by Diana Palmer

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Arizona, 1910

Dear Diary,

It will take more than threats—and one overbearing rancher—to drive me away from my rightful property…

When I inherited this isolated land near the Mexican border, I knew running it would be difficult and dangerous—very different from my privileged life in Louisiana, where I was the genteel Miss Trilby Lang. But I certainly didn't expect that my neighbor, Thorn Vance, would be challenging me at every turn. Or that his brusque, ruggedly appealing ways would prove a dangerous temptation that I'm finding harder and harder to resist. Now, with trouble sweeping the territory, I need his help. But how much will I risk putting myself in the hands of a man who's used to getting exactly what he wants?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781459211889
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 08/30/2011
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 148,107
File size: 449 KB

About the Author

The prolific author of more than one hundred books, Diana Palmer got her start as a newspaper reporter. A New York Times bestselling author and voted one of the top ten romance writers in America, she has a gift for telling the most sensual tales with charm and humor. Diana lives with her family in Cornelia, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

There was a yellow dust cloud on the horizon. Trilby stared at it with subdued excitement. In the months she'd spent on the ranch, in this vast territory of Arizona, even a dust cloud had the potential to lift her boredom. Compared to the social whirl of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, this country was uncivilized. October was almost over, but the heat hadn't lifted. If anything, it was worse. To a genteel young woman of impeccable Eastern breeding, the living conditions were trying. It was a long way from the family mansion in Louisiana to this isolated wooden frame house near Douglas, Arizona. And the men who inhabited this wasteland were as near to barbarians as a red Indian. There were plenty of those around, too. An old Apache and a young Yaqui worked for her father. They never spoke, but they stared. So did the dusty, unbathed cowboys.

Trilby spent a great deal of time inside, except on wash days. One day a week, she had to go outside, where she and her mother dealt with a big black cast-iron pot in which white things—like her father's shirts—were boiled, and two Number Two tin washtubs in which the remainder of the clothes were, respectively, washed by hand against a scrub board and rinsed.

"Is it going to be dust or rain?" her little brother Teddy asked from behind, scattering her thoughts.

She glanced at him over her thin shoulder and smiled gently. "Dust, I expect. What they call the monsoon season has passed and it is dry again. what else could it be?" she asked.

"Well, it could be Colonel Blanco and some of the insurrectos, the Mexican rebels fighting Diaz's government," he suggested. "Gosh, remember the day that cavalry patrol rode onto the ranch and asked for water and I got them a bucket?"

Ted was only twelve, and the memory was the high point of his young life. Their family's ranch was near the Mexican border, and on October 10, Porfirio Diaz had been reelected president of Mexico. But the strongman was under attack from Francisco Madero, who had campaigned against him and lost. Now Mexico was in a state of violent unrest. Sometimes the rebels—who might or might not belong to a band of insurrectos— raided local ranches. The cavalry watched over the border. The situation in Mexico was becoming even more explosive than it usually was.

It had already been an interesting year up until that point, too, with Halley's Comet terrorizing the world in May and the sad event of King Edward's death on its heels. In the months that followed, there had been a volcanic eruption in Alaska and a devastating earthquake in Costa Rica. Now there was this border trouble, which made life interesting for Teddy, but deeply upset ranchers and private citizens. Everyone knew people who were connected with mining down in Sonora, because six Sonoran mining companies had their headquarters in Douglas. And plenty of local ranchers also owned land over in Mexico; foreign ownership of Mexican land to exploit mining interests and ranching was one of the root causes of the growing unrest over the border.

A detachment of khaki-clad U.S. Cavalry soldiers from the encampment at Fort Huachuca had come riding through only today, their officers in a snappy touring car with mounted troops behind them, scouting for trouble and looking so attractive that Trilby had to choke down a wildly uncharacteristic impulse to smile and wave at them. Teddy had no such inhibitions. He almost fell off the porch waving as they filed by. This column didn't stop to ask for water, which had disappointed her young brother.

Teddy was so unlike her. She had blond hair and gray eyes; he had red hair and blue eyes. She smiled as she remembered the grandfather for whom he was a dead ringer.

"Two of our Mexican cowboys admire Mr. Madero very much. They say Diaz is a dictator and that he should be thrown out," he told her.

"I do hope the matter is settled before it ends in a total war," she said worriedly, "so that we don't get caught in the middle of any fighting. It worries Mama, too, so don't talk about it much, will you?"

"All right," he said reluctantly. Airplanes, baseball, Mexican unrest, and the often related memories of his elderly friend, Mosby Torrance, were his biggest thrill at the moment, but he didn't want to worry Trilby with just how serious the situation down in Mexico was becoming. She had no idea what the cowboys talked about. Teddy wasn't supposed to know, either, but he'd overheard a good deal. It was frightening to him; it would be more frightening to his sheltered older sister.

Trilby had always been protected from rough language and rough people. Being in Arizona, around Westerners who had to cope with the desert and livestock and the weather—and the threat of rustling to stay alive—had changed her. She didn't smile as often as she had back in Louisiana, and there was less mischief about her. Teddy missed the Trilby of years past. This new older sister was so reserved and quiet that sometimes he wasn't sure she was even in the house.

Even now she was staring out over the barren landscape, into the distance, with that faraway look in her eyes. "I expect Richard is back from Europe by now," she murmured. "I wish he could have come out to see us. Perhaps in a month or so, when he's settled at home, he can. It will be pleasant to be in the company of a gentleman again."

Richard Bates had been Trilby's big love interest back home, but Teddy had never liked the man. He might be a gentleman, but compared to these Arizona men, he seemed pretty anemic and silly.

He didn't say so, though. Even at his age, he was learning diplomacy. It wouldn't do to antagonize poor Trilby. She was having a hard enough time adjusting to Arizona as it was.

"I love the desert," Teddy said. "Don't you like it, just the least bit?"

"Well, I suppose I'm getting used to it," she said quietly. "But I haven't yet developed a taste for this horrible yellow dust. It gets into everything I cook," she said, "as well as into our clothes."

"It's better to do girl stuff than brand cattle, I tell you," he said, sounding just like their father. "All that blood and dust and noise. The cowboys curse, too."

Trilby smiled at him. "I expect they do; Papa, too. But never around us. Only when it's an accident."

"There's lots of accidents when you're branding cattle, Trilby," he drawled dryly, imitating his hero Mosby Torrance. He was a retired Texas Ranger and the ranch's oldest hand. Teddy looked at her, frowning. "Trilby, are you ever going to marry? You're old."

"I'm only twenty-four," she said self-consciously. Most of her girlfriends back home in Louisiana were married and had babies. Trilby had been waiting patiently for five years for Richard to propose. So far, he was no more than a friend, and her heart was heavy.

She might have been swayed if other young men had come courting, but Trilby wasn't beautiful on the outside, even if she did have a warm, gentle heart and a sweet nature. She didn't have the kind of face that set male hearts quivering, even back home. Here on a cattle ranch there weren't many eligible men who were marriage worthy. Not that she wanted to marry anyone she'd met in Arizona. She thought of cowboys as a lazy lot, and many of them drank, and used tobacco and alcohol, and never bathed.

Her heart ached as she thought about how fastidious Richard always was. She wished they'd never left Louisiana. Her father had inherited the ranch from his late brother. He and her mother had sunk every dime they had into the place, and it took all the family, plus the hired help, to run it. It had been a dry year, despite the floods, and ranchers were losing cattle across the border. All this trouble, Trilby thought, when Arizona was on its way to becoming a state. So uncivilized.

The desert was a drastic change for people more used to swamps and bayous and humidity. Trilby and her mother and father, too, had come from money, which was the only reason Jack Lang had enough to stock the ranch. But their finances had suffered over the past few months, and things were no better now than they had been. But they'd all adapted amazingly well—even Trilby, who'd hated it on sight and swore she'd never be happy on a ranch in the middle of a desert with only two lone paloverde trees for shade.

"Look, isn't that Mr. Vance?" Ted asked, shading his eyes as he spotted a solitary rider on a big buckskin horse.

Trilby ground her perfect teeth at the sight of him. Yes, it was Thornton Vance, all right. Nobody else around Blackwater Springs rode a horse with that kind of lithe, superior arrogance, or tilted his Stetson at just that slant across his tanned brow.

"I do wish his saddle would fall out from under him," she muttered wickedly.

"I don't know why you don't like him, Trilby," Ted said sadly. "He's very nice to me."

"I suppose he is, Teddy." But he and Trilby were enemies. Mr. Vance had seemed to take an instant dislike to Trilby the day they were introduced.

The Langs had lived in Blackwater Springs for almost three weeks by the time they made Thornton Vance's acquaintance. Trilby remembered his delicate, faintly haughty wife holding carelessly to his arm as the introductions were made at a church social. Thornton Vance's cold, dark eyes had narrowed with unexpected antagonism the minute they'd spotted Trilby.

She'd never understood that animosity. His wife had been faintly condescending when they were introduced. Mrs. Vance was beautiful and knew it. Her dress was ready-made and expensive, like her purse and lace-up shoes. She had blond hair and blue eyes—and her well-bred contempt for Trilby's inexpensive clothing had been infuriating. Her little girl looked subdued. No wonder.

Back in Louisiana, Trilby had worn good clothes herself. But now there was no money for frivolities, and she had to make do with what she had. The implied insult in Mrs. Vance's cold eyes had gone straight to her heart. Perhaps unconsciously she'd extended her hostility toward the woman to include Thornton Vance himself.

Thornton Vance had frightened Trilby from the beginning. He was a tall, rough, fiery sort of man who said exactly what he thought and didn't have any of the usual social graces. He was an outlaw in a land of outlaws, for all his wealth, and Trilby had no use for him. He was as different from her Richard as night was from day. Not exactly her Richard, she had to admit, not yet. But if she'd been able to stay in Louisiana for just a little longer, if she'd been a little older… She groaned inwardly as she tried to understand why fate had cast her into Thornton Vance's path.

Vance's cousin Curt had been totally different from Thorn, and Trilby had warmed to him at once. She liked Curt Vance because he was cultured and gentlemanly, and he somehow reminded her of Richard. She didn't see him often, but she was fond of him.

Curt had seemed fond of Mr. Vance's wife, too. Sally Vance had managed to interfere every time Trilby had spoken to Curt, holding his arm with a faintly proprietorial air. Her antagonism for Trilby had been more evident every time they met, so that finally Trilby managed not to attend any function where she was likely to see the other woman.

Sally had died in a very suspicious accident just two months after the Langs arrived in Blackwater Springs. Mr. Vance had accepted the routine condolences from her family, but when Trilby offered hers, he actually turned on his booted heel and walked away in what was a visible and very public snub, motioning his little girl along with him.

Trilby had never had the nerve to ask how she'd managed to offend a man she'd only just met. She hadn't even looked at him properly. He'd avoided her like the plague, even when they met socially and he had his little girl with him. The little girl had seemed to like Trilby, but she couldn't get near her because of the icy Mr. Vance. She seemed uncomfortable in her father's company, and Trilby could understand that. He intimidated people.

He'd mellowed in the past two months, though, because he often came to the ranch to see her father. He always talked about water rights and how the drought was affecting his great herds of cattle. Mr. Vance owned an enormous tract of land, thousands of acres of it, with part in the United States and part in Mexico, in the state of Sonora. Apparently Blackwater Springs Ranch sat smack-dab in the middle of the only reliable water source nearby, and Mr. Vance wanted it. Her father wouldn't discuss selling any land. That was like him. He wouldn't give up those water rights, either.

Trilby's busy mind coasted when Thornton Vance reined in just in front of the steps and crossed his tanned wrists over the pommel. Though a wealthy man, he dressed like one of his cowboys. He wore old denim jeans with worn leather bat-wing chaps. His shirt was checked and old, too, with scratched leather wristbands over the cuffs. A huge red bandanna drooped around his strong neck. It was stained and dusty now, and wrinkled. His tan hat wasn't in much better shape, looking as if it had been twisted, rained on, and stomped a few times. His boots were disreputable, like Teddy's after he'd been working cattle, the toes curled up from too much dampness and the heels worn down on either side in back. Mr. Vance didn't look very elegant, she decided, and her distaste for him showed in her face.

"Good morning, Mr. Vance," Trilby said quietly, remembering her manners, belatedly and reluctantly.

He stared at her without speaking. "Is your father at home?"

She shook her head. He had the kind of voice that was soft as velvet and deep as night, but it could cut like a whip when he wanted it to. He did now.

"Your mother?" he tried again.

"They're off with Mr. Torrance at the store," Teddy volunteered. "He drove them in on the buckboard. Dad says Mr. Torrance is used up, but it isn't true, Mr. Vance. He isn't at all used up. He was once a Texas Ranger, did you know?"

"Yes, I knew, Ted." Mr. Vance let his dark eyes slide back to Trilby. They were set in a keen, sharply defined face with a straight nose and darkly tanned skin, black eyebrows matching the equally thick, straight black hair under his hat.

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