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"A dark night for Peter D. Callahan is being alone in his room." -Jeremiah Callahan, who knew his toddler son all too well.
"The Diablos are running." Pete Callahan turned from the frost-speckled window, letting his words sink into the sudden silence. His five brothers and Aunt Fiona looked at him.
A shiver touched Pete. The shadowy, misty mustangs running like the wind across the far reaches of the ranch meant magic was in the cold night air. According to legend, the Diablos only ran as a portent of something mystical to come. The Diablos were real- and magical in themselves-but Pete didn't believe in mystical magic, the oogie-boogie kind of magic. Nor did he believe in pushy old beloved aunts trying to rule from the grave, as his aunt Fiona was hinting she would.
Jonas Callahan ignored his brother's inopportune comment and resumed gently badgering their dear aunt. "You've suggested your time is running out," Jonas said to Fiona, who shrugged, dismissing the light sarcasm in his tone. Fiona was holding court in the massive library at Rancho Diablo in New Mexico. His brothers lounged around the room in various states of stubbled beards and dirty jeans, fresh from working the ranch. They were trying to assuage her worries, let her know that they were there for her in all matters-though if anybody did not need help, it was their cagey aunt.
"I am seventy-nine," Fiona said. "Please speak to me with respect. You make me sound as reliable as a vintage bedside clock."
"You've just told us that you're leaving Rancho Diablo to one of us based on a dream you had," Pete said. "We're more interested in your health than in your will, Aunt Fiona."
"Oh, poppycock." She sniffed, clearly put out with her six nephews. No doubt she thought they were trying to mollify her, coddle her to get into her good graces. It annoyed Pete.
"You all want Rancho Diablo because it was your parents'," Fiona said. "Let's be honest about our motivations."
If that wasn't calling the kettle black.
"Aunt Fiona, I speak for all of us-" Pete gestured toward his sprawling brothers who were only too content to allow him to beard their celestial-minded, determined aunt "-when I say that we don't believe in dreamscapes, incantations, voodoo or rubbing the venerated bellies of mystical bunnies dating from the time of Lewis Carroll. So our motivation is simple. We love you. Most of us live here at Rancho Diablo because we love you, as much as you seem inclined to look for an ulterior motive. The ranch is our livelihood, but it isn't everything."
Murmurs of assent rose from his brothers. His aunt gave him a disapproving, sour look. She was a tiny woman, a petite bundle of dynamite in a prim navy-blue wool dress. Her only concession to the bitter cold was what she called her bird boots-knee-high, lugged soles, fur-lined. White hair was pulled severely back from her face in an elegant updo she called a bird's nest. It did have the same sort of peculiar order of a mourning dove's nest, but it was attractive. There wasn't a spare ounce of flesh on the diminutive woman, which made people at first meeting assume she was fragile. She was not.
"Nevertheless," Fiona said, her eyes bright behind her glasses, "I am following my dream."
"You do that." Pete crouched to stoke the fire. He wondered if it would be easier on their beloved aunt if he had gas-lit logs installed in the seven fireplaces throughout the huge ranch house, and decided she'd resent the implication that she couldn't take care of her home herself. The smell of cookies hung in the air, lingering with the fragrances of Christmas and home, which was, Pete thought, how their wily aunt managed to lure her nephews to the house so often, although they would have surreptitiously checked on her and Burke anyway. Home-baked cookies and other to-die-for gastronomic delights-they simply had it too good, courtesy of Fiona.
"Since Pete doesn't care about his stake in Rancho Diablo, that leaves it to the rest of you to see which of you will take over the ranch. When I'm gone, naturally. Which might be any day now." She held a tissue to her nose. "This is the third cold I've had this month. My immune system is so weak."
Jonas straightened. "You said nothing about feeling weak."
"Not that you would care, Doctor." She rubbed her glasses clean and replaced them on her pert nose. "Burke, please bring the brandy. We are all in need of a bit of fortification. Except Pete, who is always above the fray."
Her faithful butler went to do her bidding. Pete sighed and sat down on the leather sofa, where he had a premier seat to stare out the window at the frozen landscape. Guilt was a familiar parenting tool, and she'd been employing it with greater frequency of late. The problem was, he knew all about Fiona's Secret Plan, so he had plenty of guilt heaping on him from all sides. It sucked being the responsible one. "I'll take the damn brandy," he said as Burke offered him a snifter. Right now, he could use a stiff one.
"The terms of the deal-which have also been written into my revised will-are thus. The first of you who gets married to a suitable woman, has a family and settles down, will inherit Rancho Diablo. You may not sell the land or house, of course, without all six of you being in agreement. That is what was revealed to me in my dream."
Pete sighed. Their stubborn aunt was hatching more mayhem for their lives. He knew she was serious about this plan, and the mischievous side of him thought she was cute and downright smart to try to pull this on his brothers, who richly deserved the trap Fiona was springing on them. They'd fall for it, too, in his opinion, though they should know better. Nobody left ranches worth millions of dollars in land value alone to relatives based on a dream, not to mention expecting them to compete for it, especially not using the tool of marriage. None of them even had a serious girlfriend. Pete scowled at his brothers.
The problem was that the plan was sound-but the material Fiona had to work with was sadly lacking.
There was Jonas, the eldest, a successful surgeon who surely had his pick of hot doctors and nurses. He kept himself busy amassing a reputation as a hard-working, best-in-class cardiac guy. Jonas was a typical girl-magnet: tall, dark as the ace of spades, square-jawed. All good stuff, but clueless with women, basically a bonehead with every subject except science and research. A typical nerd, and useless to Fiona's Secret Plan, in Pete's opinion.
Pete continued the roll call. There was Creed, who wouldn't send women screaming from his appearance, but was too wild for most men, let alone women. Creed was a typical badass, the kind of man ladies loved like grandmas loved tea. Creed, unfortunately, would never love anything but rodeo and the ranch. No marriage material there.
Creed's twin, Rafe, was a strange blend of nerd and reckless cowboy. Sometimes he wore his long jet-black hair in a braid down his back. Other times he shaved his head. The best way Pete could describe his free-spirited brother was "out there"-egregiously, studiously out there on the edge. One day a woman might reel him back in to planet Earth, but Pete wouldn't put down a twenty on it.
Judah was a champion bullrider. He had ladies in every town. He was popular with everyone, and blessed with good fortune and athleticism. Judah's face was cut by the hand of Michelangelo: strong, precise and manly.
Women left undies in his gear with phone numbers. One enterprising young lady had herself carried into his hotel room in a maid's cart. Judah hadn't been able to resist the French maid's costume, nor the heiress who'd wanted a cowboy fling and had flown him to Paris for a weekend of French cuisine and French-kissing and everything else that entailed. Judah was a kind, damaged soul and ladies adored all that haunted mystique. But Judah had never chosen just one woman to be his girl. Pete thought Judah overworked the Eeyore routine, but he had to admit it worked brilliantly for his brother.
Finally, there was Sam. No one needed to worry about Sam's zeal for the altar. Stockier and more muscular than the rest of them (which meant he could kick just about anybody's ass who messed with him), Sam carried a chip on his shoulder that had everything to do with confidence, swagger and being the youngest. He knew there was something different about him, which didn't help. He'd come "later" as Jonas always put it, and Pete thought Sam had grown up not exactly understanding his place in the world or the family. Nobody worked harder than Sam, but then sometimes Sam would disappear for days.
Pete shook his head. Fiona was barking up all kinds of wrong trees with this latest plan. He'd consider his brothers candidates for group therapy rather than matrimonial bliss. But that's just me, he thought, and I tend to be a doubter.
He supposed he'd be the closest to suiting Fiona's ridiculous offer. He at least had a Saturday-night thing going on. Still, being Mr. Saturday Night wasn't likely to be upped to two nights a week, much less a full lifetime.
Pete sighed. He admired their Irish aunt who loved to dabble in drama. He had to hand it to her-there was never a moment when she wasn't trying to fix their lives. Fiona certainly had her work cut out for her this time, but he knew she would stick to it until she considered her job done and done well.
"When was this dream?" Jonas asked, shifting his long legs as he reached for another Christmas cookie from the silver platter on the side table. Pete thought a heart surgeon should be watching his cholesterol, or at least the toxic-waste levels in his body, but no one could eat just one of Fiona's cookies. Jonas could be counted on to talk some sense into the redoubtable aunt, and Pete relaxed a little. Surely the rest of the brothers could see that there were as many holes in this plan as in Swiss cheese-and his guilt would go away once he knew they'd safely figured Fiona out. After all, what would stop any of them-all of them-from running out, hiring a woman to fake a marriage and perhaps a pregnancy, and then cashing in? Pete swallowed, not wanting to think about his little aunt pushing up daisies.
"It wasn't so much a dream, it was more a premonition," Fiona said. "It occurred when I talked to a nice lady at the traveling carnival."
Creed sat up. "Traveling carnival?"
"That's right. She was standing outside her tent. There was a sign on it that read Madame Vivant's Fortune-Telling. Several of the ladies from the Books 'n' Bingo Society decided it sounded like fun. So we went in."
Pete heard Rafe groan. He agreed with the sentiment. Was their adorable, feisty aunt beginning to show the start of some affliction that would affect her mental capacity? His blood ran cold at the thought.
"As a matter of fact, I've invited her here tonight. Burke, please show Madame Vivant into the library."
Pete watched as his lunkheaded brothers seemed to transmogrify in the face of a beautiful woman. Jonas looked like a petrified tree felled by an ax, and the rest of his brothers were practically drooling like babies. He was embarrassed for them. Pete smelled enticing perfume, heard the jingle of tiny charms she wore on silver bracelets. No more than five foot two, Madame Vivant was a delightful babe of about twenty-five. He'd bet the whole "dream" was a ruse for her to get hitched to one of them. Madame Fortune-teller his ass-more like Madame Shakedown Artist.
This was bad news. No woman of good intent should jingle when she walked. It was as look-at-me! as a lady could get.
Pete decided Fiona's scheme was getting out of hand. She wasn't supposed to bring the catnip to the mice, was she? It was dirty pool, and he had to draw the line somewhere.
A guy could only enjoy watching his brothers get worked over by Fiona for so long.
"You have to leave," Pete said, towering over the tiny redhead. He refused to notice the trim waist, the delightful peachy bosom, the sweetly curved hips under the undulating black skirt that had his easily-led-astray brothers reeling. Once again, Pete realized, it was up to him to save them from themselves. "Take your bells and your parlor tricks out of here. And don't bother taking Burke's pocket watch," he said, neatly removing it from the velvet pouch she carried. He'd seen it poking out and recognized it instantly. It was one of the butler's prized possessions.
Burke cleared his throat. "I gave her that, sir. I asked her to help me with a personal matter."
Pete looked at the butler he'd known ever since Burke and Fiona had come to the ranch to care for the boys. He softened his words for Burke-he'd protect him, too. "No doubt she has played with your mind as well. Never mind. Once you're off the property, Madame Vivant-if that is your real name-all will be right again."
Cool green eyes considered him. "Tough guy, huh?"
"That's right. Off you go, little gypsy." Pete congratulated himself on his excellent handling of the situation-until Jonas spoke up.
"Not so fast, bro," Jonas said. "It's cold outside. I'm sure we could offer our guest a cup of cocoa, couldn't we, Burke?"
The butler nodded and went off to do Jonas's bidding. Jonas continued staring at the gypsy as if his brain was locked in gear. Pete scowled. Surely Jonas-steady-handed Jonas the surgeon-wouldn't get the hots for a gypsy.
He should have put a stop to this in the beginning; he was practically an accomplice. But he hadn't counted on his brothers being super boneheads-just greedy. He opened his mouth to throw water on the scheme, confess everything, too, but Fiona shot him down.
"Pete!" His aunt's voice cracked like a whip. "You're being rude to an invited guest, and one thing we aren't at Rancho Diablo is rude."
He shrugged and went to lean against a wall. "If you think I'm going to be part of a séance or machination on her part to confuse you, I'm afraid we're not going to fall for the plan, Aunt." There, that was a piece of delicious Broadway acting, if he did say so himself- although he was still worried about Jonas. Sam was young and hotheaded, so he might have expected Sam to latch on to their visitor, or wild-at-heart Creed might have been an easy target. Any of them but Jonas, who was still stonelike and staring-rapt, mesmerized.
Creed, Rafe, Judah and Sam all crossed their arms, gazing with interest at the fortune-teller. They seemed very interested in the tale she was about to spin. Pete would have to keep a close eye on Fiona since no one else seemed inclined to play protector to their giddy aunt.