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Lightning cut across the sky with a vengeance, turning darkness to light for the span of a heartbeat. Long enough to give Reno Blackwell a clear glimpse of the horses. They raced through the clearing below, scattering like spilled marbles. Flared nostrils and urgent whinnies made their fear palpable more so than the pounding of hooves on rock.
Without a second thought, Reno sent her own mount plunging over the edge of the hillside. The ground slid away beneath the blue roan, rock striking rock as Plenty Coups tucked his haunches and propelled himself forward in a hell-bent-for-leather descent.
Thunder rumbled like an angry spirit, and the long-awaited rain poured down relentlessly. As horse and rider reached the bottom of the slope, Reno searched the darkness for signs of human movement. She prayed for another flash of lightning, a glimpse of a headlight anything to help her locate the poachers.
There. At the edge of the clearing.
All-terrain vehicles moved easily across the rocky ground, driving the mustangs forward, herding them along. Reno spotted at least two ATVsand men with rifles before the sky blackened again, but she could still see the bobbing glow of headlights. Her pulse pounded in her temples.
The mustangs. Her mustangs At the sight of the men's rifles, she'd tasted the sharp copper of adrenaline, but now thoughts of her own safety fled. She had to turn the herd.
With a shout of rage, Reno dug her heels into her gelding's sides, rain rolling off the brim of her hat as she leaned forward in the saddle. If she could steer the mustangs away from the mouth of the canyon ahead, they might have a chance. Once inside, they would betrapped. In another flash of lightningthe bolt too close for comfort now she spotted the Judas horse, one sent by the poachers to lure the mustangs onward. He was running ahead of the herd, showing them the way. She pointed the blue roan straight at him.
Plenty Coups responded like the warrior he was named for. Fearless and surefooted, he galloped along the sagebrush-dotted wash, despite the darkness. Like Reno, he'd been born on this land, and he stretched his neck out now, pinning his ears back as she leaned low in the saddle and urged him to run.
As they approached the Judas horse, a gray, Reno pulled her sodden cowboy hat off and waved it, shouting. Her voice was mostly lost amid the noise of the running herd, the thunder and the roar of the ATVs, but the gray pricked his ears and rolled his eyes.
Rain soaked Reno's hair and got into her eyes, but the wind whipped it away. She shouted again, angling in tighter. The blue roan's hooves beat a steady rhythm, taking her closer.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a sudden movement. Another rider was racing through the sagebrush, silhouetted against the stormy sky. Reno had just enough time to wonder where on earth he'd come from before he reached her. His horse, dark as the night around them, sped past Plenty Coups, coming at the gray from the opposite side. As a team, they cut off the animal.
Reno saw a sudden flash, like light reflecting from a spur, as the cowboy on the dark horse turned the gray, and then the herd. Waving his arms, he sent them in an arc, while she rode behind him, backing his efforts. The shouted curses of the men on the ATVs was music to her ears, and Reno let out a whoop. Her grandfather, a full-blooded Apache, had also loved the mustangs, and she'd be damned if a group of money-grubbing poachers would ever touch one hair of their manes.
Not on her land.
A bullet whizzed past her ear, and for one heart-stopping moment, she thought the gray had been hit. But he raced on, blending with the herd. Turning in the saddle, Reno drew her pistol from the holster beneath her black oilskin and fired at the headlight of an ATV. The glass shattered, knocking out the bulb, and she shot again, hitting another. She heard curses, and one high-pitched scream that made her laugh.
Not so tough now, are you?
She'd been born in the saddle, according to her grandfather, with a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other. Come closer, scumbags, and I'll show you an old Apache trick.
But the poachers had had enough. Their ATVs roared around and sped back up through the canyon, the sound echoing off the walls as they retreated. Reno tugged on her reins, gradually slowing Plenty Coups, who shook his head. She knew he wanted to keep running with the herdhis herd once.
The wild horses swept away, disappearing like shadows into the night. The lightning seemed to follow them, creating one last light show across the expanse of Colorado sky before the storm rumbled to a subdued downpour.
But not before Reno saw him clearly.
In the last flash of lightning, the cowboy on the black horse sat still in the saddle, blending into the sagebrush. Reno felt the air leave her lungs as she realized why he'd seemed familiar.
She knew his face, all right. One that still haunted her sleep.
The man who had stolen her heart.
Then killed her father.
Reno rode home without looking back, her thoughts churning. Never in a million years would she have expected to run into Cade. He'd rattled her worse than the poachers had.
"Where the hell did you come from?" she'd demanded, and he'd laughed at her bluntness. But not with humor. Reno found nothing funny about his return to Eagle's Nest, either.
She cursed under her breath. That was all she neededhelp from the man who'd abandoned her nine years ago, after she'd lost her parents. Sonny Sanchez had turned out to be scum, but he'd been the only father she'd ever known. And Reno had looked up to Cade as a big brother, until he'd left her when she needed him most.
It was close to midnight by the time she finished unsaddling Plenty Coups, rubbing him down and putting him in a warm stall with hay and fresh water. Exhausted, she headed for the house, which sat almost dead center on the two thousand acres of Wild Horse Ranch, not far from the barn. Grandpa Mel had liked being close to his horses, and Reno found comfort in it, too. In summer, she slept with her windows open and loved hearing the occasional whinny floating on the air like a lullaby.
As she walked up the four steps to the wide porch now, her dogs greeted her, tails wagging, bodies wriggling with excitement as though she'd been gone for days. Her German shepherdsone white, the other black-and-tantowered over the two mutts she'd rescued. Two sweet dogs, unwanted, dropped off on a desolate mountain road near her ranch It sickened Reno, the things people did to animals.
She petted all four, then opened the screen door and stepped into the mudroom. After kicking off her boots, she made her way through the living room and into the lighted kitchen.
"Wynonna, what are you doing up?" Reno thought she'd been quiet enough leaving the house to not disturb the housekeeper.
Wynonna studied her in the soft glow of the twin wrought-iron lamps, shaped like roosters, that hung on either side of the sink. A Lakota Sioux, she'd worked for Grandpa Melvern for more years than Reno could count, long before Reno had been born, and had stepped without question into the role of mother when Reno's own mom had overdosed. And Wynonna had stayed when the second of two strokes took Grandpa Mel's life.
"I heard you ride out a while ago. Want some hot chocolate?" Without waiting for an answer, the older woman poured a mug for Reno, then sat cradling her own in both hands, her slippered feet propped on the vacant chair beside her. "Is it the horses?"
Reno nodded as she sipped the rich, sweet cocoa, feeling its warmth chase away the aftereffects of the storm, the danger. "I thought the poachers might try something, what with everybody busy in town." Independence Day, with a big parade, three-day rodeo and fireworks display, would keep Sheriff Pritchard and his deputies occupied through the weekend, rain or no.
"I knew it wasn't the possibility of canceled fireworks keeping you home," Wynonna said, her dark eyes knowing.
"You didn't really have a headache, either, did you?"
Wynonna's laugh lines deepened as she flipped her long, salt-and-pepper braid over her shoulder. "I wanted to be here in case you needed me," she admitted. "I also figured I might as well stay out of your way and let you look after your horses. But I did call Austin, since I was worried for your safety. He said he would come out if we needed him."
Reno nodded. Austin Pritchard had been sheriff of Garfield County for five years, a deputy before that, and he was good at his job, if a little too gung ho at times. He was an attractive-looking man, thirty-three years old, tall, blond most women's idea of a catch. Plus he had a crush on Reno as wide as the Colorado River. Reno wasn't sure she was looking for a catch, but that hadn't stopped her from going out with the man.
Automatically, she found herself thinking of Cade, who'd also once been a deputy sheriff. Now there was a man who could turn heads, with his sun-streaked brown hair and blue-green eyes. But hell would freeze over before she'd let him back in her heart. "Did you know Cade Lantana is in town?"
Wynonna nearly missed the table edge as she set down her mug. "No, I didn't. Where did you hear that?"
"I ran into him tonight." Reno told her about the poachers and Cade, leaving out the part about being shot at. Wy tended to worry.
"I wondered if he would come back to help his mother," Wynonna said, "with his dad being so sick."
Matthew Lantana's emphysema had deteriorated to the point where he needed oxygen on a regular basis. That was a virtual death sentence to a rough-and-tumble cowboy. Estelle Lantana was having a hard time running their cattle operation, since the mounting medical expenses had forced her and Matt to let go most of their ranch hands.