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The wolf paced.
Her wrists bound and staked firmly to the ground, she lay on her back and watched the animal tread back and forth, its large black paws moving smoothly and silently over the crisp leaves carpeting the forest floor. The scent of damp, fertile earth hung heavy in the still night air, filling her nostrils and lungs. Fear slithered up her spine and seeped into her blood. She opened her mouth to call out for help, but the words remained lodged in her throat.
Escape! her mind screamed at her, and she struggled to free herself from the thick ropes holding her arms above her head. Her limbs, heavy and leaden, refused to move.
Her pulse quickened, and she glanced back at the wolf. Its eyes glinting yellow, the animal paused and lifted its massive head, sniffed the air. A growl rumbled deep in its throat.
Dressed in ceremonial leathers, the Elders moved forth from the shadows of the trees that framed the inky sky. Their faces, tattered and worn, turned toward the wolf, and they nodded with solemn approval. A circle of fire burst forth, surrounding her, and the Elders vanished in the flames of brilliant red and gold. She called out to them, begged them to return, to set her free.
An eerie howl answered her.
She watched the wolf--no, a man--step through the flames. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of his powerful warrior's body, naked, except for the loincloth slung low across his lean hips. Firelight danced in his long black hair, his sun-bronzed skin gleamed. Fierce, angry stripes of red and black war paint hid his face. Smoke clouded her vision, and the sound of distantdrums beat in her head, through her rushing blood.
Panic swam through her when he approached, and once again she wrestled with the ropes at her wrist, but they held fast. He stood over her, gazed down with eyes the color of the sky.
"Submit to me," he demanded.
She shook her head.
He knelt beside her. "You belong to me."
"I belong to no man."
His smile flashed white through the haze of smoke. He slid his hand over her shoulder, down her arm. His palm was rough against her smooth skin. The ropes holding her, coarse and tight only a moment ago, turned to velvet.
She shivered at his touch. "Submit to me," he repeated. "No." Her breath caught when his fingers loosened the straps of the white sheath she wore. He peeled the fabric back, baring her breasts. An arrow of heat shot through her body; through her veins. Lightly he stroked his fingertips down her throat.
Her chest rose and fell in short, air-gulping breaths. Fear and anticipation consumed her. When he fisted his hand and brushed his knuckles lightly over her breast, the flames rose higher, hotter. He lowered his head, and she felt the burn of his breath on her neck--
Gasping for breath, her body shaking, Alaina Black-hawk bolted upright in bed. Eyes wide, she stared into the darkness of her bedroom, then clasped a hand to her throat, felt the pounding beat of her pulse against her fingers.
A dream, she told herself. Just a dream.
But it had felt so real, so incredibly real. She could still smell the damp earth, the smoke. Could feel the bite of the ropes on her wrists, the coarse texture of callused hands skimming up her arms.
Her skin still tingled, her body throbbed with unfulfilled desire.
She hugged the bedclothes to her, waited for her pulse to slow and the shivering to ease.
Pale streaks of moonlight slanted across the walls, into the darkened corners. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath, then dragged her trembling hands through her hair.
A sense of dread hovered over her like a great bird of prey, its large talons stretched wide, ready to swoop. She felt the breeze of its wings on her heated skin, looked up and realized it was her ceiling fan, nothing more.
She laughed dryly, then lay back down and pulled the sheets up to her chin. It was silly to be afraid of a dream. If anything, she told herself, she should have enjoyed it, even with all that "submit to me" nonsense.
The only thing she intended to submit to, she thought with determination, was a few more hours of sleep.
But even as her eyes closed and her skin cooled, even as she finally dozed off, she heard the distant sound of drums, and the lonely howl of a wolf....
No one looked twice at the dusty black pickup that turned off Highway 96 and headed east. This was Texas, after all. Trucks were as common in these parts as air, and there was nothing noteworthy about this one, anyway. No shiny paint job, no fancy rims, not one Don't Mess With Texas decal. When the pickup drove through the small town of Stone Ridge, the good folks simply nodded and gave a friendly wave, same as they would have done for anybody passing through.
But the driver of this truck, however, wasn't just "anybody," it was D. J. Bradshaw. The D. J. Bradshaw.And if folks had known that, jaws would have dropped faster than the Honorable Judge Pockerpine's oak-carved gavel.
It wasn't every day that the Lone Star state's most elusive--not to mention wealthiest--rancher showed his face in public.
And what a face it was.
D. J. Bradshaw personified the word rugged. With his large hands and powerful, six-foot-five frame, men said he'd been born to work the land he'd inherited from his daddy. Women, well, they thought those callused hands and muscled body had been born for something much more private.
And much more interesting.
Then there was that thick, devil-black hair and cobalt-blue eyes, that slash of dark brow and square-cut jaw, that hard set mouth and sun-bronzed skin. One look at D. J. Bradshaw and every woman--from the most refined female to the most demure maiden--was ready to slap on a cowboy hat and go for a ride.
Those lucky few who'd taken that ride still smiled at the mere mention of his name.
Once outside Stone Ridge town limits, D.J. slid a Bob Seger CD into the truck's player, cranked up "Against the Wind" then revved the engine and cut through the thick August heat rippling off the asphalt. No place better than a back country road to put pedal to metal, D.J. had always thought, taking the one-ton, 486 engine to full throttle. Gravel and dirt blasted off the back tires, leaving a generous layer of rubber on the road and dust in the heavy air.
"Bob" was singing about old-time rock and roll when the sign appeared twenty miles from the Louisiana border. D.J. slowed, then pulled off the main road onto a two mile, cedar-lined stretch of driveway leading to Stone Ridge Ranch. Golden ragwort splashed yellow across the lush green landscape, a sharp contrast to the prickly pear and rocky canyons he'd left only six hours ago.
D.J. drove under a tall iron archway with the SRR insignia, took note of the cattle and horses grazing beside a thick grove of fern-choked pines. When he rounded a grassy bend, a bridge stretched across a swiftly running stream and the truck tires clattered over the wooden planks.
He saw the stables first--red brick, with gray-shingled roof--and parked in front of them. He'd read a full report on Stone Ridge Stables weeks ago. Five thousand acres of prime timber and grazing land. Four ranch hands, one foreman, one housekeeper, a small herd of cattle and a stable full of prize winning quarter-horses. Though the ranch was legally owned by a woman named Helena Blackhawk, it was her son, Trey, and a daughter, Alaina, who ran the operation. There were two other daughters, as well. Alexis, who lived in New York, and the youngest, Kiera, who was a chef, and currently living in Wolf River.
D.J. liked to know the people he intended to do business with.
He'd also seen a detailed list of Stone Ridge Stables' profit and loss statements, bank accounts, a record of sellers and buyers they'd dealt with for the past five years. Information he'd need when he made the Black-hawks an offer to buy their ranch.
Stepping out of his truck, he caught sight of the main house and thought Southern antebellum. Thick vines of honeysuckle clamored up the white columns of the wraparound porch and a lush green lawn stretched across the front yard. To the west of the house, a stand of poplars shaded a rock and fern garden bordered with chunks of flat stone.
The scent of honeysuckle and the tinkling of wind chimes drifted on the hot, humid breeze, along with the amiable chatter of men working a horse from a nearby corral. He looked at his wristwatch, then glanced at the black underbelly of the clouds gathering on the horizon, hoped like hell he'd be back on the road before the storm blew in.
He started toward the house, stopped at the sound of a woman singing from inside the stables. He couldn't make out the words, but the melody was soft and sweet and vaguely familiar. It drew him into the stables, past several occupied stalls, until he came to the last open stall on the right.
Tall and slender, the woman stood with her back to him, brushing the muscular neck of a black stallion that had to be at least two hands above her head. Her hair, chestnut-brown, flowed in a thick ponytail down the back of her white sleeveless blouse. Her legs were long, her boots well worn. A bright red bandana peeked out from the back pocket of her snug faded jeans.
"Blue Bayou," he thought, recognizing the song. He supposed he should say something. At the very least, clear his throat or shuffle a boot. Something to make her aware of his presence. But he was still curious, not to mention captivated by her voice and the slow caress of her delicate fingers sliding over the horse's sleek coat. The animal seemed captivated as well, D.J. noted. Except for a slight twitch in his left shoulder, the stallion stood motionless and calm.
When the woman stepped away from the horse and reached for a blanket hanging on a hook in the stall, D.J. allowed himself one last moment to appreciate her slender curves, then cleared his throat as he took a step forward.
Startled, the stallion charged the open stall door. D.J. reached out and grabbed the lead line, but not in time to avoid the slash of a hoof across his forearm when the horse reared.
"Whoa!" D.J. held on when the horse reared up again. "Whoa!"
Nostrils flaring, black eyes wide, the horse dropped back down onto its front hooves, then jerked its massive head upward. The woman rushed forward and grabbed the animal's halter.
"Easy," she said firmly, then slid a hand down the stallion's neck. "Easy, boy."
Snorting, the horse pawed at the dirt and tossed its head. The woman grabbed the lead line and moved between D.J. and the animal. "I've got him now."
He let go of the line and stepped back, studied the woman's face as she led the horse back into the stall. Her features had an exotic appearance, but with a softer, smoother edge. High cheekbones, pale gold skin. A sweeping, narrow arch of dark brow over thickly lashed eyes as pale blue as an early morning sky. And her mouth. Damn. He let his gaze linger a moment on her upturned, lush, wide lips, and decided that his business here had suddenly become much more interesting.
"You're bleeding," she said.
He lifted his gaze to hers, saw the concern in her eyes. "What?"
"Your arm." She stepped away from the horse and glanced at him. "It's bleeding."
D.J. looked down. He'd been so distracted, he hadn't even noticed the gash on his arm or the blood dripping down his hand. Damn.
Her long legs closed the distance between them quickly. "Let me look at it."
She reached for his arm. When he tried to shrug her off, she tightened her hold. "Be still," she said, using the same tone with him as she had with the horse. "It's deep."
Frowning, he watched her pull the bandana from her pocket and wrap it around his arm. When she applied pressure, he felt the warmth of her hand through the fabric. A tingling sensation, like tiny sparks of electricity, rippled over his skin, then shot up his arm.
What the hell?