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Chris Evans. That had been his name. A name he'd tried to forget. A life he'd left behind. But he wouldn't ever forget this day. Because today he had returned home, today he had returned to the place where he'd died and been reborn, an immortal Knight of White—a Demon hunter known only as Ryder.
Leaning against his black Chevy pickup, Ryder stared at the wooden stairs leading to the double doors of the small-town bar he'd visited that night—the night he'd been attacked by Demons. Rows of vehicles surrounded him; the full parking lot showed how busy the Double R Tavern was this night. Music poured from the doors and window of the popular nightspot with a blustering force extending beyond its panels. The plentiful crowd overflowed to the porch.
In the distance, thunder rumbled with ominous force, lightning flickering across the black sky, a scent of rain lacing the air. In a gust of wind, dust lifted in the air around his well-worn boots. Almost as if Mother Nature shouted a warning—beware of danger approaching. Of darkness beyond a storm. Darkness that mimicked the ache in his chest, the painful memories of the past that chased him night and day. He scrubbed his jaw and told himself to go inside, that the ache would persist until he got this over with.
Those memories reached out to him, taunting him with a nagging insistence, as they had for weeks now. Reminding him of a night twenty-five years before in this very parking lot, when he'd been a man with a family, with people who had loved him, people he had loved.
Wrangling with his emotions, Ryder ran a hand through his thick, sandy-brown hair. Edgy still, he scrubbed his palms down the faded Levi's he wore.Finally, he shoved aside his thoughts, pushing off the truck in the same moment, and charged toward the porch. Charged from the past into the present.
But halfway to the steps and counting, he drew to an abrupt halt. The soft sound of a female's delicate voice lifted in the air, the impact of which set his nerve endings on fire. He swallowed hard against the intensity of the reaction, struggling to grasp how or why a simple voice could wreak havoc on his composure. But before he could delve deeper within himself, the voice sounded again, this time hinting at urgency, at a bit of fear—angry fear. Fear that spurred him into action.
Ryder followed the voice as it lifted in the air, traced the location to four vehicles down, behind a nineties-model Ford pickup. "Let go of her arm!" the voice demanded.
"Ouch," another female said, a choked sob bitten back with the word.
Fighting back the unnatural instinct to pounce before evaluating, Ryder forced himself to stop, to assess the situation before acting. He crept to the vehicle's edge, the nearby lights allowing him a decent visual of the scene unfolding. A brawny cowboy held the arm of an obviously distressed, petite blonde. A tall, leggy brunette stood in confrontation, her hands balled on her jean-clad hips. She didn't even have to speak for him to know that this was the one who owned the voice he'd heard moments before.
"I came to take her home," the brunette declared, "and that's what I am doing."
The cowboy snidely rejected her claim. "She doesn't want to go with you." He ran his hand down the blonde's hair, his touch possessive. "Do you, Kelly?"
Fear radiated off the blonde. "No," Kelly said, casting him a submissive, beaten look, and then turning her attention to her friend in explanation. "I… we just had a little spat. I shouldn't have called."
The brunette glared at the cowboy, dismissing the blonde's statement. "I know you hit her." Her voice was low, venomous. "And it's not the first time. I've seen the bruises. I'll call the police before I let her stay with you."
Sarcastic amusement laced his bark of laughter. "Go ahead," he said. "In case you didn't know, I own this joint. And the good ole Round Rock Police Department enjoys their free drink privileges. Call them. See if it will do you any good. In the meantime, we'll be inside enjoying ourselves." He sneered. "You should consider having a drink. Might make you likable for once."
The brunette didn't appear rattled by the insult. She grabbed Kelly's arm. "Come on. We're going home."
The cowboy shackled the brunette's arms, and Ryder felt the flare of his temper launch him into action. He didn't wait to introduce himself, he strode forward, intent on freeing both women. A heroic effort rendered unnecessary when the brunette landed a well-placed knee firmly in the cowboy's groin. Instantly, the man doubled over with a loud grunt, and the women were freed. Ryder slowed his progress, felt the urge to laugh—something he would have considered impossible in this place, on this day. The urge quickly washed away as the cowboy lashed out.
"Bitch," the man yelled at the brunette as she grabbed her friend and tugged. "I'll make you pay for that."
Ryder stepped in front of the ladies, sheltering them with his big body, his eyes briefly touching the heart-shaped face of the brunette before he focused on the critical matter at hand—the scumbag cowboy. "It's not nice to threaten the ladies," he admonished.
The man unfolded to a near-standing position, a good four inches below Ryder's six foot two, one hand still guarding his crotch. He sidestepped toward the brunette. "That one there isn't a lady. Not by a long shot. And mind your own business, buddy. This is private property, so walk your interfering ass outta here."
Ryder shrugged. "Not a problem. But the ladies go with me."
"You looking for trouble, man?" he challenged. "Because if you are, you come to the right place."
"I like trouble," Ryder drawled, deciding the man's straight nose and square jaw would make nice targets. "Care for a demonstration?"
The brunette stepped forward. "I'll demonstrate," she said, standing by Ryder's side, her attention fixed on the other man. "If you think for a minute, Hector, that I won't call the news stations and plaster flyers all over this city announcing you hit her, you're wrong. Let's see how long the police will support you once it's public."
A hiss slid from Hector's lips. "And I'll tell them all you're just a bitter lover. Bet some of your ranch hands will offer to comfort you."
She recoiled as if slapped. "You bastard."
"You betcha, baby," he said. "Now all of you get off my property."
He started to back away, and Ryder grabbed his shirt, used his supernatural strength to lift him off the ground. "Touch either of these ladies ever again, and I will show you the meaning of the word bastard." He dropped him, and the man stumbled, his jaw gaping with shock as he caught himself on his hands and then scrambled backward. A second later, he turned and ran away.
Ryder drew a long breath, somehow certain he would need a little fortification before facing the woman at his side. Slowly he turned, delaying their direct connection as he assured himself that Kelly was safe, finding her resting against the truck, nervously hugging herself.
Then, and only then, did Ryder let his gaze settle on the brunette, on the woman already under his skin, her dark eyes touching his with the same riveting force with which her voice had affected him. The contact danced along his nerve endings with an electric charge. And he knew… she was why he was here. She was the reason this place had called him home.
Alexis Wright had never been a woman to be blown away by any man, certainly not in the middle of a difficult situation. She'd grown up on a ranch surrounded by big, virile men who were often a bit too sure of their own masculinity. Her father—"Big W" to the rest of the world—had been one of those big virile men until six months ago, when a heart attack had stolen him away. And he'd taught her how to take charge of a situation, even when it overflowed with testosterone. But here, now, today, staring into the eyes of the sexy stranger who'd managed to come to her rescue— despite her best efforts not to need rescuing—she found herself feeling anything but in control. Hypnotized was more like it.
"Are you both okay?" the stranger asked, his voice low, sensual and good gosh, a bit too distracting for comfort.
Alexis inwardly shook herself and tore herself out of the deep, dark depths of his eyes. Distractions were dangerous when you managed a ranch with debts the size of Texas. "Yes," she said, her voice cracking a bit, and she couldn't for the life of her say why. "Thank you." She glanced at her friend Kelly Parker. "You okay, Kell?"
Kelly nodded. "I'm fine." Which was a lie. Kelly hadn't been fine since her cheating husband had driven her into Hector's abusive arms and then into Alexis's spare bedroom. Kelly cast the stranger an appreciative look. "Thank you."
"No thanks needed," he said, offering a gentle smile that contrasted with the ruggedly masculine features of his face. Thick brows, strong jaw, high cheekbones. A full bottom lip that thinned as he added, "Guys like that one get under my skin." His gaze shifted and settled heavily on Alexis, heating with contact. His voice lowered. "It was my pleasure to help." His mouth curved upward again, amusement coloring his voice. "Though I have to say, you didn't need it all that much. That's a dangerous knee you got there."
"My secret weapon," Alexis said, laughing, realizing she liked this man way too much. "Works like a charm."
He grinned, approval in his expression as he offered her his hand. "I'm Ryder."
Alexis swallowed hard, her gaze somehow touching his mouth before she jerked it downward, across a broad forearm to his extended palm. "Alexis Wright," she said, sliding her hand into his. It closed instantly over hers, big, warm, possessive—as if he claimed her in some way. She swallowed hard as warmth spread up her arm. Her attention slowly traced the broad width of his shoulders and lifted to his face, to the strong chin with the tiny dimple in the middle. "Kelly is my friend."
"Nice to meet you both," he said, reluctantly releasing her hand. "Hate that it had to be under these conditions, though."
"We should go," Kelly said, interrupting with an urgent quality to her voice. "Before Hector comes back."
Which was true. Alexis wouldn't put anything past Hector. "She's right," she agreed. "We should go." The memory of Ryder lifting Hector off the ground flashed in her mind. "Somehow, I doubt Hector's ego is faring very well. You tossed the man around like a wet noodle. He might come back with baseball bats and some extra hands."
A baffled expression flashed across Ryder's face. He scrubbed his jaw, the rasp of newly formed whiskers scraping on his palm. "Like a wet noodle, huh?" he asked, appearing more interested in her silly words than the prospect of Hector's return.
"It was one of my father's million or so crazy sayings," Alexis explained.
His brows dipped, seriousness flickering in his gaze before fading, as if he caught the past tense but decided not to ask questions. "Sadly," he commented, "I am not sure how qualified I am at the particular craft of noodle whipping, but I've bred horses for years and wrestled a few stallions that make bullies like that guy look like kittens."
"You train horses?" she asked, surprised, but then not so surprised. He had a way about him, a soothing quality that seemed to fit such a calling.
"Yep," he said. "I oversee the breeding operation for Jaguar Ranch."
"Jaguar Ranch," she said, eyes going wide. "As in the Jaguar Ranch in Brownsville?"
He nodded. "You've heard of it?"
"Who hasn't?" she said. "Isn't it like ten thousand acres big or some insane size like that?"
"Twenty," he said. "And one of the biggest horse-breeding operations in the country."
"Twenty," she repeated. "Makes my little family-owned ranch look like a kiddie ride." Alexis would have said more, but a big drop of rain smacked down on her nose. She swiped at it, expecting another, but found none. "I guess that's our sign to depart before it really starts raining," she said, tossing the keys to Kelly so her friend could get inside the truck. "We really should go."
Ryder didn't immediately respond, his gaze lifting, scanning the area. Something in him seemed to change, shift, but she couldn't put her finger on what. "I'm going to be here a few weeks," he commented. "Hate to stay locked up in a hotel room. Don't suppose you'd have room and board at that ranch of yours, in exchange for an extra set of hands?"
Kelly called out, "Yeah, she does," as she unlocked the passenger's side of the truck.
Alexis would have glared at Kelly if her friend hadn't ducked into the vehicle to avoid her wrath. It wasn't Kelly's place to speak on her behalf, and Kelly knew full well Alexis was trying to downplay her struggles at the ranch since her father's death.
Intent on dismissing Kelly's words, Alexis opened her mouth to speak. Ryder interjected before she could, taking Kelly's claim and running with it. He held out his arms. "I'm your man," he declared. "Put me to work." He grinned. "Teach me how to give a proper noodle whipping, and I will teach your men how to tame a wild beast." He laughed. "Or I can rope and wrangle cattle. Whatever you need." He shook his head. "Well. I might draw the line at shoveling shit, but then, a good meal can convince a man to do a lot of things."
She tried not to read anything into the "I'm your man" statement, but it was hard not to. Maybe because he was the first man to get her attention in too long to remember. She was more than attracted to Ryder; something about him made her comfortable. But none of this changed the bottom line. She didn't have any extra money. Heck, she was barely keeping her current crew fed and housed.
"I couldn't pay you what you are worth," she said, unwilling to confess her inability to pay. She didn't need that getting around and spooking her men. If the ranch faltered in even the tiniest way, she was liable to lose it.
"Keep me away from the confines of the local motel," he urged, "and that's payment enough." She hesitated, and he added, "Save a cowboy, Alexis." His voice lowered. "Save me."
Awareness swirled in her limbs. Why did she feel as if they were talking about something more than keeping him out of a motel? Save him? Good gosh, his expertise might help save her. Still. As much as she needed help, this was too good to be true. "I doubt my little ranch even begins to compare to what you are used to. You might prefer a motel."
"Try me," he pressed. "You might be surprised."