Nobody's Child

MR. NOVEMBER THAT WAS THEN…Cutter Lord: Seven years ago the intense, powerful millionaire barged into his brother's wedding reception and attempted to steal the brand-new bride.THIS IS NOW… The Single Mother: With her husband's murderer still on the loose, Cheyenne Rose had no choice but to turn to her brother-in-law, the notorious Cutter, for help – the Lord brother she should have married. And the Deep, Dark Secret: Still haunted by the rumors surrounding the baby Cheyenne delivered less than eight months after the wedding to his brother, Cutter made a proposal of his own… . MAN OF THE MONTH Children of Destiny: Ann Major's bestselling miniseries continues!
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Nobody's Child


   

   “Ann Major pulls you into the story and doesn’t let go...”

   —Rendezvous

   

   

   

   

   “Cheyenne?” He Whispered Softly, Solemnly. “Are You Still Here, My Darling?”

   Darling?

   

   

   He had called her his darling.

   

   

   She jumped at the gentleness of his husky voice, intending to run.

   

   

   But he held her there in the soft, hot darkness.

   

   

   Not with his hands or by any use of force. Not even with more huskily spoken words. His stark gaze was enough to make her know how much he needed her.

   

   

   If he wanted her that much, she wanted to stay.

   

   

   She wanted to go on lying with him.

   

   

   And for a long time they did continue to lie together in the darkness, their legs and arms tangled, neither of them daring to speak again or bat so much as an eyelash for fear of frightening the other away.

   Dear Reader,

   

   

   The celebration of Silhouette Desire’s 15th anniversary continues this month! First, there’s a wonderful treat in store for you as Ann Major continues her fantastic CHILDREN OF DESTINY series with November’s MAN OF THE MONTH, Nobody’s Child. Not only is this the latest volume in this popular miniseries, but Ann will have a Silhouette Single Title, also part of CHILDREN OF DESTINY, in February 1998, called Secret Child. Don’t miss either one of these unforgettable love stories.

   

   

   BJ James’s popular BLACK WATCH series also continues with Journey’s End, the latest installment in the stories of the men—and the women—of the secret agency.

   

   

   This wonderful lineup is completed with delicious love stories by Lass Small, Susan Crosby, Eileen Wilks and Shawna Delacorte. And next month, look for six more Silhouette Desire books, including a MAN OF THE MONTH by Dixie Browning!

   

   

   Desire...it’s the name you can trust for dramatic, sensuous, engrossing stories written by your bestselling favorites and terrific newcomers. We guarantee handsome heroes, likable heroines...and happily-ever-after endings. So read, and enjoy!


   Senior Editor

   Please address questions and book requests to:

   Silhouette Reader Service U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269 Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

   Nobody’s Child

   Ann Major

   

   To Ted, my husband; To Tad, my son, for the book material;

   To my mother, for her love and sweetness; To Lauren, my niece, who told me about Brazil; To Anita and Tara, for their professional guidance; To Kimberly, my daughter, for making the dean’s list; To Dr. Michael Heckman, my doctor, for mending my knee and reassuring Ted I would ski again; To David Cleaves and Diana Gafford, for being there; To Ann Engel, the megatalented Realtor who not only sold my house but became my new best friend and therapist.

   ANN MAJOR

   loves writing romance novels as much as she loves reading them. She is the proud mother of three children who are now in high school and college. She lists hiking in the Colorado mountains with her husband, playing tennis, sailing, enjoying her cats and playing the piano among her favorite activities.

   A LETTER FROM THE AUTHOR

   

   

   Dear Reader,

   

   

   As a little girl, born and raised in south Texas, my favorite game was riding broom horses and playing cowboys and Indians. As a teenager I spent a lot of time visiting my small-town cousins who had horses. We fed them and rode them and loved them. My closet is still filled with jeans, cowboy boots and Stetsons. No myth is greater or grander in Texas than that of the cowboy.

   

   

   Perhaps it is only natural that I wrote my CHILDREN OF DESTINY series, which deals with the Jacksons and the MacKays—modern ranchers, who were the descendants of great pioneer ranching families. Once I began writing about these mythic people, I couldn’t stop.

   

   

   Nobody’s Child continues the series with the passionate love story of Cheyenne Rose, or Witch Girl, an enchanting woman of mysterious powers, and the dangerous entrepreneur, Cutter Lord, whom she loves even though he is determined not to love her.

   

   

   Then next comes Secret Child, out in February 1998 in time for Valentine’s Day. Once again I write about a modern-day cowboy and the woman he loves.

   

   

   When Jack West’s wife vanishes, no one knows that she hired a plastic surgeon to change her face. Five years later, through a bizarre twist of fate, a young kindergarten teacher, Bronte Devlin, loses everything—even her face. When the same plastic surgeon who helped Jack’s wife gives her the face of the most beautiful woman in the world, Bronte finds herself in terrible danger. Forced to masquerade as her dangerous double, Bronte is abducted by Jack and soon finds herself fighting for her life as well as for the heart of this rugged rancher whose real wife turned his heart to stone.

   

   

   I hope you enjoy Nobody’s Child.

   

   

   Sincerely,


   Prologue

   The night was black and wild. The wind was so fierce that every flower and leaf in Texas had blown off all the trees.

   Cutter Lord, who lived life on a dangerous edge, was driving way too fast. He was used to delegating unpleasant errands. Not that he hadn’t tried to delegate the troublesome Miss Rose, but his younger brother’s unsuitable fiancée had bested his top man.

   “You’ll have to deal with Miss Rose yourself, or else—” Paul O’Connor, his vice president, had thundered, rubbing his bruised wrists on the steps outside the Dallas city jail after Cutter had bailed him out. Paul was black and smart and tough, and not easy to scare.

   “Or else?”

   “I quit. The lady snuck up behind me with a vase of the biggest purple pansies you ever saw, hit me with it and locked me in her gardening shed. I nearly froze before she called the cops.”

   Cutter was used to chauffeured limousines...to the luxury of his private jet... to other people shouldering all the hassles when he traveled. Which was often. And to far more glamorous places than south Texas.

   Not tonight.

   As if hurled by the brute force of the worst winter storm to hit Texas in ten years, the hail-dimpled, black Lincoln and its grim driver shot from the mainland onto the narrow causeway that led across the Laguna Madre to the barrier islands.

   The radio said the windchill was now minus ninety degrees in Crookston, Minnesota, and that two hundred cars were stranded on Nebraska roads. Tornadoes had ripped off roofs in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. In the panhandle the temperature had dropped forty degrees in two hours. Three people had died in windstorms near El Paso.

   The devastating norther that had closed the Dallas airports and grounded Cutter’s jet was roaring into the humid warmth of the state’s southern coast with bands of galeforce winds and icy rain.

   Cutter Lord, who preferred to spend his nights in a warm bed with a beautiful woman, was bone-weary from having driven too many miles on ice-slick highways.

   One woman was responsible for Cutter’s foolhardiness. One woman had so infuriated him that he had lost all his judgment. Thus, he and the storm raced toward the island together, like two angry giants, determined to trample whatever got in their way.

   With his ebony hair, black eyes and strong dark face, Cutter was blessed with the kind of virile good looks most women found exciting. He was six-two, lean, and powerfully built. He had brains, drive and an iron will. His fierce dedication to his family’s business was legendary. His friends attributed his astounding success to his genius and high energy levels. His enemies said he was ruthless. The bottom line was that he usually made money. Lots of it.

   Suddenly—ahead—the causeway vanished into a dark, inky froth. Brake lights flashed as cars began to back up.

   Hell. The tide was rising and surging inland.

   Instead of turning back, Cutter inched forward into the purple waves. He had to hurry, before the authorities closed the causeway—the only road to the barrier islands and, thereby, to Cheyenne Rose.

   He’d come this far; he wouldn’t let anything stop him from dealing with Miss Rose.

   Every time he remembered her midnight call, his blood ran colder than a shark’s on the trail of blood. She hadn’t liked his calling her a gold digger.

   Her husky voice had had the taunting, singsong quality of a nursery rhyme.

   Fight, fight, as hard as you can. If I want to marry your baby brother, Mr. Lord, you can’t stop me. I’m the gold digger girl.

   She had giggled as she tossed his taunt back at him, “the gold digger girl.”

   Then she had laughed again.

   At him.

   “You know what your problem is, Mr. Lord. You’re spoiled!”

   Cutter’s hand had clenched on the receiver, his nostrils flaring even as some part of him had dissolved in her velvet voice.

   Then—right before she hung up—she had purred, “Oh, by the way, Mr. Lord, I had your mean, tough Paul O’Connor arrested for peeping into my bathroom window—he’s handcuffed to a metal chair beside a prostitute down at the city jail. Just thought you’d like to know. Also, I’ve left town so I can decide without any more interference from you whether or not I want to marry Martin and become your sister.”

   His sister! The hell she’d be his sister!

   Cutter had slammed down the phone and demanded to know one thing once Paul verified she had, indeed, left town.

   Where the hell was she?

   Within an hour his men informed him that Martin had flown her to the beach house on Lord Island, and that she planned to stay there all by herself for a week.

   All by herself.

   On Cutter’s remote private island off the Texas coast.

   Perfect.

   Or it would have been except for the storm.

   Cutter wasn’t afraid of her. Nor of a mere storm. And her call had only made him all the more determined to stop her.

   Only now, he had to do the dirty work himself.

   Spoiled?

   He wasn’t spoiled!

   He just had to win.

   

   

   The black waves in the Gulf had risen to Goliathan heights. Not that they were that big in the protected marina.

   “Boss, you shouldn’t go till morning,” Miguel screamed above the howling wind as Cutter untied a dockline. “Maybe not then.”

   “Right. Like I drove all night through sleet and hail so I could sit the storm out in a Port A. bar or a cheap motel.”

   The boat, which Martin had named Jolly Girl one sunny summer day, was the only way to reach Lord Island tonight.

   Fight, fight as hard as you can—

   Damn right, he’d fight her as hard as he could. Cutter would fight because he knew he’d go mad if he had to listen to her singsong voice flit through his brain till morning.

   When he jumped from the dock into the bucking sloop, he slipped on the wet fiberglass and almost fell. He opened the hatch and began casting off.

   “Loco,” Miguel yelled frantically. “You crazy, boss. You don’t know enough about boats. Your brother Martin—”

   Cutter glared at him.

   Cutter was a remarkable entrepreneur.

   He was a less than remarkable yachtsman.

   Not that he could have ever admitted there was anything he couldn’t do better than his playboy brother.

   Cutter stubbornly primed the bulb and then pushed in the automatic choke before starting the engine.

   Only when Cutter cast off the last line, and the little boat hurtled free of the dock into the purple waves, did Cutter begin to doubt the wisdom of having let anger and arrogance rule him.

   But by then it was too late.

   Almost immediately, the lights of the shore and Miguel’s alarmed cries were lost in the troughs of black waves and driving rain.

   The cold wind tore at his foul weather gear, and rain rushed inside it. Cutter’s teeth began to chatter as he headed toward his island.

   An hour later, the little engine coughed and died. It had made almost no headway against the wind and the waves. He heard the crashing surf and knew he was too close to shore. The electricity on the island had gone out, and without lights to guide him, without the motor, he’d never make the channel to the island’s man-made harbor.

   He had to restart the motor. But as he leaned over the stern, a large wave slammed into the boat, foaming into the cockpit. When Jolly Girl lurched violently, Cutter lost his footing and slid overboard. As the cold rushing water swallowed him, he fought to reach the surface.

   One gurgling breath. Then he gulped water as another wave crashed over him and dragged him under.

   He clawed his way through the darkness to the surface again.

   This time he didn’t quite make it and gulped salt water instead.

   As he sank, he heard the taunt of her husky purr.

   Mr. Lord, you can’t stop me. I’m the gold digger girl.

   She was laughing at him as he kicked against the undertow that sucked him down, down, ever deeper into a cold, wet hell.

   

   

   A feeble sun broke through the gray, making the calmer waters glimmer like polished silver.

   Waves curled around a man’s bare foot.

   Freezing. Hungry. Cold

   Freezing. Hungry. Cold.

   Again and again like the feeble tattoo of a drum, the words fluttered through Cutter’s tired brain.

   Cutter was barely conscious. His skin was pale, his lips blue. His shoes and most of his clothes had been torn off. Grit and sand filled his wet black hair, nostrils and ears. Every time he tried to swallow, his throat burned.

   He had lost all sensation in his legs and arms and fingers and toes.

   Where the hell was he?

   Who cared? He was so cold, he just wanted to sleep.

   Forever.

   Then he heard a husky cry that was somehow familiar.

   “Oh, my God—” A woman’s terrified voice.

   With great effort he opened his eyes and saw the upturned hull of Jolly Girl.

   But he wasn’t looking at the wreck. A breeze whipped a gauzy, white skirt high up a pair of shapely legs.

   A woman.

   Cheyenne Rose.

   The troublesome witch blurred in a red haze of pain as if she were no more than the figment of a nightmare.

   He forced his heavy burning eyes open again.

   She wasn’t what he had expected.

   She was slim and lovely—as lovely as her voice. She had a sweet face. An enormous, white gardenia bloomed in her hair.

   He shivered violently, not wanting to like her.

   What the hell was the matter with him? Was he delirious? Dying?

   It didn’t mean a damn that she was pretty. Or soft and vulnerable looking.

   She was the enemy.

   But it did...mean a damn. He felt something deep and hot and eternal grip his heart.

   As if she were a child clutching a treasure, she held a bag of shells in one hand as she stretched on tiptoes to examine the wrecked hull.

   Her long red hair blew around her face and neck. She was dressed in a white sundress. A silver light came from behind her and lit her hair like spun flame. There was something fragile and otherworldly and enchantingly angelic about her. He noticed that behind her the sand dunes were ablaze with Fiddleleaf morning glories and yellow sunflowers as if it were summer.

   What kind of woman came to an island and stayed there through a violent storm and then got up the next morning to hunt seashells?

   She had fine, delicate features with high cheekbones and the greenest eyes he’d ever seen. Her breasts and hips were deliciously rounded; her waist small. Her skin was pale gold, and as she stared at the boat and him with wonder and fear, he realized that she was not only smolderingly sensual but irresistibly innocent.

   He groaned as a sudden pain convulsed in his chest.

   Startled by his cry, she screamed and jumped back. Her wary green eyes studied him. Then her incandescent smile dazzled him.

   He shut his eyes.

   She hesitated a brief moment before racing toward him.

   Conserving the last of his strength, he lay very still.

   Until she reached him.

   “Hello?” Her husky voice grew more anxious. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

   She was an enemy to whom he should show no mercy. In answer to her greeting, his large brown hand snaked around her slender ankle and yanked hard.

   Her shells flew, scattering on the sand. With a muffled cry, she toppled onto him.

   He gasped with pain from her weight across his chest. Then he rolled over, so that his body crushed her.

   His black, gritty hair dripped sand all over her pretty, pale gold face. All over her small, freckled nose.

   His intention was to terrify her.

   “I’m sorry I scared you,” she said and then she sneezed and dusted sand from her nose. “Sorry...”

   He said, “Bless you.”

   He noticed how warm she was. It was as if she’d brought summer with her.

   He felt dizzy. Then he pitched forward. For a second, before he fainted, he felt the warm cushion of her breasts and the silken touch of her fingers gently stroking his hair.

   When the blackness receded, he was wrapped in thick blankets. She had made a fire from driftwood and was bending over him and smiling anxiously. “Do you think you could drink some hot coffee?” she urged. “Then maybe in a minute, if you could try to walk, and I think you can...because I examined you...while you were unconscious, we could get you into the house. I’ve built a fire inside, too, and I’m sure by now it’s warm there.”

   He smiled warily, teeth chattering, as she poured the coffee and lifted his head and brought the plastic mug to his trembling lips.

   He sipped obediently.

   When he was done, she said softly, sweetly, “Oh, good. Please, don’t be afraid. You’re hurt. And I want to help you. We have to get you out of your wet clothes. What’s left of them, anyway...”

   Their eyes met again. She blushed shyly, her skin glowing like an angel’s.

   He drank more coffee, the whole thermosful, and the warmth of the liquid filled him—or was it just the radiance of her smile that made winter change to summer?

   He had never met anybody like her.

   She was putting her arms around him and struggling to help him sit up when her sweet face blurred around the edges as once more he dissolved into a dizzying blackness.

   His last pleading words to her were, “Don’t leave me.”

   

   

   Cutter had never spent so much time lying down, being waited on and pampered. He had never wanted to.

   For three days he had dwelt in a room scented heavily with gardenias and other summer flowers while Miss Rose had nursed him.

   And he had relished every minute.

   His enemy.

   But, oh, how he had loved her coming to his bedroom to tend him with her gentle hands and her kind voice.

   More than loved it. In his weakened state he had longed for it. Pined for the wild gardenia scent of her.

   And every time she came into his room smelling of summer flowers, smiling and carrying another steaming tray of delicious, spicy hot food, he felt consumed by an inexplicable tenderness toward her. Did she flavor his meals with some magical ingredient that made it easy for her to charm him?

   He had thought his beach house with its far-flung wings and modern lines too remote and boring to ever visit.

   He never wanted to leave it now.

   The phone was out. He found he liked feeling cut off from the world, his business, and from civilization. From the rigid rules that governed him, from the rules that made Miss Rose a highly unsuitable wife for a Lord.

   The house seemed a natural thing atop the fragile dunes. It seemed to blend with the high wavy golden grasses that grew near it as well as with the salt marshes and their pungent, dank-smelling ponds behind the dunes. Each day since the storm had been warmer and more summery than the last. Now the island with its soft humid breezes and white beaches seemed to be weaving a lazy spell on both of them. Flowers bloomed everywhere. She gathered them in baskets and brought them inside.

   Wrapped in a blanket, Cutter got out of bed and went to his chaise lounge near the fireplace and the window. He saw Miss Rose lying outside in the sun on his vast deck. Protected from the wind by a wall of sheer glass panels, she wore a skimpy white bikini while she pretended to read one of her grisly spy thrillers.

   She had the most abominable literary tastes. She went for genre paperbacks with lurid covers that featured halfnaked people or lethal weapons, lightweight novels that always had happy endings. “Page turners,” she’d called them when he’d criticized. Page turners, hell—He knew that she was only pretending to read. He’d been watching her for an hour—indeed, he couldn’t take his eyes off her any time she was near. She hadn’t turned a single page.

   He eyed the clock on the wall impatiently.

   Two-thirty. Soon she would get up as she had every other afternoon.

   Odd, how eager he was for her sunbath to end. For her to come back inside.

   To him.

   This avid craving was ridiculous.

   They had absolutely nothing in common.

   She read trash.

   He preferred business journals, news magazines, newspapers and the occasional, really good literary novel.

   “Newspapers and literary novels are depressing,” she had said.

   “One should stay informed.”

   “One should have fun, too.”

   “Was that why you dropped out of college?”

   “No. I told you. Mother got sick, and I had to help her. I wanted a degree more than anything.”

   He hadn’t had the heart to tell her that his finance degrees were from the best eastern schools.

   She was a struggling caterer. He hadn’t told her he was a multimillionaire. Nor had he told her his family had been wealthy and socially prominent for generations.

   And, of course, he hadn’t told her he was Cutter Lord, her fiancé’s spoiled half brother.

   Nor had she confessed she was a small-town bastard from Westville, Texas. That her mother had been called Alligator Girl and Witch Woman, that she, Cheyenne, had hung out in the salt marshes tending to her mother’s gators and strange wild things until she was eighteen. Then there’d been some sort of trouble, and she’d left home forever.

   No, his private detectives had told him all that.

   She had told him that she loved flowers and all wild things.

   He eyed the clock again.

   Sometimes when she finished her sunbath, she walked on the beach.

   Cutter, who had lain there willing her to come inside for more than an hour, smiled triumphantly when she got up and peered anxiously through the window. He beckoned her inside.

   She opened the door, her body flushed from the sun, her smile bright and teasing, her red hair and the dune flowers in it mussed. At the sight of her, a wild rhythm started in his chest.

   She met his gaze and looked away. “You have to stop doing that.”

   “What?”

   Breathlessly, she said, “Looking at me that way.”

   “I thought you liked me to.” He got up and moved toward her, trailing his blanket across the bleached pine floor.

   “I—I...”

   “What’s the matter?”

   Frightened, she began backing. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

   “So—tell.”

   “I’m practically engaged to another man.”

   “Do you love him?”

   The beach morning glories quivered in her hair. The tiny scar beneath her left eye, which was the only blemish on her near-perfect face, whitened. “Of—I’m not sure.”

   “So—how do you feel about me?”

   Her frantic eyes burned into him the same way her spicy food did.

   “I have to know,” Cutter insisted.

   “His brother doesn’t want us to marry. He doesn’t think I’m good enough. I—I came here to be alone—To think about Martin and our future together.” Her eyes glistened with unspoken pain as she studied Cutter. “Not for—”

   “Not for this.” With one hand Cutter grasped her shoulder. With his other, he caught her red hair and flower petals. His mouth slanted across hers.

   Her lips parted hesitantly; he felt her soft, indrawn breath. Next she shocked him by the full heat of her response to his kiss as her tongue slid against his. Consumed by hunger, his arms tightened around her slim waist as she surrendered passionately.

   “Cheyenne—”

   “No!” She stiffened and drew back. “Please—” She threw the door open and ran.

   “Damn,” he muttered, watching her, not following even though he sensed that if he pressed her now, he could win. He was tempted to go after her, to pull her into the sand and seduce her. Then he could tell Martin and advise him that Lords didn’t marry easy women like her.

   But three days with her had robbed Cutter of the appetite to destroy her.

   She had been so nice to him.

   She had saved his life.

   Which meant he owed her. Yes. But how much?

   Surely not Martin’s future and fortune.

   There was a new wrinkle. Cutter now wanted her himself.

   Tom, Cutter hesitated—and that wasn’t like him.

   Why the hell didn’t he just seduce her?

   It was only later that he wondered if he had not sensed the impending danger she would be to his coldly ordered life. To his soul.

   But—until he met Cheyenne Rose, Cutter had not known he had a soul.

   Until Cheyenne he had glided through life. First as the precocious, brilliant son and dutiful brother. Then as the ruthless businessman who believed that life was about money, not love. He had married; divorced. But ultimately, always—until Cheyenne—he’d been alone, an outcast. Envied and never loved. He had sought admiration. Not love. His loneliness hadn’t mattered—until her.

   Arrogant to the core, Cutter was accustomed to the glitter of exotic capitals and the easy pleasures of beautiful women. Long ago, when he had become strong enough to crush his opposition, he had not imagined that anyone, least of all a girl, could ever crush him.

   Cutter had lived in many houses and in many foreign lands. He had made many fortunes and had had many women. But nowhere and to no one had he ever belonged, least of all to himself. He spoke many languages, but not one of them was the language of his own soul. He’d had little understanding of those weaker than himself. He had not cared that his younger brother felt jealousy for him instead of love.

   And then Cutter had washed up on his island, and she had turned the tables on him by saving his life. His cynical world and all its rules had changed.

   Not completely.

   Because when she had asked his name, he had lied and said, “Lyon.”

   

   

   Cheyenne was wearing her bikini and holding her paperback and gauzy cover-up, but she couldn’t work up the nerve to go out on the deck for her daily sunbath.

   Because Lyon was somewhere outside.

   She couldn’t see him.

   Or let him see her.

   Lyon had avoided her ever since he’d kissed her yesterday, and she was grateful to him for that.

   And yet, somehow, his absence made her think of him even more.

   Whenever Lyon came near the house, she kept to Martin’s elegant bedroom with its long windows and dark blue walls and white throw carpets and paintings of the sea.

   But she felt miserable and trapped as she stared, with white-knuckled fingers against the shuttered windows, out to the sea and the primroses in the dunes and wondered where Lyon was. She wanted to go out and lie in the sun and listen to the surf and think.

   Did she have an hour before he came back?

   She wanted to love Martin. Only Martin. Why then did thoughts of Lyon possess her? Why had the dune flowers started to bloom the moment she’d seen Lyon?

   This couldn’t be happening.

   She couldn’t let it.

   All her life Cheyenne had wanted to legitimize herself, to be somebody, to marry someone who was somebody, to have the normal sort of life and family her half sister, Chantal, and so many people were born with and took for granted. To be accepted, valued—

   But more than anything, even such a life, Cheyenne now wanted Lyon.

   He was a stranger. She knew almost nothing about him.

   He was a good listener, but he had revealed very little about himself.

   What was he hiding?

   He couldn’t hide the fact that he wanted her.

   She had felt the hot physical bond almost from the first moment when he’d lain freezing and hurt and helpless on the beach.

   Martin must never know.

   She shivered in disgust. How could she think like that even for a second?

   Because she was illegitimate, everybody in Westville had said she was trash. All her life Cheyenne had tried to live down the taint of her birth. She hadn’t dated because every time she looked at a boy, people said she was as bad and strange as her odd, fast-living mama, Ivory Rose.

   As Martin Lord’s wife, everybody would admire her. She could go back to Westville with a grander name than the Wests, her father’s “real family.” Chantal could no longer act so superior. If she, Cheyenne, had her own husband, maybe it would no longer matter that Chantal had married Jack, the young boy whom Chantal’s mother had rescued from the barrio so many years ago. Ever since then, he’d used “West” as his surname.

   Before coming to the island Cheyenne had told Martin she hadn’t made up her mind about marrying him. She’d told his odious brother the same thing.

   Not that she’d thought there was much to think about. Jack was lost to her forever. Boyish and charming, Martin was the nicest guy she’d met since she’d escaped Westville.

   Until Lyon.

   A smart girl wouldn’t consider marriage to a stranger who’d washed up on a deserted beach. Even if he had made flowers bloom.

   Distracted, she continued to stare outside.

   Nothing. Just golden grass and white sand. And endless wildflowers. Yesterday Lyon hadn’t come back all day.

   She decided to risk an hour on the deck.

   Carefully she tiptoed outside where she took off her gauzy cover-up and swam several laps in the sparkling pool. The water was too cold, so she got out and dried off and lay down on a long white towel.

   After a few minutes the warm sunlight drugged her senses.

   She didn’t hear him approach.

   Suddenly he was just there, blocking the sun—a huge male animal, bronzed and magnificent, his legs thrust widely apart as he loomed over her as if he were a dark giant from a fairy tale.

   She twisted her head and looked straight into his starkly handsome face.

   And suddenly Martin and all her dreams of a new life vanished.

   There was only Lyon. Only this moment and this sharp need. Only this fierce recognition of her other half.

   She saw her own desire mirrored in his fiery eyes and for the first time in a long, long time, all the lies she had told and lived since she had run from Westville to Dallas melted away. She didn’t know who he really was, and she didn’t care. His naked, lonely soul reached out to hers and re-created her into some truer self that had longed to exist but had lacked the courage to be until she had formed this incomprehensible bond with him.

   Still, when she got up on shaky legs, and he held out her gauzy cover-up, she ran from those outstretched brown hands and from him.

   But he had seen the truth in her glowing eyes, or maybe just her desire.

   Whatever. He chased her.

   Panting, she locked herself inside the patio doors.

   But she stood there just inside, expectantly staring at him from behind the shining glass—waiting excitedly.

   “Go away,” she whispered even as some deep and truer part of herself challenged him to unthought-of needs and violent deeds.

   A huge piece of driftwood that she had found on the beach the first day before the storm and lugged to the deck glistened in the sun at his bronzed feet.

   Easily he leaned down and picked up the limb. Then staring into her eager, wide gaze for a long moment, he lifted it high above his head.

   Transfixed, she watched as the muscles of his arm bulged before he hurled the wood against the glass, smashing it.

   The explosion of zillions of slivered shards of flying glass dazzled her.

   Or was it just Lyon?

   When he kicked a few shards aside and strode across that ruined threshold, his shoes made crackling sounds in the glass. She just stood there, as frozen and still as a statue while her blood sang with a silent, shocking wildness.

   There was no wind, but a powerful force whipped the sea oxeye, sunflowers and sea oats. Suddenly more summer flowers burst forth into bloom.

   She knew she should have run and fought and struggled.

   But when he seized her and wrapped his body around hers, when his lips came down hard on hers, claiming her in that most basic and eternal way, she could deny him nothing.

   She had never existed before his hot mouth made her flame into being just as the dune flowers had.

   Nor had he.

   Both their lives had been lies.

   Nothing on earth—not all the precious dreams and ambitions she had lived on since a child, not even her dream to be as grand as her sister—mattered in the face of Lyon who had become the master of their mutual reality.

   Lyon—who was he?

   She didn’t know.

   She only knew that even as his hands shredded her bikini and tore the bra from her breasts, even as he ripped off his ragged jeans and shirt, she would belong to him forever.

   Even if all he ever wanted from her was sex.

   She had hungered for her own respectable identity ever since she’d been five and her sister had first branded her with the word bastard.

   She had thought money and marriage would give her the security and the respect she craved.

   Lyon was everything.

   She would be whatever he wanted.

   For as long as he wanted. With or without marriage.

   He was hers. In that single shining moment, as he held and kissed Cheyenne, they burned with the same flame and everything was very simple.

   Only later did it become so complex and terrible.

   Cutter made no sound as he lifted her and carried her across the litter of white carpets, up the swirl of stairs, to the bedroom that looked across the dunes to the sea. He took time to open all the doors, so that the surf roared in their ears, so that they could smell the salt and feel the damp wind against their hot, naked bodies. Then he fell across her on the bed and, with one fist grasping her long red hair, he shaped her to him and plunged inside her.

   They came together violently, in quick, fluid thrusts, like a primitive couple, their bodies sparking, rising and falling in the wildness of the ancient ritual.

   They took no time to know each other.

   Both were shocked.

   He to discover that this wanton whose golden body responded to him with such primitive eager response was a virgin.

   She to discover that pain could open the floodgates to ecstasy and knowledge of another’s soul.

   They didn’t speak.

   Not then.

   Not later.

   There were no words.

   They needed no words.

   They just loved. Sometimes with their bodies fused quietly. Sometimes they twisted and writhed.

   All that afternoon.

   Into the brief glow that is a southern twilight on a windswept beach.

   And again during their long, single black night together.

   Endlessly.

   Completely.

   But, ah, so devastatingly.

   And when it was over, the island was even hotter than it ever got in full summer. Bees buzzed above the dune flowers. Cicadas sang as if under a spell.

   The man and the woman lay wrapped together, each sure that, whatever happened, she could never, ever marry Martin Lord.

   One

   Nothing sells like celebrity murder.

   Especially not on a humid, spring night in Houston, Texas, when lilacs and wisteria as well as wild water lilies have suddenly decided to bloom early—and all these magic blossoms are three times their normal sizes.

   Thus, the hottest ticket in that southern city of skyscrapers, freeways and sluggish brown bayous on that cool Saturday night was the Martin Lord bankruptcy auction at the Castle Galleries in the city’s fashionable Southwest.

   Quite naturally everybody, absolutely everybody, attended. The Wests from their great ranch, El Atascadero, near Westville and Theodora West’s even more famous ranching cousins, the Jacksons from their far grander ranch, were there en masse. Mercedes and Wayne Jackson, Amy and Nick Browning, as well as Megan and Jeb Jackson had all come. Yes, the rich, the greedy, the overdressed, the envious, as well as the merely curious were there to watch and to gloat at the widow’s latest humiliation, as one by one, Cheyenne’s most beloved and most prized possessions went on the auction block.

   The gossips buzzed.

   Had she killed Martin?

   Or had his older brother?

   There had always been gossip about Martin and Cheyenne Lord even before Martin’s chain-draped, nude body had washed ashore on an oyster reef in Galveston Bay six months ago. Even in Houston, the youngest, brashest city in Texas where flamboyant behavior on the part of the city’s rich is almost a duty, the couple, who had lived both extravagantly and scandalously, had continually raised the bar of vulgar excesses.

   Take the Lords’s wedding seven years ago at the Jackson Ranch in south Texas when Martin had gotten roaring drunk and ridden one of Jeb Jackson’s prize bulls up the aisle to take his vows. Not to be outdone, the groom’s older brother had stormed in late during the reception and forced the bride to kiss him. And not a brotherly kiss, but a kiss so electric with white-hot passion that every single guest had been charred by its carnal sizzle. Indeed, Mrs. Gilchrist, a gray-headed society matron, whose seat had been the closest to the embracing couple, had told everyone who would listen that wisps of steam had arisen from her very own cuticles for as long as the couple’s lips remained fused.

   Fortunately before Mrs. Gilchrist’s fingernails could be completely eviscerated, Cheyenne had fainted in Cutter’s arms. The rogue would have carried her off, had not the groom and his groomsmen seized Cutter by the throat and hurled him to the ground. They might have killed him, if Jeb and Tad Jackson hadn’t pulled them off and rushed the unconscious Cutter Lord to a hospital.

   Cutter retaliated by seizing control of his younger brother’s fortune and firing Martin from Lord Enterprises. Thus, had it not been for Martin’s rich friends, the newlyweds would have begun their lives together almost penniless.

   There had been more talk when Cheyenne had delivered a strapping, ten-pound son with a shock of ebony hair less than eight months later.

   Even more talk when Cutter had showed up in the hospital nursery and possessively glowered down at the baby that looked so alarmingly like him and then exchanged cruel, damning words with the new mother who had almost died giving birth to the boy he claimed as his son.

   The baby had started to cry, and Cutter had picked him up. Then as the child quieted, Cheyenne had burst into tears, and when Cutter had tried to take her into his arms, too, Martin had summoned security. Cutter had been dragged away.

   There had been even more talk when Cutter had refused to back down from the financial decisions he had made regarding Martin, and the brothers failed to patch up their quarrel.

   Things had quieted down a bit when Cutter had moved to the south of France, and Martin and Cheyenne Lord, aided by loans, had settled into their vulgarly stylish marriage and endeared themselves to the city by planting a magical garden and throwing frequent and flashy parties at which the bride always served her wonderfully spicy food.

   The talk had resumed, however, when the bride’s married sister, the flamboyant Chantal West, had left her husband, Jack West, and seduced Martin on Cheyenne’s front lawn. The gossips had had a field day with the rumors Chantal started about Cheyenne. Soon everybody knew that the sweet, sad-faced Mrs. Martin Lord, whose flowers grew bigger than everybody else’s and whose exotic herbs had a taste all their own, had never had a daddy to claim her. Chantal reported that Cheyenne’s mother had been a tramp who raised gators, cast spells, cooked for cowboys and slept with whichever one she took a fancy to.

   It was the notorious Chantal who first made everybody aware how the weather in Houston always got warmer and how trees bloomed out of season after every Lord party. How everybody got a little crazy, too. How couples who hadn’t slept together in years would go home and make love to each other all night long.

   Martin Lord, who had an obsession for upstaging his rich brother, had liked notoriety of any sort. Thus, he hadn’t discouraged his mistress from gossiping about his wife’s strange powers and scandalous past. Martin, who’d had a Texas-size ego and a mania for media attention, had gotten himself proclaimed the leading real-estate tycoon in the state. He had had an enormous import-export business as well. His wife had become a celebrity caterer and the author of five wonderful, bilingual, coffee-table cookbooks. Still, there were those who said they could see beneath Cheyenne’s beauty and sophistication to the wild bad blood that they now knew raced in her veins. Everybody said that no recipes were richer or spicier or hotter than hers. But what really made her books off-the-chart bestsellers was that rumor Chantal had started about Cheyenne’s food having aphrodisiac qualities.

   The Lords had lived high. They owned a mansion in Houston’s best neighborhood, a showplace ranch in south Texas, and a villa on a high cliff in Acapulco.

   They’d lived like kings. In spite of the gossips.

   Right to the end.

   But Martin Lord had died broke.

   No.

   Worse than broke.

   Martin Lord had left his lovely widow and son, Jeremy, millions of dollars in debt, five million to be exact, to dangerous people on both sides of the border.

   But the most dangerous enemy she had, at least as far as Cheyenne Lord was concerned, since her heart and soul were involved, was her brother-in-law whose searing wedding kiss was so well remembered. Especially by Mrs. Gilchrist whose fingernails had never quite recovered.

   Tonight Cheyenne had given orders that Cutter was not to be sold a ticket to the auction; nor was he to be admitted should he dare try to make an appearance.

   Still—tonight when she’d stepped out of her house and was about to get into her limousine, she hadn’t been able to ignore two rather alarming signs. A single bolt of lightning had arched over her head, scrawling a white C in a cloudless black sky. At the very same moment her magnolia tree, which had shed its last blossom the day of Martin’s death and had been barren ever since, had suddenly burst into bloom.

   Cheyenne had read in these simultaneous happenings a sign.

   Cutter Lord was definitely on his way.

   She had slammed her door with a vengeance; fighting to catch her breath. Why was it still so maddeningly easy to remember their time on the island? Especially that moment shortly before dawn when she had cupped his face between her hands and stared deeply into his eyes, marveling at their warmth after he’d just confessed his love for her?

   For her public lynching, Cheyenne had chosen to wear a skintight, black leather pantsuit and a soft black cashmere sweater that fit her like a glove. Her necklace and earrings were fashioned of serious diamonds and emeralds, a wedding gift from her husband. His only gift in seven years of marriage. Not that she had wanted another.

   As the widow greeted the Jacksons, her good friends who were effusive in their friendliness, and then Theodora and Chantal West, her father’s “real” family, who were as chilly as iced champagne, Cheyenne hoped none of them noticed that her hand with the diamonds shook and that her frequent smiles were quivery as she scanned the crowd for Cutter.

   Theodora, who had never before said Ivory Rose’s name aloud to anyone other than her deceased husband and then only in anger, thawed a little and murmured how sorry she was that Cheyenne’s dear mama was so ill.

   Ivory Rose had suffered a stroke the day Martin had been found dead, and was confined to her bed with round-the-clock nurses, which Cheyenne was struggling to pay for.

   Cheyenne’s eyes shimmered. “But I thought...that you disliked her—”

   “I—I used to think so, too. But relationships are not always what they seem. I was jealous.” Theodora moved closer and put a hand on her shoulder. “I couldn’t help it. She was a free spirit. She was so much younger and so much more beautiful.”

   “I really hated to leave her...so sick,” Cheyenne murmured, touched. “As soon as this is over, Jeremy and I will definitely go back to be with her.”

   Theodora’s thin, cold hand lingered consolingly. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’ll miss her more than I’ll miss most people in Westville.” For one brief moment Cheyenne felt that maybe, just maybe, her father’s family might someday feel affection for her.

   Then Chantal spoke. “My, my, Witchgirl.” Her soft voice was somehow more predatory than her fierce eyes. “How sweet you always are, dear sister.”

   The two sisters looked at each other, saw themselves in each other’s faces and, as always, were unpleasantly jolted.

   Cheyenne remembered growing up in Westville. There had been an unspoken competition between the rich and icily controlled Theodora West and her husband’s mistress, the fun-loving Ivory Rose who hadn’t minded at all that she’d had an awful reputation or that some of the townspeople thought she was a witch. Their competition had spilled over to their daughters because the two women had used them in their silent war with each other. Every school contest in which both girls entered had been a battle, and every time Cheyenne, the wild child, had bested her sister, the ranch princess, which had been often—and there had been those who said that witchcraft had given her the edge—Chantal had found some terrible way to get even.

   Tonight Chantal’s color was high. As always, she was too intensely involved with Cheyenne, especially now that the spotlight was on her.

   Although Chantal was flamboyantly sexy in a tight red sheath, and had never looked lovelier, she exuded a dangerous aura of resentment and insecurity because people had come to see Cheyenne, not her.

   More than anything on earth Chantal wanted to be the star. Cheyenne’s stomach tightened. Chantal had married Jack and seduced Martin to get revenge. What might she do next?

   Had their mothers not been such polar extremes, Chantal would have hated her simply for existing. Chantal especially resented their too-startling resemblance, perhaps because it proved their kinship. Perhaps, because having a double made her feel less special.

   Still, if only their mothers hadn’t pitted them against each other, maybe they could have become real sisters.

   No.

   Cheyenne had given up on that dream. Never again would Cheyenne try to impress Chantal or the Wests. After tonight Cheyenne was through with being in the public eye, with caring about others’ opinions. Cheyenne would be finished with men, with love, with marriage and, therefore, hopefully, with this sister who had betrayed her twice.

   Cheyenne wanted only her precocious son.

   She wanted peace and solitude.

   And safety.

   For an instant she remembered Cutter’s dark, tortured face when he’d held and soothed Jeremy so tenderly right after his birth. The baby had taken to him, cooing and gurgling happily almost instantly. Cutter’s expression had softened when Jeremy had wrapped his little hand around Cutter’s finger. She had thought then how warm and lovely it had been to have his child. She had wanted the moment to last forever. When Cutter had looked abruptly from the baby to her, she had wanted him in her life so much, she had begun to weep. Even now she still wondered what might have happened if Martin had not been there.

   No.

   She wanted a magnolia tree without blossoms.

   Theodora West left before the auction started. The Jacksons sat in the row behind Cheyenne. Chantal West vanished into the crowd just as the auctioneer began the sale with Martin’s valuable Tang horse, which went quickly.

   A few lots later, the gavel pounded down so hard Cheyenne could almost feel sparks flying. Soon she forgot all about Chantal.

   “Sold to the highest bidder,” cried the skinny auctioneer with the vulgar yellow tie.

   Again all eyes turned to the dazzling redhead in black cashmere, who paled, the words having stung her like a whip.

   Cheyenne felt as if she was dying by inches as two men rolled up a Persian carpet that had been in her bedroom and dragged it off the stage. But she kept her expression a careful blank as the bidding resumed.

   She felt numb, so numb that the sounds and visions blurred. Would this nightmare that had become her life never end?

   “Do I hear a thousand—”

   Only a thousand.

   Cheyenne, who was sitting in the center of the first row, flanked by her son and bodyguard, jumped up. She seized the microphone and began to describe how she and Martin had come to possess the particular antique crystal vase on the block. As she spoke, guests suddenly saw or thought they saw dozens upon dozens of tall yellow roses blooming and growing ever taller in the vase that now looked both magical and wonderful.

   When she handed the microphone back to the auctioneer, the bidding leapfrogged as it always did after such a poignant anecdote and strange occurrence.

   Cheyenne’s green eyes glassed over again as she sank into her chair once more and folded her perfectly manicured hands together with a pretense of calm.

   She was used to pretending. She had grown so very, very good at it during the seven years of her miserable marriage, which had been one of public glitter and private humiliation.

   But ever since Martin’s murder—no, even six months before that, when the telephone death threats had begun—it had grown harder to pretend.

   It was on that day that the magnolia tree had first started to shed its blossoms. It became totally bare the day Martin had been found.

   A single magnolia petal had fluttered downward outside the window as Martin had answered that first call in their dining room with its soaring columns and its Steuben chandeliers and the table that was encircled by eighteen antique gilt chairs. She had watched the magnolia petal until it disappeared. Then she focused on Martin’s eyes, which had dilated with fear. Immediately after the brief call Martin had been gray and silent.

   “Martin. Please, Martin. Tell me what is going on,” she had pleaded as another white petal slid lazily to the ground.

   “It’s none of your damn business.” As his voice echoed with cold finality, white petals began falling like rain.

   “But you’re my husband.”

   “Am I?” He came to her then, raised his hand and lifted her chin in a proprietary manner. “In what sense?” he sneered. “I never think of myself as your husband. I’m surprised you do.”

   Somehow she managed not to flinch as his hand stroked her. “Why won’t you give me a divorce then?”

   His gaze was level and hard. “Because you are my only asset that my brother covets. Besides, of course, our son—the genius.”

   “Don’t call him that!”

   “Have you forgotten our little bargain—darling?”

   Words from the past, Martin’s proposal, came back to her.

   We both hate him. There’s only one way to get even with the bastard—by marrying each other.

   Martin had referred to their bargain, and she had replied, “Never...for a moment.”

   But she hadn’t hated Cutter. She had merely felt lost and afraid. For the sake of her son, Jeremy, she, who had wanted to be loved and valued, had settled for so much less.

   “Good.” His voice had softened when he saw that he had her under control once more. He had even smiled at her. Something he had rarely done when they were alone. “Relax, darling. Go outside and pick flowers. Work in your garden. Baby Jeremy. Or let him read to you. Damn it. Do what you do.” He touched her again, indifferently, his fingertips moving from her chin to her throat in a sinister caress. “This trouble is temporary. I’ll bring Kurt home to look after you and Jeremy. He’s been around. You’ll be safe with him.”

   Even though Kurt was a top man in Martin’s business, she hadn’t liked him. Kurt had a brutish face with a smashed-in nose and cold eyes. His overlarge head seemed to melt into his powerful, barrel-like torso without benefit of a neck. Every time she thought of him, red roses blackened, mosquitoes grew to the size of bumblebees and kittens quit purring.

   “I’m afraid of him.”

   Martin’s caressing fingertips combed her hair dismissively. “He’s fine.”

   “Martin, in the name of God, what’s going on?”

   “Why should I tell you?” Martin withdrew his hand.

   She felt numb and blank with regret as Martin grabbed his briefcase and newspaper and went past her out of the house. Not that such feelings were new. Every morning since she’d first discovered him with Chantal and had realized that he hated her, Cheyenne had awakened with the same blank feeling of hopelessness and the same dull ache of despair. Later, when the numbness became punctuated with fear, she had known that as long as Martin had refused her a divorce, there was nothing she could do about it.

   They had never really been married. She had always been his prisoner, his hostage in the psychological war he waged against his brother.

   If Martin had hated her for sleeping with Cutter and giving birth to Jeremy, he hated her a hundred times more for costing him control of his fortune. All Martin’s problems had stemmed from his borrowing money to prove to her and the world that he was as financially brilliant as Cutter.

   When Martin had suddenly died, she had felt that her longed-for release had come—but at a terrible price. She had been shaken to the core by the savage nature of his murder and by how utterly alone she felt in her dangerous trap. Jeremy had been devastated. The little boy had loved Martin in spite of Martin’s mood swings from indulgence to sarcasm and neglect. Immediately after his funeral the phone calls had begun, and she had discovered that Martin’s death had put Jeremy in terrible jeopardy.

   As she sat among the guests and listened to the auctioneer offer her cherished possessions for sale, she wondered if the person making the threatening calls was here, too—watching her. Watching...Jeremy. Waiting for the right moment?

   Dear God.

   She forced herself to hold her head high, even though her regal posture just made her feel more exposed.

   She kept twisting her diamond rings. She kept patting Jeremy’s silky, black head, reassuring herself that as long as her precocious darling was beside her with his nose in an encyclopedia, he was safe.

   But she couldn’t be with him all the time.

   She kept remembering the caller’s scratchy voice. His terse warning that afternoon.

   “You know what I want. If I don’t get it, Jeremy’s next.”

   As always the voice had been emotionless and deadly.

   “I don’t have five million!” she had screamed.

   “I like passion in a beautiful woman,” he had murmured. “I look forward to meeting you in person.”

   “Never.”

   “Soon.” He had hung up, but his final threat had replayed itself in her mind dozens of times.

   Dear God.

   What had Martin gotten them into?

   What was she going to do about it?

   Run away? Start over? As she had when she’d left Westville all those years ago?

   Dear God, how she wanted to.

   But where?

   How?

   With the police interrogating her?

   With Martin’s creditors hounding her?

   With her own career in jeopardy because of the negative publicity? Not that she could concentrate enough to experiment with recipes, plan parties or write. Not that she could ever, if she worked the rest of her life, make enough to pay what Martin owed.

   When she had cautioned Jeremy to beware of strangers, he hadn’t understood the danger. Laughing, he had said, “If one tries to get me, I’ll bash him with an encyclopedia or climb up the magnolia tree.”

   If anybody other than Martin or herself was responsible for her terrible predicament, it was Cutter Lord. She would never have had to marry Martin, if it hadn’t been for Cutter who had used her as he had used so many women. She had been so hurt and afraid, she had made a terrible mistake. Martin would never have had to live so high, if he hadn’t been trying to prove himself to Cutter.

   How she wished she could loathe Cutter. From the beginning, his behavior had been despicable. Incapable of love or honor, he had seduced her and abandoned her. Then when she’d found out she was pregnant and married Martin, Cutter had been apoplectic.

   For Jeremy’s sake, Cutter could have helped Martin when he’d asked for help shortly before his death. Instead Cutter had stuck to the brutal terms of their father’s will and said he would keep control of Martin’s fortune until Martin was thirty-five. She had gone to Cutter and pleaded with him, too, pointing out that Cutter had taken everything from Martin.

   Cutter had seized the gigantic rose she’d worn in her hair, and brought it to his nose. He inhaled deeply. “No, Cheyenne. Martin took everything from me. And you helped him do it.” He had paused, studying her face and then the rose. “But, hey, sure, I’ll be glad to help.” Another pause. “For a price. If you ask me sweetly.” Then Cutter had put his hands on her in a hateful, intimate way and propositioned her.

   Dear God, she had wanted him to love her.

   All he had ever wanted was to use her.

   The auctioneer’s cry never ceased. An hour later Jeremy’s book lay closed on the floor. He began to droop sleepily against her arm. When he tugged at her sleeve and pleaded in a whining tone that he wanted to go home to bed, she kissed his brow and reluctantly ordered Kurt, whom she had never had the courage to fire, to drive him.

   As always Kurt’s cold stare before he took Jeremy by the hand unnerved her. She felt as if it were winter, and every blade of grass, every leaf, and even the root systems, had withered and died in her garden.

   But she stayed.

   For she had been told that her presence at the auction added substantially to the money her belongings would bring.

   Hour after dreadful hour she sat ramrod straight in her hard-backed, gilt chair.

   When the intermission came, she was too exhausted to make small talk. Jeb and Megan Jackson escorted her to a shadowy corner of the bar. Then mercifully they left her to talk to Amy and Nick Browning, and she found herself alone.

   But not for long.

   For suddenly Cutter Lord was there.

   Two

   Maybe it was the booze.

   Whatever. Cutter Lord was unaccustomed to the sense of uncertainty that filled him the minute he saw her heading toward the bar where he’d been hiding for more than an hour.

   Pale, creamy skin.

   Black cashmere over softly swelling breasts and taut nipples.

   So many years.

   And he still felt the same.

   Cheyenne’s eyes were warm and welcoming to everyone she saw and spoke to on her way toward him.

   But that would change, the minute she saw him.

   He swallowed what was left of his drink.

   He should pounce on her now.

   Instead he clung to the safety of the shadows and wondered what the hell to do next. The only other times in his life he had been at such a complete loss had been that moment just before dawn on the island when he’d known he’d fallen in love with her and then that single other time when he’d held his tiny son in his arms in the hospital and stared at her with such fury and longing that he’d made her cry.

   Suddenly the happier memories of that long-ago night on the island swamped Cutter. He had awakened just before dawn to find her naked body curled trustingly in his arms. He had gotten up, feeling excited and surprised at the strange tenderness he felt toward her, at the regret to leave her in bed alone, even so briefly.

   In confusion he had stared out at the ghostly glimmer of gray fog that shrouded the island. Then she had padded silently across the room and gently taken his hand.

   At the touch of her slim fingers closing around his, his spirits had rocketed, and all his loneliness, as well as the certainty that she was the wrong woman for any Lord, especially him, had vanished.

   Even as he had fought the power she had over him, he had wondered why he had ever thought she was unsuitable when she was the only woman who would do for him. He had kissed her forehead, her drowsy, thickly lashed eyes, her tousled red hair. He had wondered why he had ever thought money could matter between a man and a woman who had felt and shared what they had felt.

   Then they had begun to talk as if they had known each other their entire lives. She had told him of growing up in a small Texas town, of having a father who would not claim her, of having a half sister who hated her and who had been determined to best her, of having a beautiful, wild mother the whole town sneered at, of learning to like books with happy endings because her own life had not been so happy.

   And he had told her something of his life, too—of the great loneliness he had known ever since he’d been a boy. In fact, he had shared so much in those swift, fleeting moments, telling her everything about himself that had really mattered—except his real name.

   They had scampered down to the kitchen as if they were children and made a hasty breakfast of cold biscuits and milk and orange juice. And that simple shared meal had been wonderfully exciting because she was there, feeding him with her fingers.

   Then they had raced back to bed and made love again.

   He had known then, that for better or for worse, he had fallen head over heels in love with her.

   Then she had used her love to destroy him.

   Now it was his turn.

   

   

   Normally Cheyenne didn’t drink, but tonight she felt like it. She was ordering Scotch on the rocks, when Cutter’s silken baritone came from behind her.

   “Make mine a double.”

   Her smile vanished. Her green eyes turned to shards of ice.

   “The wages of sin must be paid, Cheyenne. The devil always claims his due.”

   But did he have to show up at the worst possible moment?

   For an instant the world stopped spinning.

   She whirled.

   There—behind her in the shadowy dark stood the devil himself. He was twirling a twin red rose to the one she’d worn in her hair the last time she’d seen him.

   Cutter’s obsidian black eyes locked with hers as he handed her the rose. In his gaze she saw the same bleak, unforgiving emotion she’d seen on her wedding day. The same bleak, loveless emotion she’d seen that last afternoon when she’d begged him to save Martin and he’d seized her rose and then leaned forward and unbuttoned her jacket.

   “Sure. I’ll be glad to help,” he’d murmured in that same softly rough tone. “For a price. If you ask me sweetly.”

   He’d twisted her second button loose, and she’d felt his warm fingers against the swell of her breasts. She’d gasped and grown instantly hot from his touch.

   Some part of her had wanted him to strip her there and then. It had taken her a second or two to gather her wits. She had grabbed the gaping edges of her jacket, and tried to run. But he’d seized her, and pinned her between a wall and his long lean body, until she’d gone limp and breathless from his nearness. Only when her lips had parted, inviting his mouth to touch hers, had he laughed softly and let her go.

   He seemed even more hatefully dangerous now.

   Never in a million years could she ever forgive him.

   Not that he cared.

   Tall and broad-shouldered, he loomed over her.

   A drop of blood bubbled from the tip of her finger where a thorn from his flower had pricked her. Angrily she threw the rose at him, but it just bounced off the lapels of his tuxedo.

   Reality was back with a vengeance.

   “My darling sister-in-law,” he purred. “You’re hurt.” Before she could resist, he had her injured finger in his grip and had lifted it to his lips and kissed it.

   Dear God. The tenderness of his mouth stung her fingertip with pleasurable shock.

   She blushed.

   “You look even lovelier than you did the last time I saw you.” He brought the scarlet blossom to his nose and inhaled.

   As he had done before.

   “Your face is as red as my rose,” he murmured with insolent mischief.

   Her heart pumped wildly. She was too furious to speak, so she tried to run.

   He held on to her hand. “Easy does it.” He smiled lazily. “Remember me. I’m all bark and no bite.”

   If only he were so harmless.

   He was tough as nails. In his whole life he had never loved another human being. He used women for sex. He stomped on any man who opposed him. Especially his own brother.

   Cutter’s face looked harder and leaner than it had been seven years ago, but he was still sinfully handsome. The sheer, raw animal magnetism he projected in his black evening clothes left her breathless.

   “How did you get in?” Pulling her hand free, she fell backward against the solid oak of the bar. “I gave very specific orders—”

   “I’m sure you did.” He shot her that hot, beguiling pirate’s grin that had seduced so many women. “You forget. I prefer to give women orders, not serve them.”

   “You...” The vile word didn’t come easily. “You...bastard.”

   “No, honey—” His charming, piratical grin broadened, reminding her of her own questionable parentage.

   While he ordered drinks, Cheyenne’s mind flashed backward.

   “Mexican!” the kids had jeered on her first day of school, making her conscious of how dirty and ragged she was. Only they’d said something that sounded more like, “Mez-kin.”

   “She’s the witch’s bastard,” Chantal had taunted.

   Through her tears, Cheyenne had stared at the ground, which was dry and cracked and covered with a fine pink dust that dusted the scuffed toes of her brown boots. Thus, she hadn’t seen the tall, black-haired boy, pushing his way through the other children. Thus, her first awareness of Jack West, her first playmate and friend as well as first love, had been his rough, yet strangely pleasant voice.

   “Leave her alone!”

   “Stay out of this!” Chantal had cried.

   Jack, whose blood was half Mexican, too, whose parentage was even more questionable than Cheyenne’s, Jack, who had had to fight for his own precarious social position in Westville even harder than Cheyenne, had yanked Chantal’s red braids hard. “Cállate, celosa. You’re just jealous ‘cause she’s your sister.”

   “She’s not my sister! I hate her! I hate you, too. She’s just like you—a barrio brat!”

   “No. She looks like your father. Just like you, too, gringa. That’s why you hate her.”

   “No! No!” Chantal covered her ears with her hands.

   The bartender set down their drinks.

   The adult Cheyenne froze as Cutter placed a crystal glass of straight whiskey into her shaking hand.

   “Cheers, Cheyenne. You’ve come a long way...since Westville. Since my island. Since your marriage to my brother. This may be your best party yet. I find I’m enjoying it way more than your wedding even though I haven’t yet had the pleasure of kissing you.”

   Cutter’s gaze lingered on her lips, and she remembered her wedding day. Her heart had felt about to break when he’d angrily kissed her. She’d fainted with joy and hope only to be cast down into despair when she regained consciousness to find him gone and Martin there, demanding to know if she wanted to chase Cutter or stay with him.

   What choice had she ever had?

   Cutter had wanted her, but for sex, not for marriage.

   “You look good in emeralds. Too good,” Cutter said. “Widowhood becomes you. Too bad you’re not yet desperate enough to sell me what I want.” He picked up his rose and twirled it. He brought it to his lips and then took a deep breath, drawing in its scent before setting it down again.

   His heavy-lidded eyes slid lazily from the rose to her lush mouth, down her body, admiring her generous curves and slim waist.

   Even the odd, tentative flicker of desire that went through her annoyed her. He was a sexist, arrogant bully! How could he have this sensual effect on her?

   Please, God. Not sensual. Not tonight!

   She balled her hands into fists. He read her flushed face like a book and laughed, his overabundant conceit and good humor restored. Without a word he threw his dark head back and easily tossed down his own drink.

   “Cheers,” she muttered shakily as she tried to toss her drink down with equal aplomb. But the whiskey strangled her and made her cough.

   With an excessive pretense of polite concern, he whipped out a monogrammed handkerchief, and then pounded her hard on the back, and yet not too hard.

   When his warm hand stayed in the center of her back, her bare skin beneath the soft black cashmere began to itch and burn.

   She sputtered, swallowed more of the awful whiskey and caught another drowning, scalding breath.

   “You shouldn’t have come,” she rasped.

   “I was worried about you. I came to offer my services.”

   The innuendo in his low voice further infuriated her. Rudely she snatched his handkerchief and dabbed at her sweater.

   “No. What’s more likely is that you couldn’t bear to miss my social execution. How did you get a ticket anyway?”

   “Chantal.”

   “I should have known. She’s always made my life miserable the same way you did Martin’s.”

   Cutter frowned. “Is that what you think?”

   “What do you really want?”

   “Many things.” His eyes were hot.

   He picked up the rose. This time he trailed the soft petals across her lips. “Your body is at the top of my wish list. So is your soul.”

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