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"If someone's looking for a fight with a Callahan, he'll sure find one."
Bode Jenkins, neighboring ranch owner to a reporter asking questions about the Callahan legend
Dante Callahan stared at the enormous spotted bull pawing the ground and tossing its huge horns before climbing over the chute with a sense of impending doom. For his ride he'd drawn Firefreak, a bounty bull, and he'd started to wonder why he'd let his twin, Tighe, talk him into this. Dante had been working at the rodeo, practicing being a barrel man, doing a little mutton busting setup for the kiddies on the side, simply trying to keep Tighe out of troublethough his twin seemed hell-bent on finding said trouble. Today his sole goal was to survive Firefreak, legendary badass rank bull. The last cowboy who'd ridden himtried to ride himhad ended up in the hospital with broken bones.
All of this was to avoid Dante mooning over Ana St. John, the hot babe bodyguard who worked at Rancho Diablo.
Ana, who'd never glanced his way except by accident.
Dante got on the bull, settled himself with a choke hold on the rope, mashed his hat down on his head. Cowboys yelled encouragement, instructions, some various bits of garbled wisdom and maybe a prayer or two. He took a deep breath, noddedand the chute burst open.
Hell hit Dante so fast he hung on by reflex. The jaw-grinding, butt-breaking bucking set his insides screaming, and then he was on the ground, staring up at nothing, before adrenaline shot him to his feet to scramble away from the pounding hooves intent on his destruction.
"That was awesome, bro!" Tighe yelled as Dante stumbled out of the arena. "Five seconds!"
Five secondsof hell. Gasping, Dante held his heaving ribs, some of which ached like sin, and spit out his mouth guard. "My life passed before my eyes," he said, lurching to sit on a hay bale. "Holy smokes, I think I saw the face of God."
Tighe laughed, pounded him on the back. "You're fine. You're all right."
"Yeah. He didn't put me in the hospital."
Cowboys came by, shouting words at him he heard but that somehow didn't sink in. "I've got to do that again."
His twin handed him a water bottle. "On Firefreak?"
"Sorry piece of boot leather isn't going to defeat me." The thing was, for those glorious five seconds, it had been all about survival, sort of like when he'd been in Afghanistan, only more endurable because Firefreak was an enemy he had control of. Five seconds of nothing but a mind-numbing, desperate attempt to hang onand he hadn't donated one of those seconds to thinking about Ana.
It had been glorious relief.
"We have enough points to move on," Tighe said. "Next rodeo, next ride."
Dante rubbed his rib, wiped his brow. "I'm going home, bro."
Tighe straightened, his expression shocked dismay.
"Home to Rancho Diablo? Why?"
He couldn't explain it, not even to his twin. But Tighe must have felt it. The two of them practically shared every thought. "It's almost Halloween. I want to see the kids trickor-treat." He sighed at the memory and felt strength washing over him. "There's nothing like seeing all the Callahan kinder dressed up like tiny ghosts and ballerinas."
Tighe smiled. "True."
"We've been gone for months, chasing this dream." He'd last gone home for a wedding in June, when his brother Falcon had married the light of his life, Taylor Waters. Feeling the call of the wild, Dante and Tighe had quit the family fold, leaving their brothers and sister to keep the enemy stalking Rancho Diablo at bay.
He'd worked out his wild oats. Or gotten them crushed out of him by the likes of Firefreak.
"You think you're over long-legged Ana of the streaming golden hair and luscious lips? I believe that's how you refer to her when you're thrashing in your sleep."
"Wasn't anything to get over." Dante wiped his face, brought away a little sawdust, sweat and a bit of blood. "I'm probably about as over her as you are over her buddy River. She of the teasing eyes and voice of a goddess, as you mumble after you've had a six-pack or so."
Tighe grunted. "Stay strong, bro. Denial is the first hint ye old heart still acheth."
"Shut up, Tighe." Maybe his twin was right, but the loyalty factor lately had reared its head in his thoughts. He could only ditch the family so long, wouldn't have ditched them at all if he hadn't felt a burning need to keep Tighe out of trouble. They'd almost never been separated, rarely even during their terms in Afghanistan. As SEALs, they weren't assigned to the same team, but they'd still been able to keep tabs on each other. "It's fine." He got up, happy that his body ached more than his heart. "It's more than fine."
"Good." Tighe stood beside him. "Don't think I have to tell you I'm not going."
"All in good time." Dante shrugged. "It's whatever."
"You gonna marry her?"
Dante laughed. "I'm not a marrying man."
"You act like a marrying man, all soreheaded whenever anyone mentions Ana."
"I don't want to marry her." The nanny bodyguard, who protected Sloan and Kendall's little boys from potential kidnappers, was smooth and tall, and when she walked it was more of a stalk, like a sexy panther. His throat tended to dry out just watching Ana move, as if he was a dog watching a bone swing just out of reach. His heart kicked into overdrive and his, well Suffice it to say he had a burn that wouldn't quit around her. Sometimes he was positive Ana had been brought to the ranch just to torture him with sweet, restless dreams; his own hell for longing for beauty and goodness in his life these days, punishment exacted for the sins he'd committed. "I think I want to sleep with her. Surely that's all it is."
"Maybe, maybe not." Tighe shook his head. "Sometimes one thing leads to another."
"Why don't you just spend the night with her then and quit going around like someone's shot you full of holes?"
"Because I'm afraid of her." Dante took off some of his gear. Making up his mind felt great. He'd faced the worst of what a rank bull had to offer, now he could face the rest of what he needed to. "She's so radioactive that I'm afraid I'd never get over it once I"
"That's fine." Tighe shuddered. "There's nothing more devastating than lust when emotion is involved. It's good old-fashioned sex with no strings for me, or I'm not getting near it."
"Yeah, well, cry me a river." Dante packed up his stuff. "Good luck at the next ride."
"You're leaving today?" Tighe's brows went sky-high. Disappointment was etched in his navy eyes, and Dante felt another stab of disloyalty for leaving his twin behind.
"Gotta be home in time for tricks or treats." It really was something to behold, seeing almost two dozen Cal-lahan children running around munching on popcorn balls and candy corn. Ghost stories would be toldgentlyand hot apple cider drunk. He wasn't about to miss the fun. There'd be pony rides and a ghost pinata for the tiniest to swing at with a sponge bat. "I'm heading for Hell's Colony first for tricks-'n-treats, then on to Rancho Diablo for the real haunting."
Tighe smirked. "You'll be back with me on the circuit soon. I give it two, three weeks. As soon as you realize you'd rather be riding Firefreak than being invisible to the nanny bodyguard goddess, you'll hotfoot it right back. You know where to find me."
"Yeah. Happy trails. Don't bust your noggin. See ya, bro." He grabbed his stuff and headed off, looking forward to testing himself against the ultimate green-eyed fire.
The huge spread in Hell's Colony, Texas, was a compound, actually, owned by the Phillips family. Beautiful Kendall Phillips had married his brother Sloan, and when the Callahans had needed a place to hide out for a while, Kendall had offered her family home. It had turned out nicely for all because it kept all the Diablo Callahans together, and safe from those that meant them harm.
The Callahan children loved being together. Halloween night was no exception, and almost two dozen diminutive ghosts, tiny pumpkins, some petite pea pods still in carriers and a few larger Cinderellas and Zorros ran around holding pillowcases for the treats they hoped to collect. Moms were dressed as anything from Raggedy Ann to Glinda the Good Witch from Oz, and Dante laughed at some of his cousins and their getups. He was feeling pretty good about his own costumea black mask, black cowboy hat and jingling spurs. He was channeling "cowboy rascal"maybe the outfit wasn't far off enough to be a costumewhen Ana slinked past him wearing what could only be termed as a nurse's uniform, and suddenly Dante lacked the serenity he'd previously boasted of to his twin. Oh, he guessed it wasn't a sexy costume in the classical sense; she didn't wear garters, and there were none of the frills that went along with the tacky version of the nurse's uniform. She was simply dressed in purple scrubs. Purple top, purple pants, long hair up in a streaming gold ponytail, and high tan cork sandals. It wasn't supposed to be sexy. She was, after all, a nannyor bodyguard, take your pickto Sloan's twins, but as far as Dante was concerned, Ana could wear a plastic trash sack and his adrenaline would still jet into overdrive.
Tighe had been so right.
"Hi, Dante," Ana said, and he gulped.
"Hi, Ana." He wanted to tell her how beautiful she looked, but he didn't want to sound like a thickheaded sad sack, which his brothers would tell him he was. So he swallowed his real thoughts back.
"Long time, no see." She beamed at him as if he was a man among men, and he grew uncomfortably hot under his black mask. "How's the rodeo?"
"Good enough." He was tongue-tied, which only happened around her.
"I'm off to take the children through the haunted house. It's really a couple of rooms in one of the guesthouses we set up with Clifford the Big Red Dog story time and a Candyland trail. Joining us later?"
Emerald eyes blinked at him sweetly. He could think of nothing he'd like more than to join her in a haunted house, or any house at all. "Sure."
She gave him a last big smile and stalked off, pantherlike and graceful, and Dante knew he was doomed. Tighe could probably pick up his heated brain waves from seven hundred miles away and was doubled over laughing, not to mention counting off the three weeks he expected his twin to last under the onslaught of blinding lust Dante experienced around Ana.
"Have you been putting a little adult additive into the cider, bro?" Ash asked, looking up at him, concerned. "Your eyes are all glazed over."
"I wish. Got any?"
His sister giggled. "Nope. Around the kiddies we abstain. After they go to bed, though, I heard Fiona's got special libations for us. Black martinis and bloody rum punch, if I heard her right. We all only get one, so you better hustle to claim yours if you want to enjoy the paranormal experience. You've been assigned to the sponge pinata event. I've got to go shepherd pitching pennies into pumpkins." His sister went off, throwing herself into the kiddie fray with enthusiasm.
It was so good to be home. Dante went to run the sponge pinata, pretty certain he needed more than a howling-good drink if he was going to survive staring at Ana with no kisses planned for him on her Hallows Eve schedule.
After the munchkin mayhem, the evening was quiet. The adults sat around the kitchen, satisfied that the children had gone to bed with visions of candy corn and Clifford the Big Red Dog dancing in their heads. Dante sucked at his black martini, happy he hadn't missed the mayhem. It really was the best part of being in a large family, which he was, now that his clan had found the long lost Callahans of his missing father's brother, Jeremiah.
He and his six siblings were helping their Callahan cousins until the evil had passed from their home in New Mexico. The cousins stayed here in Hell's Colony with the wives and children, and Dante and his siblings tried to stay one step ahead of trouble at Ran-cho Diablo. Basically bodyguards for hire, assigned by the head of the Callahan clan, Chief Running Bear.
It wasn't always easy. So far on their watch, three kidnappings had taken placetwo of the women and one brother, Falcon. He and his six siblings were military operatives, raised in the tribe and tough to sneak up onyet despite their best efforts, they'd found themselves under attack, too.
When Tighe had taken off to rodeo, Dante had joined him, though he'd felt like a traitor to his Cal-lahan cousins, his brothers and sister and Aunt Fiona by leaving.
Ashlyn plopped down next to him, a pile of candy corns in a bowl her offering to him. "Cheer up. The kiddies didn't beat you with the sponge bat. The ghost pinata was popped, and candy dispensed. Good times, good times."
He grinned at his silver-blond-haired sister who was dressed like a sparkling fairy sprite. "How come you got to go off post tonight? Thought all the operatives were staying at Rancho Diablo to be on the safe side."
"Because I'm fun. We flipped for it, and Jace, Galen and Falcon came up short. Sloan got to come for the fun because his twins are almost old enough to know what's going on. They were darling little pea pods." She grinned. "That's why Ana and River are here."
He glanced at the nanny bodyguards as surreptitiously as possible, caught Ana sneaking a peek at him. He remembered he was still wearing his black mask and removed it, figuring he didn't need the Lone Ranger vibe anymore.
"I missed you, you know, even if you're a schmuck," Ash said cheerfully. "Staying awhile this time?"
"I'm back for good."
"You won't run away from your heart again?"
He sighed, sipping the martini, thinking it wasn't any blacker than his hopes at the moment. "I'm in for the long haul."
"Good." She looked satisfied. "Shall we make a wager?"
"If we must."
"I wager you'll figure out a way to romance Ana by Christmas." She grinned. "Sloan and Falcon fell much more easily than I ever dreamed. You should be a piece of cake. You're a softie and already have your target in sight."
He'd already fallen, so the wager was lopsided. Ana had never given him the time of day, no more than River gave Tighe any reason to hope. Only Jace seemed to hold the key to the bodyguards, and that alone was annoying. "Trust me, I'd be more than willing to wager whatever you wanted, if I thought there was half a chance. I don't wager when the house deck is stacked against me."
"It's for charity," Ash said. "I'm trying to raise five hundred bucks for the horse rescue in Diablo. Pony up, bro. If you winwhich would actually be losing, but never mindI'll give you your money back." Her face held nothing but purposeful honesty. "You can trust me."
"Okay." He reached into his wallet, tossed out his rodeo winnings.
She beamed. "Money well spent. Just putting your money where your dreams are is practically a guarantee of good things happening for you!"
His sister went off, delighted that she'd lightened him of all he had on him at the moment. Dante sipped his drink again, catching Ana's gaze on him before she hurriedly looked at her punch.