't used to feeling anything soft.
Chills ran up her legs.
"Sorry," he said. "Not used to a chuck wagon showing up to greet me, nor a female."
Kendall stood, turning to look at her white Chanel skirt, which now bore a target-size dirt mark on it, very visible despite the dimness still covering the ranch. "Apology not accepted. I was trying to wake you gently, you " She sized the man up as he stood. "You do look like a Callahan."
"That's because I am." He glanced around. "Do me a favor. Don't tell my brothers and sister you made it to the fire without me taking you out."
"I beg your pardon," Kendall said, "but I can assure you that you and I will never be going out."
"It's okay. We had a bead on her all along," a female voice said. Five large men and one much smaller woman appeared out of the darkness. Kendall thought it was amazing how silently they could move.
"You sleep like a bear in winter," the petite blonde said to her brother, who looked embarrassed at her comment. "If she can sneak up on us in those shoes, you're going to stink as a lookout. That's got to change."
"This is all very nice, but not my issue," Kendall said. "Do you want coffee or not?" She put full-force attitude into her voice, letting these people know that she might have gotten dumped on her butt, but it wouldn't happen again.
"Sure," the blonde said. "You're kind of fancy for a rancher, aren't you?"
Kendall was about to let her have itshe hadn't driven a military jeep out to the corner of nowhere to put up with thisbut just then her twin brother, Xav, rode up on his big stallion, and the little blonde's eyes went huge in her face.
"Everything all right, Kendall?" Xav asked.
She nodded. "We're getting to know each other, all of us," she said, her gaze on the man who'd spilled her on the ground. "It may take a while. We have different methods of saying hello."
Sloan shrugged. "Where's the coffee, Barbie?"
Kendall sucked in a breath. "Did you just call me Barbie?"
The big man looked at her curiously. "Is that a problem?"
His brothers shifted, and as slight streaks of dawn began slowly lighting the sky, she realized that all these people looked very Callahanand a little dangerous.
Darn Jonas for saddling me with this mission.
"My name is Kendall Phillips," she said. "This is my twin, Xavier. We help out at the Callahan ranches."
"Not dressed like that, you don't," Sloan said. "Unless you're the party planner."
"That's right," Kendall said. "That's what I am, the party planner." She glared at him, not caring that he was disgustingly handsome even after sleeping on the ground all night. "You're going to miss the party if you don't all introduce yourselves, because I'm going to drive off in the only mode of vehicular transportation that can make it out here, with your stupid pot of coffee. And you won't eat the hot bacon and eggs Fiona Callahan has waiting on the stove. You don't really know what you'll be missing," she added. "I've done my job. The party planner's jeep leaves in five seconds."
"Sloan, Tighe, Dante, Falcon, Galen, Jace and Ashlyn," Sloan said. "Since we need cover of darkness, we'd better get a move on."
He had a nice voice. A little rough and gravelly, maybe, but she thought he'd be appealing if he relaxed.
He didn't look as if he relaxed much. "Can't they speak for themselves?" Kendall demanded.
"Kendall," Xav said, laughing, still astride his horse, "cut them a break. They're not aware of the game rules."
"Yes, we are," Ashlyn said to Xav. "We make the rules."
"Great," Kendall said. "Nothing but fun times ahead, I can tell."
Sloan looked at her. "We appreciate you coming out here. We just weren't expecting company."
She nodded, backing off just a bit. "Let's get you that coffee."
He smiled, and the effect was devastatingly, hauntingly beautiful. As if he didn't smile often, so when he did, the smile came from deep in his soul. Kendall caught her breathand then remembered that when he'd held her ankle in his strong hand, capturing her, she was pretty certain his fingers had stroked her skin as he'd finally released her.
It had felt nice.
"Sorry about your skirt," he told her. "I'd brush it off, but I think the dirt"
"Don't you dare," Kendall said. The thought of him brushing her fanny with his big, rough hand alarmed her. It didn't ring a long-forgotten bell of sexual desire at all. "I mean, thank you, it will be fine. Nothing the dry cleaners can't handle."
His dark eyes squinted at the corners, as if he might be trying to smile again but the action was just too rusty for the muscles to obey. He ran a hand through his messy dark hair, waiting for her to lead the way.
Kendall marched the procession to the jeep and the coffee, more than ready to hand the big man and his rowdy band off to Jonas.
Party planner, my foot. Barbie?
What an arrogant devil. Cute, though, I suppose.
If one likes their men rough and toughand I don't.