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Who on earth could be calling at this time of night?
Alicia Montoya reached out from under the covers and groped for the phone on her bedside table. She squinted at the green numerals on the clock.
2:07. What the heck?
She lifted the phone to her ear.
"You're okay. Thank God."
"Who is this?" Her sleepy whisper was barely audible.
Oh, boy. His rich, deep voice flowed into her ear and started to awaken parts of her she'd never even known she had until she met Rick Jones. "Hi, Rick."
"I'm so glad you're fine."
Alicia glanced at the clock again. "I was fine until the phone woke me. Didn't I tell you not to call me at home?"
She wondered if her brother Alex had heard the phone. Probably. She was a deep sleeper so it may have been ringing for a while.
Pretty much nothing could happen in the Houston-metro area without her brother being aware of it. Any minute now he'd come barreling in to see what was going on.
"Sweetheart, are you sure you're not married?" Rick teased her relentlessly about her insistence on keeping their relationship secret.
If you could call it a relationship. They hadn't actually kissed yet, but they'd held hands once. That counted, right?
"I'm most definitely not married." She laughed. "Not even close. But I told you my brother is insanely overprotective. Believe me, you do not want him to know you're calling me at two in the morning."
"Why not? You're a grown woman. You can do whatever you want at two in the morning." His tone suggested there were some delicious things they could be doing together at this verymoment.
Alicia wriggled under her warm sheets. What would it be like to have Rick right here in bed with her? To run her fingertips over his hard chest or through his silky dark hair?
She had no idea what that would be like, and if Alex learned about Rick, she wouldn't get a chance to find out.
"Trust me on this. It's better if he doesn't know about you. Why are you calling me in the middle of the night, anyway? To torment me with the sound of your sexy voice?"
She smiled in the privacy of darkness. She'd never met a man she felt so comfortable around. With Rick, she could relax enough to tease and flirt. To just… be herself.
"Actually, I was calling to see if you're okay. I'm watching TV and there's breaking coverage of a big fire in Somerset right now. It's hard to tell what's going on in the dark but it almost looks like El Diablo."
"What?" Alicia wondered if she was dreaming. "Our ranch is fine."
Still, fear pricked through her and she slid out of bed onto the cool wood floor. "Hold on, let me look out the window." She hurried across the room and pulled back the thick curtains.
"Oh, my God." Her hand flew to her mouth. An orange glow pierced the darkness.
The flashing lights of emergency vehicles moved along the drive through the ranch, and even through the insulated glass she heard the throb of a helicopter circling overhead.
"It's on fire! The barn! Oh, no, the animals are in there—" She darted across the dark room to the closet.
"I'm coming over."
"No, please don't." Panic flashed through her as she tugged on jeans under her nightshirt. "Whatever's going on, you coming here will make it worse. I have to find Alex. The calves…." She struggled to pull on a pair of boots. "I've got to go."
"Please, let me come."
"No, Rick. Not now. I'll call you as soon as I can." She hung up the phone.
"Alex!" She called out into the hallway of the big ranch house.
A light shone downstairs, and Alex's bedroom door stood open. "Alex, are you here?"
She dashed down the stairs two at a time and ran to the front door. She opened it to the smell of smoke and the wail of sirens.
A mass of heaving flame engulfed the barn roof and lit the darkness all the way to the house. "Alex!"
Alicia took off running across the lawn that separated the house from the barn. She could see figures moving, running in the eerie glow from the fire. Shouting mingled with the roar of flames crackling, wood splintering and water gushing from hoses.
"Alex, where are you?" Fear made her voice crack.
Alex was always at the center of everything. She knew with every cell of her body that he was inside that burning barn.
Heart pounding, she raced toward the fire. He might be bossy and overbearing, but he was also the best brother and the warmest, most caring man in the world.
He'd raised her since their parents died and managed to scrape and struggle to provide a good life for them— a wonderful life, now that he was so successful.
A figure rushed up to her in the dark and she recognized one of the ranch hands. "Diego, have you seen Alex?"
"He sent me to wake you. He said to make sure you stay inside the house until he comes."
Diego hesitated. "He's trying to rescue the calves."
"Oh, no! I knew he was in there. We have to get him out." She started running to the barn.
Diego grabbed her sleeve. "Miss Alicia, please. Alex wouldn't want you near the fire."
"I don't care what that stubborn fool wants. I've got to get him out of there."
She wrenched her arm free and took off running again. She wasn't the Our Lady of Fatima senior track champion for nothing.
She heard Diego behind her, pleading for her to stop, protesting that Alex had personally entrusted him with her safety and that if he found out—
"There he is!" She saw him emerge from the vast doorway on one side of the barn, driving a herd of calves in front of him.
The young cows were confused and ran in all directions—even trying to get back into the burning barn— as the workers tried to shove them out into the safety of the darkness.
Alicia ran into their midst and grabbed hold of the collar of the calf nearest her. "Come on, princess, you don't want to go back in there." She tugged it away from the doorway.
The hot glow of flame brightened the inside of the barn and seared her skin like noonday sun. Cinders whirled in the smoky air, and ash pricked at her eyes. Every instinct told her to run far, far away.
But she turned to see Alex heading back inside. She gave the calf a slap on the rump to drive it out and plunged for the doorway, toward Alex.
"Alejandro Montoya! You get out of that burning barn or I'll—"
Alex wheeled around. "Alicia, you shouldn't be here. I told Diego—"
"I know what you told Diego, but I'm here now and you need to get out of this barn before the roof collapses. The whole ridgeline is on fire!"
He frowned and glanced back into the barn. "I'll just check to make sure they're all out."
"No!" She grabbed the front of his shirt. His face was almost black with soot but his dark eyes gleamed with purpose.
Desperation made tears spring to her eyes. "Don't risk your life!"
"We've got them all out!" A voice shouted from the darkness. "I counted. All forty-five calves are safe."
"Thank God." Alex grabbed Alicia and threw her over his shoulder in a fireman's lift that knocked the breath from her lungs.
Alicia fought the urge to kick and protest his overbearing reaction. But he was running from the barn, so at least she'd got him heading in the right direction.
"You need to get back in the house and stay there until I come for you!" he shouted as he set her down on her feet a safe distance from the barn.
"I'm not a child, Alex. I can help."
"Nothing's going to help save the barn." Alex winced as a sidewall gave way and the roof started to lean to one side, like a ship keeling over in rough seas.
"It was here before the house. It's over a hundred years old. It's been home and shelter to thousands of animals, and now…" He shook his head.
Alicia bit her lip. She knew how much every inch of this ranch meant to her brother. He'd sweated and saved and worked so hard for it.
Buying El Diablo had been a crowning moment in both of their lives. The proof that despite all the odds stacked against them, they'd made it and were going to be fine.
She looked back at the barn, now a heaving mass of bright flame. "What happened?"
"We don't know. The fire came out of nowhere. Thank heaven we have smoke alarms that woke Dave and Manny in the apartment above it. They called the fire department, but the building was already going up by the time the first truck arrived."
A tall man strode toward them. Reflected flames illuminated his police badge and the handcuffs glinting at his waist.
"This way, please." He gestured to the driveway where a host of different emergency vehicles winked and flashed their lights in the orange half-light. "We need you all in one place."
"I'm the owner," Alex said. "I need to protect my animals."
The tall policeman squared his shoulders. "Everyone must be interviewed for the investigation."
"What do you mean, investigation?" Alicia squinted through the firelit darkness.
"It's early yet, but the fire marshal thinks this fire was deliberately set. They found empty gas containers near where the blaze started."
Alicia bit her lip. Who would do this?
Alex stood up for himself, and as a result he'd made some enemies, but who could hate him—or her— enough to destroy the ranch?
"Arson?" Alex's voice rumbled like a train. "If I find out who did it I'll—"
"Please, sir. Come this way. We have to take a statement from everyone, and I need your cooperation."
Alex blew out a snort of disgust and took Alicia's hand. "Whoever did this will pay."
She kept her mouth shut. No use arguing with him at a time like this. Better to get him out of danger and focus on getting through this awful night.
They picked their way across the grass. An ember landed on Alex's shirt and Alicia slapped it out with her palm.
A strange thought occurred to her. "Didn't Lance Brody's place have a fire recently?"
"There was a blaze at Brody Oil and Gas, yes. That swine had the nerve to accuse me of setting it. As if I would stoop to something like that." He clucked his tongue.
She frowned. "If Lance Brody really thinks you burned his building, could he have done this as revenge?"
She could tell by the look on Alex's face that he'd already thought of this. The rivalry between Alex and Lance Brody went back all the way to Maverick High School, where they'd jostled for position on the soccer team. The last thing she needed was to fan the flames of that rivalry.
"I'm sure it wasn't him." She waved her hand in the smoky air. "I don't know why I just said that. Why would a successful businessman get involved in a criminal act?"
"They have paid flunkeys to do their dirty work," Alex growled. "I wouldn't put anything past Lance Brody, or his brother, Mitch. I've been a burr under their saddles for years. Maybe this is their way of trying to push me out of town."
He turned to the barn, where the roof had now collapsed and flames licked out of the hayloft windows.
His eyes flashed with a mix of anger and pain. "But no one's going to run me off El Diablo, and whoever did this will regret the day they were born."
At lunch the next day, Alex paced back and forth across the dining room at the ranch, his burger growing cold on the plate.
"Alicia, it's not safe for you here right now. If someone's out to get me, who knows what they'll try next. You can stay with El Gato."
Alicia looked up from her plate as goose bumps spread over her skin. "I'll be fine here. Besides, you need someone to look after you."
She pointed to his plate with her best schoolmarm expression. "Eat your food."
"I'm serious, 'Manita. It's not safe."
"Staying with Paul ‘El Gato' Rodriquez is what's not safe. I know you won't hear a word against him, but everyone knows he's involved in drug trafficking."
Alex grunted as he slid into his chair. "They just don't like to see a Latino make a lot of money. You'd be shocked if you knew how many people think I'm involved with drugs or guns or something. They don't think we can make money the old-fashioned way like they do."
He took a bite of his hamburger. "That's why joining the Texas Cattleman's Club was such a big deal for me. When I'm there, I'm one of them, a member of the club. They have to smile at me and act polite, even if they'd really prefer to see me hang." He grinned. "I love that."
Alicia hated the way her brother still felt like an outsider, even now that he was one of the richest men in the area.
"You were accepted into the Texas Cattleman's Club because you're a man of honor and an upstanding member of Somerset society. You are one of them."
"That's one of the many reasons why I love you, sis. You have such great faith in the human spirit." He winked as he took a sip of soda. "But you're still not staying here. El Gato can protect you from anything."
"I'm sure he can. He's probably got nine millimeters stashed in the trunk of his car, but frankly that kind of ‘protection' makes me nervous."
"He's one of us. When the going gets tough, sometimes it's better to stick with your own."
"I don't consider a suspected criminal to be one of ‘my own' in any way."
"You know what I mean. When you come from the barrio, you see the world a little differently."
"You're talking as if I didn't grow up in the same house as you." Alicia bristled. She hated when her brother treated her like a kid. "I was there, too, remember? I know what hard times are like, and I'm more than glad to have left them behind. You need to get rid of that chip on your shoulder," she said, still trying to figure out how to change Alex's mind. "I could go stay with one of the neighbors."
Alex narrowed his eyes. "I don't trust those people. Not right now."
"How about Maria Nunez? You've known her as long as I have. You let me sleep over at her house when we were in school. I'm sure she won't mind me staying a few nights."