Welcome to Jin Novels dot com   Click to listen highlighted text! Welcome to Jin Novels dot com

Shades of Twilight (Chapter 13)

"Then maybe I'd better add another condition: If you start shooting off your mouth and causing trouble, you're outta here. Now get out of my sight before I decide you're already more trouble than you're worth."

She flounced away from him, sashaying her ass to show him she wasn't scared. Maybe she wasn't, but she should damn sure take him at his word.

He quietly opened the study door to make certain they hadn't awakened Roanna with their argument. He'd tried to keep his voice low, but Corliss hadn't had any such concern, and grimly he promised himself that she'd be out on the street tonight if Roanna's eyes were open.

But she still slept, curled in the big office chair with her head tucked into the wing. He stood in the doorway, watching her. Her dark chestnut hair was tousled around her face, and sleep had brought a delicate flush to her cheeks. Her breasts moved up and down in a slow, deep rhythm.

She had slept like that the night they'd spent together what time he'd let her sleep. If he'd know then how rare real, restful sleep was for her, he wouldn't have awakened her all those times. But afterward, each time, she had curled in his arms just that way, with her head pillowed on his shoulder.

A sharp pang of longing went through him. He'd like to hold her that way again, he thought. She could sleep in his arms for as long as she wanted.

Corliss was shaking as she climbed the stairs, but the trembling was as much inside as out. She needed something, fast. She hurried into her suite and locked the door, then began to frenziedly search all of her favorite hiding places: inside the tiny rip in the lining on the bottom of the sofa, the empty cold cream jar, the bottom of the lamp, the toe-shapers for her shoes. She found exactly what she'd known she would find, nothing, but she needed a fix bad enough that she looked anyway.

How dare he talk to her like that? She'd always hated him, hated Jessie, hated Roanna. It simply wasn't fair! Why should they get to live at Davencourt while she had to live in that stupid little house? All of her life she'd been looked down on at school as the Davenports' poor relation. But sometimes good things did happen, like when Jessie was killed and Webb blamed for it. Corliss had silently celebrated; God, it had been so hard to keep from laughing at that turn of events! But she had made all the proper noises, looked properly sad, and when Webb had left, pretty soon things had fallen into place and her family had moved into Davencourt, where they should have been all those years anyway.

She'd had a lot of friends then, people who knew how to really party, not the snooty my-great-great-granddaddy fought-in-the-War crowd, the ones who wore pearls and the men didn't cuss in the ladies' presence. What bullshit. Her friends knew how to have fun.

She'd been smart, she'd stayed away from the hard drugs. No mainlining for her, no sirree. That shit would kill you. She liked booze, but she loooved that sweet white powder. One snort, and no worries; she felt on top of the world, the best, the prettiest, the sexiest. Once she'd been so damn sexy that she'd taken on three guys, one after the other, then all three together, and worn them all out. It'd been great, she'd been fantastic, she'd never had sex like that since. She'd like to do it again, but it took more to fly now, and really she'd rather enjoy that than concentrate on screwing. Besides, a couple of times she'd had a little problem a month or so later, and she'd had to go to Memphis where no one knew her to have it taken care of. Wouldn't do to have a bun in the oven ruining her fun.

But all of her little hiding places were empty. She didn't have any coke, and she didn't have any money. Desperately she roamed the suite, trying to think. Aunt Lucinda always kept a good bit of money in her purse, but the purse was in her bedroom and the old lady was still in her suite, so she couldn't get at it. Grandmother and Mama had gone shopping, so they would have taken all their cash with them. But Roanna was asleep in the study … Corliss laughed to herself as she slipped from her rooms and hurried down the hallway to Roanna's room. Guess it was a good thing Webb had kept her from slamming that door after all. Let dear little Roanna sleep, the stupid bitch.

Silently she entered Roanna's bedroom. Roanna always put her purses away in the closet like a good little girl. It took Corliss only a moment to filch Roanna's wallet and count the money. Only eighty-three bucks, damn it. Even someone as dense as Roanna would notice if a couple of twenties went missing. She seldom bothered searching

Roanna's purse for that reason, because Roanna didn't normally carry much cash. She eyed the credit cards but resisted the temptation, she would have to sign for a cash advance on them, and anyway the bank teller might know she wasn't Roanna. That was the trouble with hick towns, too many people knew your business.

The automatic teller bank card was something else, though. If she could just find Roanna's PIN … Swiftly she began pulling scraps of paper out of the little pockets of the wallet. No one was supposed to write down their PIN, but everyone did. She found a slip of paper, neatly folded, with four numbers on it. She snickered to herself as she took an ink pen from the bottom of Roanna's purse and scribbled the numbers on her palm. Maybe it wasn't the PIN, but so what? All the machine would do was not give her the money, it wasn't as if it would call Roanna and tell on her.

Smiling, she slipped the bank card into her pocket. This was better than sneaking a twenty here and a twenty there. She'd get a couple of hundred, put the card back before Roanna missed it, and have some fun tonight. Hell, she'd even put the transaction slip in the folder where Roanna kept things like that; that way, there wouldn't be a discrepancy when the bank statement came out. This was a good plan; she'd have to use it again, though it would be smart to use Aunt Lucinda's card occasionally, if she could get it, and alternate rather than using the same one all the time. Variety was the spice of life. It also cut down on her chances of getting caught, which was the most important thing; that, and getting money.

By eight o'clock that night, Corliss felt much better. After hitting the automatic bank machine, it had taken her some time to find her regular supplier, but at last she had located him. The white powder beckoned, and she wanted to sniff it all up at once, but she knew it would be smarter if she rationed it, because there was no telling how often she would be able to sneak a bank card. She allowed herself just a single line, enough to take the edge off.

Then she was in the mood for fun. She hit her favorite bar, but none of her friends were there, and she sat by herself, humming a little. She ordered her favorite drink, a strawberry daiquiri, which she liked because it packed quite a punch the way the bartender made them for her but still looked like one of those cute drinks it was okay for a nice girl to drink.

The longer she sat there, though, the more her mood darkened. She tried to hang on to the drug-induced euphoria, but it faded as it always did, and she wanted to cry. The daiquiri was good, but the alcohol didn't work the same way coke did. Maybe if she got a real buzz on, it would help.

The hour dragged past, and still none of her friends came in. Had they gone somewhere else tonight and not told her? She felt a sense of panic at being abandoned. Surely no one had heard that Webb had threatened to throw her out of Davencourt, not yet.

Desperately she sipped the daiquiri, trying not to stick herself in the eye with the stupid little turquoise paper parasol. Either the straw was shorter than usual, or that damn parasol had grown. She hadn't had this kind of trouble with the first two drinks. She glared at the bartender, wondering if he was playing a practical joke on her, but he wasn't even looking at her, so she decided he wasn't.

The carcasses of the other two little paper parasols lay in front of her. One was yellow, the other was pink. Put them all together and she'd have a pretty little parasol bouquet, Whoopee. Maybe she'd save them to put on Aunt Lucinda's grave. That was a thought; by the time the old bat kicked off, she should have enough little parasols collected to make a real pretty wreath.

Or maybe she could stuff them down Webb Tallant's throat. Death by parasol; that had a nice ring to it.

The bastard had scared her half to death this afternoon when he'd grabbed her like that. And the look in his eyes God That was the coldest, meanest look she'd ever seen,

and for nothing! Little Miss Mealy-Mouth's beauty sleep hadn't been disturbed, and God knows she needed all she could get. Corliss snickered, but her mirth died when she remembered the threats Webb had made.

She hated him. Why did he have everything? He didn't deserve it. It had always galled her that he was the chosen favorite when he wasn't any closer kin to Aunt Lucinda than she was. He was mean and selfish, the old bitch was going to give Davencourt to him, and he wasn't going to let her live there after Aunt Lucinda died. It just wasn't fair!

As much as she disliked Roanna, at least Roanna was a real Davenport, and she wouldn't feel as bad if Davencourt went to her. Like hell, she wouldn't. Roanna was a stupid wimp, and she didn't deserve Davencourt either. The only good thing about Roanna having the house was that Corliss knew she could handle Roanna with one hand tied behind her back. She'd have that little mouse so buffaloed Roanna would be handing over money instead of forcing Corliss to sneak it.

But if Aunt Lucinda wasn't going to leave Davencourt to Roanna, then it just wasn't fair that Webb should get it! Aunt Lucinda might not think that Webb had killed Jessie, but Corliss had her own opinion, and it was even stronger after the look she'd seen on his face that afternoon. She had no doubts that he could kill. Why, for a minute she'd thought he was going to kill her, and over a little joke she'd been about to play. She'd only been thinking about slamming the door, she hadn't actually done it. But he'd grabbed her and hurt her neck, the bastard.

Someone slid onto the stool beside her.

"You look like you need another drink," a smooth masculine voice purred in her ear.

Corliss cast a dismissive glance at the man beside her. He was good-looking enough, she supposed, but way too old.

"Get lost, Pops."

He chuckled. "Don't let the gray hair fool you. Just because there's snow on the roof doesn't mean there's no fire ii) the furnace."

T_

"Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before," she said, bored. She took another draw on the daiquiri.

"You may be too old to cut the mustard, but you can still spread the mayonnaise, Big deal. Beat it-and you can take that any way you like.," "I'm not interested in fucking you," he said, sounding as bored as she had.

She was so shocked by the bluntness that she looked at him then, really looked at him. She saw the thick hair that had gone mostly gray, and a body that was still powerful and in shape even though he had to be in his fifties. It was his eyes that riveted her, though; they were the bluest eyes she'd ever seen, and looking into them was like looking into a snake's eyes: flat, totally devoid of feeling. Corliss shivered, but couldn't help feeling fascinated.

He nodded at the parasols littering the bar.

"You've been pouring the booze down pretty fast. Have a bad day?"

"You don't know the half of it," she said, but then laughed.

"Things are looking up, though."

"So why don't you tell me about it," he invited.

"You're Corliss Spence, aren't you? Don't you live out at Davencourt?"

That was often one of the first questions people asked when meeting her for the first time. Corliss loved the distinction it gave her, the sense of being someone special. Webb was going to take that away from her, and she hated him for it.

"Yeah, I live there," she said.

"For a while longer, anyway. 91 The man lifted his glass to his mouth. From the color of the liquid, it looked like straight bourbon. He sipped it as he stared at her with those cold blue eyes.

"Looks to me like you'd already be hauling ass out of there. It must be pretty uncomfortable living with a killer."

Corliss thought of Webb's hand biting into the back of her neck, and she shivered.

"He's a bastard," she said.

"I'll be moving out soon. He attacked me today for no reason!"

"Tell me about it," he urged again, and held out his hand.

"By the way, my name's Harper Neeley."

Corliss shook hands with him and felt a little thrill of fascination. He might be an old guy, but there was something about him that gave her the shivers. For now, though, she was more than willing to tell her new friend anything he wanted to know about how hateful Webb Tallant was.

Roanna wished she hadn't succumbed to the nap that afternoon. It had helped immeasurably at the time, but now she faced another long night. She had come upstairs at ten and gone through the ritual of showering, putting on her nightgown, brushing her teeth, getting in bed, all for nothing. She had known immediately that sleep would be a long time coming, if at all, so she had gotten out of bed and curled up in her chair. She picked up the book she'd been trying to read for the past two nights and finally managed to get interested in it.

Webb came up at eleven, and she snapped off her reading light while she listened to him showering. She watched the splash of light from his room, wondering if he would back between it and the windows so she could see his shadow on the veranda. He didn't; his light went out, and there was silence from the other room.

The light from her lamp attracted mosquitoes, so Roanna always kept her veranda doors closed while she was reading, and she wasn't able to hear if he opened his own doors that night. She sat quietly in the dark, waiting until he'd had time to fall asleep, hoping she might become sleepy herself. She watched the fluorescent hands of her clock move past midnight; only then did she turn her lamp back on and resume reading.

An hour later she yawned and let the book drop into her lap. Even if she couldn't actually sleep, she was so tired that, she wanted to lie down. She glanced outside and saw that an evening storm was building; she could see the red are of lightning, but it was so far away she couldn't hear any thunder. Perhaps if she opened her doors and got into bed, the storm would sweep nearer, bringing the sweet rain with it. Rain was the best sedative, soothing her into what was usually her most restful sleep. 245

She was so tired that it was a long moment before she realized that lightning wasn't red. There was no storm. Someone was on the balcony, his darker form barely discernible in the shadows.

He was watching her. Webb.

She recognized him immediately, so swiftly that she didn't have time to panic at the thought of a stranger on the veranda. He was smoking, and the cigarette glowed in a red arc as he lifted it to his lips. The fiery end burned even brighter when he inhaled, and in the brief flare she could make out the hard outline of his face, the slash of his high cheekbones.

He was leaning against the veranda railing, just outside the frame of light from her windows. A faint, silver light gleamed on his naked shoulders, cast from the stars dotting the night sky. He was wearing dark pants, perhaps jeans, but nothing else.

She had no idea how long he'd been out there, smoking and silently watching her through the glass French doors. She inhaled deeply, her physical awareness of him suddenly so intense that she ached with the force of it. Slowly she nestled her head against the back of the chair and stared back at him. She was acutely aware of her bare flesh beneath the fabric of the modest nightgown: the breasts he had kissed, the thighs he had parted. Was he remembering that night, too?

Why wasn't he asleep? It was almost one-thirty.

He turned and flicked the cigarette over the railing, into the dew-wet grass below. Roanna's gaze automatically followed the movement, the arc of fire, and when she looked back, he was gone.

She didn't hear his doors close. Had he gone back inside, or was he strolling around on the veranda? With her own doors closed, she wouldn't have heard his open or close. She reached up and turned off the lamp, plunging her room into darkness again. Without the light on she could clearly see the balcony, bathed in that faint, silvery starlight. He wasn't there.

She was shaking a little as she crawled into bed. Why had he been watching her? Had there been any intent to it, or had he simply been outside smoking and looked through her windows because her light was on. Her body ached, and she hugged her arms over her throbbing breasts. It had been two weeks since that night in Nogales, and she yearned to feel his hot, naked flesh against her again, his weight pressing her down into the mattress, moving over her, into her. The soreness left by the loss of her virginity had long since faded, and she wanted to feel him there again. She wanted to go to him in the silence of the night, slip into bed beside him, give him the gift of her own flesh.

Sleep had never been further away.

He gave her a sharp glance when she entered the study the next morning. She had used makeup to mask the dark circles beneath her eyes, but he immediately noted the effort.

"It was a bad night for you, wasn't it?" he asked brusquely.

"Did you get any sleep at all?"

She shook her head but kept her expression blank so he wouldn't guess at her physical torment.

"No, but eventually I'll get tired enough to sleep. I'm used to it."

He closed the file that had been open on the desk, punched the exit key on the keyboard, and turned off the computer. He got to his feet with an air of decision.

"Go change clothes," he ordered.

"Jeans and boots. We're going for a ride."

At the word ride her whole body was consumed with eagerness and renewed energy. Even as tired as she was, a ride sounded like heaven. A horse moving smoothly beneath her, the breeze flowing over her face, the fresh, heated air soothing her lungs. No meetings, no schedule, no pressure. But then she remembered that there was a schedule, and a meeting, and she sighed.

"I can't. There's a-" "I don't care what kind of meeting you have," he interrupted.

"Call and tell them you won't be there. Today, you're going to do nothing but relax, and that's an order."

Still she hesitated. For ten years her entire existence had been focused on duty, on taking care of business, on helping fill the gap left by his departure. It was difficult to abruptly turn her back on the foundation of those ten years.

He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward the door.

"That's an order," he repeated firmly, and gave her a light swat on the rump to send her on her way. It was supposed to be a swat, but instead his touch gentled the motion to a pat. He drew his hand back before it could linger, before his fingers could cup the firm buttock he had just touched.

She stopped at the door and looked back at him. He noted that she was blushing a little. Because he'd patted her ass?

"I didn't know you smoked," she said.

"I usually don't. A pack lasts me a month or longer. I end up throwing most of them away because they've gone stale." She started to ask him why he'd been smoking last night if he didn't normally smoke any more than that but held the words back. She didn't want to pester him with personal questions the way she had when she was a kid. He'd had a lot of patience with her, but now she knew that she'd been a bother to him.

Instead she quietly went upstairs to change clothes, and her heart lifted as she did. An entire day to herself with nothing to do but ride! Pure heaven.

Webb must have called down to the stable, because Loyal was waiting with two horses already saddled. Roanna gave him a shocked look. She'd always taken care of her own horse from the time she'd been big enough to lift a saddle.

"I would have saddled him myself," she protested.

Loyal grinned at her.

"I know you would, but I thought I'd save you some time. You don't get to ride nearly enough, so I wanted you to have a few extra minutes."

Buckley, her old favorite, was fifteen years old now, and she rode him only on more leisurely trails, over easy terrain.

The horse Loyal had chosen for her today was a sturdy bay, not a streak of lightning, but with legs like iron and a lot of stamina. Webb's horse, she noticed, had much the same characteristics. Loyal evidently figured they were going out for more than a Sunday trot.

Webb came out of one of the stalls where he'd been patting the inhabitant, a frisky yearling who had gotten into rough play with some other yearlings and a kick had opened up a cut on his leg.

"Your salve still works magic," he said to Loyal. "That cut looks like it's a week old instead of just two days."

He took the reins from Loyal, and they swung into their saddles. Roanna felt her body change, the old magic sweeping over her muscles the way it always had. Instinctively she aligned herself with the horse's rhythm from the first step he took, his strength flowing upward into her lithe, graceful limbs.

Webb held his horse a pace back from hers, mainly for the pleasure of watching her, She was the best rider he'd ever seen, period. His own horsemanship was of the quality that, had he had the desire, he could have competed successfully in either of the opposing equestrian poles, show jumping or rodeo, but Roanna was better. Sometimes, every decade or so, there would be an athlete on the scene whose grace of movement transcended the sport, turning every meet, game, or competition into a work of art, and that was what it was like to watch Roanna ride. Even when the pace was easy, as it was now, and they were riding simply for the pleasure of it, her body was fluid as she adjusted to and controlled every nuance of the animal's motion beneath her.

Would she look like that if she were riding him? Webb's breath caught. Would her sleek thighs tighten and relax, lifting her, then letting her slide down onto his erection, so that she enveloped him with one smooth motion while her torso moved in that graceful sway He cut the thought off as blood rushed to his loins, and he shifted uncomfortably. Getting a hard-on while horseback 249

riding wasn't a good idea, but it was difficult to dispel the image. Every time he looked at her he saw the curve of her buttocks, and he remembered touching them, caressing her, driving deep and hard, and coming inside her with a force that made him feel as if he were exploding.

He was going to do himself a serious injury if he didn't stop thinking about it. He wiped the beads of sweat from his brow and deliberately wrenched his gaze away from her bottom. He looked instead at the trees, the horse's ears, anything except her, until his erection had subsided and he was comfortable again.

They didn't talk. Roanna was so often silent anyway, and now she seemed totally absorbed in the pleasure of the ride and he didn't want to disturb her. He enjoyed the freedom himself. He'd been working almost from the minute he set foot back on Davencourt land, and he hadn't taken the time to acclimate himself. His eyes were accustomed to stark, dramatic mountains and an endless sweep of sky, to cactus and scrub bushes, to clouds of dust and air so clear you could see for fifty miles. He was used to dry, searing heat, to arroyos that would abruptly flood from a rain the day before, far upstream.

He'd forgotten how damn green this place was, every shade of green in creation. It soaked into his eyes, into the pores of his skin. The air was thick and hazy with humidity. Hardwoods and evergreens rustled softly in a breeze so slight he couldn't feel it, wildflowers nodded their technicolor heads, birds darted and soared and sang, insects buzzed.

It hit him hard, low down in the gut. He'd developed a real love for Arizona and would never give up that part of his life, but this was home. This was where his roots were, sunk generations deep into the rich soil. Tallants had lived here for almost two hundred years, and hundreds of years longer than that if you counted the Cherokee and Choctaw heritage that ran in his family.

He hadn't let himself miss Alabama when he left. He had concentrated solely on the future and what he could build with his own two hands in the new home he'd chosen. But now that he was back, it was as if his soul had revived. He'd handle his family, ill-tempered and ungrateful as some of them were. He didn't like having so many Tallants living off the Davenports and not doing a damn thing to earn their keep. Lucinda was the tie between the Davenports and the Tallants, and when she died … He looked at the slim figure riding in front of him. The family hadn't been prolific, and untimely deaths had decimated their ranks. Roanna. would be the only surviving Davenport, the last of the line.

No matter what he had to do, he would hold the Davenport legacy intact for her.

They rode for hours, even skipping lunch. He didn't like for her to miss any meals, but she looked so relaxed, with a flush on her cheeks, that he decided it was an acceptable trade-off. He would make certain from now on that she had time for a ride every day if she wanted, and it wouldn't be a bad idea if he applied the same decision to himself.

She didn't bubble over with enthusiasm the way she once would have done, talking nonstop and making him laugh with her quirky, sometimes rowdy observations. That Roanna would never return, he thought with a pang. It wasn't just trauma that had changed her into this controlled, reserved woman; she had grown up. She would have changed anyway, though not to this extent; time and responsibility had a way of transforming people. He missed the mischievous imp, but the woman got to him in a way no one else ever had. This volatile mixture of lust and protectiveness was driving him crazy, the two instincts warring with each other.

He'd stood on the balcony the night before and watched her through the windows while she read. She'd been isolated in a soft pool of light, curled in a huge chair that dwarfed her slender body. The light had picked up the red in her chestnut hair, making it gleam with rich, dark tones. A modest white nightgown had swathed her to her ankles, but he could see the faint shadow of her nipples beneath the cloth, the darkness at the junction of her thighs, and he knew that the gown was all she wore.

He'd known that he could go into her room and kneel down in front of that chair, and she wouldn't protest. He could slide his hands under the gown to cup her bottom and pull her forward. He'd been hard as rock, thinking of it, imagining the feel of her sliding down onto him.

Then she had looked up, as if she'd felt the heat of his thoughts. Her whiskey-brown eyes had been mysterious, shadowed pools as she stared back at him through the glass. Beneath the white cloth, her nipples had hardened into tiny peaks.

Just like that, her body had responded to him. A look. A memory. He could have had her then. He could have her now, he thought, watching her. Was she pregnant?

It was too soon for her body to show any sign, but he wanted to strip her naked anyway, turn her this way and that with his big hands so he could minutely examine every inch of her in the bright sun, memorize her so that in the future he would be able to tell even the smallest change in her.

He was going to go out of his mind.

Roanna reined in. She felt exhilarated from the ride, but her muscles were telling her that it had been a while since she'd been in the saddle for such a long time.

"I need to walk for a while," she said, dismounting.

"I'm getting a little stiff. You can go on if you want."

She almost hoped that he would; it was a strain, being alone with him, riding with him in such perfect accord, the way they had before. Relaxed, with her guard down, several times she had almost turned to him with a teasing comment. She had caught herself each time, but the close calls made her nervous. It would be a relief to be alone.

But he dismounted as well and fell into step beside her. Roanna glanced at his expression and just as quickly looked away. His jaw was set, and he was staring straight ahead as if he couldn't bear to even look at her.

Stricken, she wondered what she had done wrong. They walked in silence, the horses clopping along behind them.

She hadn't done anything wrong, she realized. They had barely spoken. She had no idea what was bothering him, but she refused to automatically take the blame on herself the way she had always done before.

He put his hand on her arm and drew her to a halt. The horses stopped, shifting behind them. She gave him a questioning look and went still. His eyes were a deep, intense green, glittering with a heat that had nothing to do with anger. He stood very close to her, so close that she could feel the damp heat of his sweaty body, and his broad chest was rising and falling with hard, deep breaths.

The impact of male lust hit her like a blow, and she swayed. Dazedly she tried to think, to pull back, but something inside her responded of its own volition. He wanted her! Happiness bloomed inside her, an internal golden glow that blotted out years of sadness. The reins dropped from her limp fingers, and she surged forward as if pulled by an invisible chain, rising on tiptoe as her arms went around his neck and her soft mouth lifted to his.

He stiffened in her embrace, just for a second, then he too dropped his reins, and his arms went around her, crushing her hard against him. His mouth was just as hard on hers, his tongue plunging deep. He was almost savaging her, the pressure of the kiss bruising her lips, his grip compressing her ribs. She could feel the ridge of his erection grinding against the soft juncture of her thighs.

She couldn't breathe; a giddy blackness began to creep over her consciousness. Desperately she wrenched her mouth away from him, her head falling back like a flower too heavy for its fragile stem. Her body was on fire and she didn't care, didn't care what he did to her, let him take her here, now, on the ground without even a blanket to cover the earth. She had craved his touch, ached for him' No he said hoarsely, putting his hands on her hips and forcing her away from him.

"God damn it, no!"

The shock was as staggering as that blatant look of lust had been. Roanna stumbled, her knees too wobbly to hold her upright. She grabbed her horse's mane, clenching her

fingers on the coarse hair and letting the big animal take her weight as she leaned against him. All color washed out of her face as she stared at Webb.

"What?" she gasped.

"I told you," he said in a savage tone.

"What happened in Nogales won't happen again."

An icy hollow formed in the pit of her stomach. My God, she had misunderstood. She'd misread that expression on his face. He hadn't wanted her at all, he'd been angry about something. She had wanted so desperately for him to want her that she had ignored everything he'd said and listened only to her own eternal, hopeless longing. She had just made a colossal fool of herself, and she thought she would die of shame.

"I'm sorry," she managed to choke out, backing away from him. The well-trained horse backed up, too, keeping pace with her.

"I didn't mean-I know I promised-Oh, God!" With that despairing wail, she threw herself onto the horse's back and kicked him into a gallop.

She heard him yell something, but she didn't stop. Tears blurred her eyes as she bent over the horse's neck. She didn't think she would ever be able to face him again, and she didn't know if she would ever be able to recover from this final rejection.

Webb stared after her, his own face white, his hands knotted into fists at his side. He cursed himself, using every vicious term he'd ever heard. God, he couldn't have handled that any worse! But he'd been in an agony of desire all day, and when she had thrown herself against him like that, he'd lost it. The red tide of lust had swamped him, and he'd stopped thinking, plain and simply. He'd have pushed her to the ground and taken her right there, pounded her into the dirt, but she had pulled away from him and her head had fallen back as limply as any rag doll's, and he'd realized how roughly he was treating her.

He'd forced her into bed with him in Nogales, using blackmail as a means of slaking his lust for her. This time he'd been about to use brute force. He'd hauled himself back from the edge, but just barely. God, just barely. He had only kissed her, hadn't even touched her breasts or taken off any of her clothes, and he'd been on the verge of orgasm. He could feel the dampness of preliminary semen on his underwear. And then he'd pushed her away-Roanna, who had already suffered so much rejection that she had withdrawn from everyone rather than give them the power to hurt her again. Only he retained that power, he was her only vulnerability, and with raw, savage frustration blinding him, he had pushed her away. He'd wanted to explain, to say that he didn't want to take advantage of her the way he had in Nogales. He wanted to talk to her about that night; he wanted to ask when her period was due, if she was already late. But the clumsy words that had come out of his mouth had been like a blow to her, and she had fled before he could say anything else.

There was no point in trying to catch her. Her horse wasn't the fastest thing on four legs, but then neither was his. She had the advantage of weighing about half what he did, and being the better rider to boot. Chasing after her would be a wasted effort, and hard on his mount in this heat.

But he had to talk to her, had to say something, anything, that would chase the haunted, empty look from her eyes.

Roanna didn't go back to the house. She wanted only to hide and never have to face Webb again. She felt shredded inside, and the pain was so new and raw that she simply couldn't face anyone.

She knew she couldn't avoid him forever. She was bound to Davencourt for as long as Lucinda lived. Somehow, tomorrow, she would find the strength to see him and pretend that nothing had ever happened, that she hadn't literally thrown herself at him again. Tomorrow she would have her protective shell rebuilt; maybe some cracks would show where she had mended it, but the walls would hold. She would apologize, pretend it hadn't been important. And she would endure.

She stayed away for the rest of the afternoon, stopping at a shady creek to water the horse and let him graze on the soft, fresh grasses nearby. She sat in the shade and blanked her mind, letting the time drip away as she did at night when she was alone and the sleepless hours stretched before her. Anything could be gotten through, one second at a time, if she refused to let herself feel.

But when the purple and lavender shades of twilight began to darken the world around her, she knew she couldn't delay any longer and reluctantly mounted the horse and turned his head toward Davencourt. An anxious Loyal came out to meet her.

"Are you all right?" he asked. Webb must have been in a black mood when he returned, but Loyal didn't ask what had happened; that was her business, and she'd tell him if she wanted. But he did want to know if she was physically okay, and Roanna managed to nod.

"I'm fine," she said, and her voice was steady, if a trifle husky sounding. Odd; she hadn't cried, but still the strain was evident in her tone.

"You go on up to the house," he said, his brow still furrowed with concern.

"I'll take care of the horse."

Well, that was twice in one day. Her protective shell must not be as far along in reconstruction as she'd hoped. She was tired enough, devastated enough, that she simply said, "Thanks," and dragged herself toward the house.

She thought about sneaking up the outside stairs again, but somehow that seemed like too much effort. She had sneaked up those stairs too often in her life, she thought, instead of facing things. So she walked up the front steps, opened the front door, took the main stairs. She was halfway up them when she heard the thud of boot heels and Webb said from the foyer, "Roanna, we need to talk."

It took every ounce of strength she had, but she turned to face him. If anything, he looked as strained as she felt. He was standing at the foot of the stairs, his hand on the newel post and one foot on the first step, as if prepared to come after her if she didn't obey. His eyes were hooded, his mouth a grim line.

"Tomorrow," she said, her voice soft, and turned away . and he let her go. With every step she expected to hear him coming after her, but she reached the top of the stairs and then her room, unhindered.

She took a shower, dressed, went down for supper. Her instinct was to hide away in her room, just as it had been to take the back stairs, but the time for that was past. No more hiding, she thought. She would face what she had to face, handle what she had to handle, and soon she would be free.

Webb watched her broodingly during supper, but afterward he didn't try to maneuver her into a private conversation. She was tired, more exhausted than she thought she'd ever been before, and though with what had happened weighing on her mind she doubted she would even doze that night, still she wanted to lie down, had to lie down. She said good-night to everyone and returned to her room.

As soon as she stretched out in her comfortable bed, she felt the odd, limp weightiness of drowsiness come over her. Whether it was the ride, the accumulated lack of sleep, the stress, or a combination of all of it, she fell deeply asleep.

Click to listen highlighted text!