Main Rafe, the Maverick

Rafe, the Maverick

,
0 / 0
How much do you like this book?
What’s the quality of the file?
Download the book for quality assessment
What’s the quality of the downloaded files?
Year:
2017
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9781101969342
Series:
Loveswept 167; Shamrock 1
File:
EPUB, 1.15 MB
Download (epub, 1.15 MB)

You may be interested in Powered by Rec2Me

 

Most frequently terms

 
0 comments
 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

Rafferty

Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 279 KB
0 / 0
2

Radioactive

Year:
2016
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 6.10 MB
0 / 0
Rafe, the Maverick is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

2017 Loveswept Ebook Edition

Copyright © 1986 by Kay Hooper

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

LOVESWEPT is a registered trademark and the LOVESWEPT colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Originally published in paperback in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in 1986.

Ebook ISBN 9781101969342

Cover design: Diane Luger

Cover photograph: solominviktor/Shutterstock

randomhousebooks.com

v4.1

ep





Contents


Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Preface



Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Dedication

By Kay Hooper

About the Author





Preface


It was said that the Delaneys were descended from Irish kings and were still kissing cousins to half of Europe’s royalty. Being more than an ocean away, Europe’s royalty could scarcely confirm this.

Luckily for the Delaneys.

Old Shamus Delaney was wont to speak reminiscently of various cattle reivers, cutthroats, and smugglers in his family, but only when good Irish whiskey could pry such truths out of him. Sober, he held to it tooth and nail that the Delaneys were an aristocratic family—and woe to any man who dared dispute him.

They were a handsome family: tall and strong of body, quick and keen of mind. Nearly all of them had dark hair, but their eyes varied from Kelly-green to sky-blue, and it seemed at least one person of every generation boasted black eyes that could flash with Delaney temper or smile with Delaney charm.

None could deny that charm. And none could deny that the Delaneys carved their empire with their own hands and wits. Royalty they;  may not have been, but if Arizona had been a country, the Delaneys would have been kings.

Whatever his bloodlines, Shamus Delaney sired strong sons, who in turn passed along the traits suitable to building an empire. Land was held in the teeth of opposition, and more was acquired until the empire spread over five states. Various businesses were tried; some abandoned and some maintained. Whenever there was a call to battle, the Delaney men took up arms and went to war.

Many never came home.

In the first generations, an Apache maiden caught a roving Delaney eye, and so the blood of another proud race enriched Delaney stock. Sometime before the turn of this century a Delaney daughter fell in love with a Spanish don who really could claim a royal heritage. She was widowed young, but her daughter married a Delaney cousin, so there was royal blood of a sort to boast of.

They were a canny lot, and clan loyalty was strong enough to weather the occasional dissensions that could tear other great families apart. The tides in their fortune rose and fell, but the Delaney luck never entirely deserted them. They built a true dynasty in their adopted land, and took for their symbol the shamrock.

They were a healthy family, a lucky family, but not invulnerable. War and sickness and accidents took their toll, reducing their number inexorably. Finally there was only a single Delaney son controlling the vast empire his ancestors had built. He, too, answered the call to battle in a world war, and when it was over, he answered another call—this one from the land of his ancestors. He was proud to find the Delaney name still known and respected, and fierce in his newfound love for the land of his family’s earliest roots.

But his own roots were deeply set in the soil of Arizona, and at last he came home. He brought with him a bride, a true Irish colleen with merry black eyes and a soft, gentle touch. And he promised her and himself that the Delaney family would grow again.

While his country adjusted to a life without war, and prosperity grew, Patrick Delaney and his wife, Erin, set about building their family. They had three sons: Burke, York, and Rafe.

As the boys grew, so did the empire. Patrick was a canny businessman, expanding what his ancestors had built until the Delaney family employed thousands. Ventures into mining and high finance proved lucrative, and the old homestead, Killara, expanded dramatically.

By the time twenty-one-year-old Burke was in college, the Delaney interests were vast and complex. Burke was preparing to assume some of the burden of the family business, while nineteen-year-old York was graduating from high school, and seventeen-year-old Rafe was spending every spare moment on a horse, any horse, at the old Shamrock Ranch.

Then tragedy struck. On their way to Ireland for a long-overdue vacation, Patrick and Erin Delaney were killed in a plane crash, leaving three sons to mourn them.

Leaving three sons…and a dynasty.





Chapter 1


“Dammit, Tom! Grab his head!” Rafe Delaney picked himself up from the dirt for the third time and scowled through the kicked-up dust of the corral at the plunging, squealing black stallion they’d named Diablo…for a reason.

Tom Graham managed to tie the stallion to the post in the center of the corral, swiftly moving his lanky frame when Diablo lashed out viciously with both forelegs. Limping a bit from an earlier kick, Tom crossed the corral to stand beside his boss. “Let ’im settle down some,” he suggested. “And us too. Been a long time since we’ve had to saddle-break a real wild one.”

Brushing off his jeans, Rafe agreed with a nod. It had been a long time. Training horses to accept riders was accomplished by much calmer and gentler methods these days. Unless a renegade like Diablo came along. For weeks now he’d thrown Rafe at least twice a day. When he couldn’t dislodge his rider any other way, he simply threw himself over backward—a dangerous and deadly habit in a horse.

Rafe was near the point of admitting defeat, something he’d never done before. Only the Thoroughbred’s worth as a stud had convinced Rafe to buy the horse that no one had been able to handle in six years of trying. But if Diablo couldn’t be handled, he was certainly too dangerous to breed. Heaven only knew what insane traits he’d pass on to offspring.

“May I try?”

Rafe swung around to see a kid sitting on the top rail of the fence. If she stood five feet tall, he thought fleetingly, it would only be because of the heels on her English-style, knee-high boots. Jeans molded her slender legs and hips, and a white cotton blouse showed tanned forearms and throat. Her long blond hair was caught in ponytails beneath each ear, and her face was shadowed by a billed cap. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but he couldn’t be sure what it was.

“I don’t know who you are, kid,” Rafe said impatiently, “but I don’t make it a habit to watch cheerful suicides! If you’re looking for someone—”

“I am.” She dropped lightly to the ground inside the corral and approached him, looking even smaller than he’d imagined her to be. She halted before him and met his stare, her own violet eyes amused but slightly wary. “I’m looking for you, Mr. Delaney. I’m Maggie O’Riley—and if the thirty-day trial works out, I’m your new trainer.”

Rafe heard Tom choke in astonishment, but his own attention was entirely focused on the woman standing before him. And, at twenty-six years of age, she was a woman. He remembered all the information in her letter of application. And all the glowing recommendations regarding her ability with horses. And he remembered…“You looked much bigger on that hunter at Madison Square Garden, Miss O’Riley.”

She smiled just a little. “He wasn’t as big as he looked,” she said. “Made me look bigger.”

“You’re still too damn small,” he said with the frankness that had gotten him into trouble more than once.

It got him into trouble again.

Slender shoulders squared and violet eyes glared into his with no softness at all. “I’d heard that Shamrock was an open-minded, progressive ranch, Mr. Delaney. I hadn’t expected to be condemned for lack of inches. Just for the record, I’ve handled horses all my life, from training ring to show ring, and I’ve never yet been thrown twice by the same horse. Not, I may add, because I didn’t get back on.” She glanced pointedly at the dust on Rafe’s jeans.

“Now, look…” he began in the modified lion’s roar that would have warned anyone who knew him to hide until the storm passed.

“No, you look!” she snapped, staring up at him fiercely. “I was promised thirty days trial, and that’s what I’ll get. I won’t be refused before getting a chance to prove myself. And I’ll start,” she finished with a nod toward Diablo, “with that horse.”

“The hell you will! The best horsemen in the Southwest have tried that horse for six years—and you think you can break him? You couldn’t hold his head up, and he’d toss you like a rag doll on the first jump!”

“Are you a betting man, Mr. Delaney?” she asked icily.

He glared at her.

She glanced up at the blazing midday sun, ignoring his silence. “I’ll ride that horse by sunset—or I’ll leave, and you can find yourself a nice, big trainer for your horses.”

“You’re on,” he said instantly.

Maggie O’Riley nodded calmly. “Fine. Do you mind getting the saddle off him, please?”

“Why?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because I won’t handle a horse someone else has saddled. And I’ll need a dandy brush and some water.”

Rafe’s black brows rose, but he merely gestured toward the nearest of the many long barns. “Tackroom’s to the left of the hall. Help yourself.”

By the time Maggie returned with the brush and a pail of water, Rafe and his foreman had managed to get Diablo unsaddled, though not without a good deal of sweating and swearing. The big horse stood tied to the post in the center of the corral, lathered and enraged. As Maggie leaned over the top rail to set the pail inside, then climbed easily over the fence, Diablo was furiously trying to tear his hitching post out of the ground.

“He’s all yours,” Rafe told her sardonically.

“What’s his name?”

“Diablo—and he earned it.”

She glanced at Rafe coolly, then picked up the pail and headed for the big horse. As she drew closer to the animal, it seemed to Rafe she looked smaller and smaller. The contrast between more than half a ton of devil-horse and a hundred pounds or so of woman was ridiculous, and Rafe began to have second thoughts.

“Tom, get ready in case he charges,” he said quickly. “That damn horse’ll kill her.” Both he and the older man braced themselves to race forward and save the tiny woman from certain mauling, if not death.

However…

She set the pail down out of reach of the stallion, then approached him slowly and steadily. Diablo screamed and lashed out with his forelegs, but she never hesitated. Halting just a couple of feet from him, she stood motionless. The stallion began to quiet, his white-rimmed eyes still wildly suspicious and his ears flicking nervously, and the two tensely waiting men caught the woman’s faint, wordless crooning. They exchanged puzzled glances, then turned their attention back to the center of the corral.

Maggie remained exactly where she was for nearly half an hour, her patience incredible. She stepped closer to the horse only when he was finally still, then walked steadily to his head. Diablo made a clearly halfhearted attempt to bite her, which she evaded easily. Using the dandy brush, she began gently stroking the horse’s wet neck and shoulders, still crooning wordlessly.

She brushed him from neck to rump before getting the pail and allowing the horse a few mouthfuls of water. The ritual was repeated twice more, by which time Diablo was standing perfectly quiet, his eyes no longer white-rimmed. Then she untied the stallion and led him at a calm walk around the corral while he cooled and the sweat dried on his gleaming body.

The two silently watching men were more relaxed now, though both were nonetheless ready for instant action. They were all too aware that any stallion could be one of the most dangerous, unpredictable animals on earth. Especially this one.

But as they waited throughout the long, hot afternoon, it became clear that Diablo—for whatever inscrutable equine reason—had decided to bend his proud neck to a mistress rather than a master. Before the men’s astonished eyes the stallion even nudged her affectionately as she was strapping the hated saddle on his back.

And when the sun was still a good hour above the horizon, Maggie swung lightly into the saddle and loped the big horse sedately around the corral. Diablo pinned his ears back each time he passed the men, but was otherwise a model of calm obedience.

“Boss,” Tom said slowly, “didn’t you hire her to handle those new gaited horses you bought?”

Too much a horseman to feel jealousy at Maggie’s skill, Rafe was watching her with admiration. “Yeah,” he said. “I saw her ride hunters and gaited horses in New York, and when I asked around for a trainer, she was recommended. She’s a top money-winner on the East Coast, and she’s ridden for every major stable you could name. According to her letter, she’d decided to leave the circuit and take a permanent job as trainer.” Rafe grinned suddenly at his foreman. “And I think we got a bargain, Tom.”

Tom grinned in response, his faded blue eyes twinkling. “You’ll have to eat crow, boss.”

“Don’t I know it! Well, she proved me wrong. If she can handle that hellion, she can handle any other horse we’ve got. She’s earned the right to gloat.”

But Maggie didn’t gloat. Dismounting from Diablo, she merely said, “I’d like to stable him myself.”

“This way,” Rafe said. Tom swung the gate open, and Rafe led the way to Diablo’s stable. He watched silently as she unsaddled and groomed the stallion. She still looked incredibly small and delicate next to the big horse, but Rafe didn’t have to be hit over the head to absorb a lesson: She was bigger than she looked.

“Miss O’Riley,” he said formally as soon as Diablo was contentedly munching hay in his stable, “if you still want to work for a hotheaded Irishman, the job’s yours—and never mind the trial period.”

She faced him solemnly, making him realize her tempers were as quickly over as his own. “I’m Irish, too, Mr. Delaney, and somewhere back among my ancestors, the name O’Riley meant ‘warlike.’ I can take it if you can.”

They shook hands gravely, then both began to laugh.

“I’m Maggie,” she said.

“And I’m Rafe. No formality around here. Happy to have you aboard, Maggie.”

“Happy to be here. I think,” she added cautiously.

Rafe winced. “My big mouth. But you have to admit you looked like a kid sitting on that fence.” When she rolled her eyes, he said, “And you’ve heard that before, I take it.”

“Constantly.” Maggie had weighed up her employer by now, taking her own impressions and comparing them to what she’d heard about Rafe Delaney and Shamrock Ranch. As they walked toward the ranch house she listened with only half an ear as he briskly described the layout of the place. She knew the layout of Shamrock because she’d done thorough research before applying for the position.

She’d also done research on Rafe Delaney. He was, quite literally, one third of a dynasty. It was said by some that the Delaney brothers didn’t own all of Arizona simply because a reprobate ancestor had lost part of it in a crooked poker game shortly before the Civil War. That reprobate’s smarter—and luckier—ancestors had trundled their covered wagons across virgin America, fighting indians all the way, only to fall in love with land a far cry from the Old Country.

And now, the twentieth-century descendants of all that vital blood comprised one of the last true dynasties. There were only three Delaneys now, Maggie knew. At thirty-six Burke was the oldest; he controlled the finances for the family. York, thirty-four, handled the oil and mining properties. And Rafe, thirty-two, managed Shamrock Ranch, which was known throughout the country for producing magnificent Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and Quarter horses.

All three brothers were unmarried.

Maggie glanced covertly at her new boss as they walked companionably up the wide lane to the ranch house. She’d never seen the other two Delaney brothers, but Rafe certainly showed evidence of his rakish heritage. Irish, Mexican, and Indian—heaven knew what tribes!—blood had produced in this brother a curious wild gypsy appearance. His black hair was thick and a bit shaggy, a stubborn lock falling over his forehead. Winged brows flew above eyes of gleaming ebony, eyes that had a laughing devil in them.

His nose had been broken at some point since it was now faintly crooked, and his smile…his smile, Maggie thought wryly, could melt an iceberg. He had the high cheekbones and the bronze skin of his triple heritage, and the broad-shouldered, whipcord-lean frame of an active man who used every muscle in his work. And beautiful hands, long-fingered, strong, graceful. The kind of hands, she mused, that could handle a newborn foal with gentleness, a powerful stallion with firmness, and a woman with tenderness.

Instantly she pushed the last thought out of her mind.

As to personality, Maggie had heard some and deduced some. By reputation, he was a true horseman with endless patience for the animals he handled and the people in his employ. From all reports Rafe “took care” of his people as the Delaneys had always taken care of their own.

There was clearly enough Irish blood left in him to produce a respectable tot of blarney. He had the deep, lilting voice of a born charmer, and if he hadn’t broken a few hearts in the last fifteen years or so, Maggie didn’t know her own sex. Her meeting with him had revealed a temper that was quickly over, but as dangerous as a thunderhead for the duration. She’d heard it said that Rafe could laugh off any insult to himself, but would instantly go to the mat—literally—over any slight to his brothers.

But once the fight was over, he tended to help bandage his enemies and buy a round of drinks to show there were no hard feelings. Hotheaded he certainly was, but Maggie had heard a great deal about his kindness and generosity. He was apparently the kind of man children and animals adored, other men sincerely liked, and women could love with disastrous ease.

Disastrous because in roughly ten years of cutting a bachelor swath through all points west of the Mississippi—and, according to rumor, a great deal of Europe the summer after college—Rafe’s roguish fancy had been, to say the least, fickle. Maggie had heard no breath of scandal, but it seemed Rafe had successfully avoided numerous matrimonial snares and several almost compromising situations. She had no doubt he’d been charming; quite likely he’d been genuinely distressed by tearful recriminations. The fact remained, though, that the man was a potential heartache for any woman dumb enough to take him seriously.

Granted, she thought, rumor abounded where the Delaney brothers were concerned, and not all of it was kind. But she had turned her listening ears to the bluntly honest grapevine composed of people in the horse business—breeders, riders, trainers, et cetera—and was reasonably sure she had a clear perspective on Rafe Delaney. In the surprisingly tight-knit community of horsemen and women, he was respected and trusted, his judgment held as expert, and his word concerning horses considered as good as gold.

Maggie knew of three different breeders who sincerely liked Rafe, encouraged and enjoyed his infrequent visits to their farms in pursuit of more stock, and trusted him implicitly. But each man made certain his daughter was out of town whenever Rafe visited. It was not, each insisted, that he didn’t trust the man. It was just that Rafe Delaney could charm the devil out of both his horns and tail—and daughters were sometimes silly….

She glanced aside to see his strong, perhaps even arrogant, profile. But humor curved his mouth and shimmered in the dark eyes. There was, she thought, a raw vitality in his movements, in his very presence. He was like a Thoroughbred: bold and confident and reckless in his strength.

The realization awoke something unfamiliar within Maggie, and she shied away from probing the feeling. But she couldn’t escape the sensation of restless, liquid heat stirring inside her.

Maggie reminded herself she was an employee of Shamrock Ranch and Rafe Delaney. Period. Rafe wanted to expand his operations to include gaited horses and possibly dressage, and he would hardly shell out a small fortune to his new trainer if that was a momentary interest on his part. He’d hired her to train horses, not provide a bit of light romance.

Disgusted with herself, Maggie wondered why she was even thinking about her new employer’s personal life. It was none of her business, after all. She’d struggled for years to gain respect in her profession, and now finally she had been hired as trainer for one of the top three ranches in the country. It was a feather to brighten any horsewoman’s cap, and she was certain to be too busy to think of romance at all.

Especially with the boss.

As they reached the top of the lane, Rafe saw Maggie’s Jeep and horse trailer parked near the house, and he suddenly remembered something. “You were bringing your two horses, weren’t you?” He looked down at the woman walking beside him, strongly aware of delicate features beneath the brim of her cap.

For all his easy charm Rafe tended to hold himself a bit aloof when meeting someone for the first time. He was surprised to realize how attracted he was to this woman. It wasn’t her beauty, he thought, but the strength and wariness in her eyes that intrigued him. That, and the graceful way she moved. As he stared at her, he almost forgot his own question. There was something about her direct violet eyes that had a curious effect on his breathing.

She nodded. “One of your men showed me where I could stable my horses before I went looking for you.” As they passed the trailer she added, “They’re young. Calypso, my mare, is a Tennessee Walking Horse and Dust Devil, my stallion, is an American Saddlebred. Both of them are five-gaited.”

“Champions?” he asked, a gleam in his eyes.

Reading the gleam accurately, Maggie smiled. “Champions. And excellent bloodlines. If your experiment works out and you decide to start breeding—”

“You’ll work out something with me and let yours stand at stud?” he finished hopefully.

Very conscious of the charm in Rafe’s grin, Maggie reminded herself yet again that this man was her boss. “I imagine we could work out something if you wanted to,” she said mildly.

“Great!” Rafe paused at the neat walkway leading to a sprawling Spanish stucco ranch house, a peculiar hesitancy in his expression as he gazed toward the front door. Then he sighed and led the way up the walk. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starved. We can talk about what I’m hoping to accomplish with this new venture over dinner, all right?”

“Fine.”

He hesitated yet again on the tiled porch, looking down at her a bit uncertainly. “There’s…just one thing I should mention.”

“What?” she asked warily.

“Well, it’s not an intent to ravish, so you can stop looking like that,” he said, his eyes filled with laughter.

Maggie could feel herself flushing wildly, which was a hell of a note, because she wasn’t a blushing kind of woman. “What,” she said evenly, “did you want to mention?”

His smile may have been trying to hide but, if so, it was failing. “As I’m sure you recall, part of your salary is the use of a house in which to live. All my cottages are full except for one nobody’s lived in for years. It’ll be a nice place when the army of workmen I threw into it gets finished, but that may be a week or more. We’re so far away from anything that it’d be ridiculous for you to stay anywhere but here at the ranch. So,” he finished plaintively, “if I provide a lock for your bedroom door, would you mind staying here in the main house until yours is ready? I have a housekeeper for propriety’s sake.”

“Very funny,” she managed, feeling herself flush again, but fighting a giggle at his solemn face and laughing eyes.

“You’ve been listening to gossip,” he accused, feigning pain. “I only ravish maidens when the moon’s full, so if you hear me baying, bolt your door.” He sighed. “Condemned and hanged without even a trial.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“You did no such thing.”

“Take it as read,” she murmured.

Rafe appeared to consider the matter. “Just this once, then, but next time I’ll demand a full-scale apology. Simply because gossips insist I’ve a tail secreted in one pant leg—”

“All right!”

Deadpan, Rafe swung open one of the big, heavy double doors. “Come into my parlor…”

Mentally berating herself both for listening to gossip and for letting this smooth-talking Irishman charm her, Maggie swept regally past him into the house—and stopped dead.

From the foyer she could see several rooms: a den, what looked like a library, and a formal dining room. A hallway led off to the right to what was most likely the bedroom wing of the large house. But it wasn’t the layout of rooms that held Maggie’s startled attention, it was the incredible clutter. There was nothing dirty about the house, but the profusion of things that should have been put away was amazing.

A tall stack of newspapers graced the foyer table, the bottom layers yellowed by passing time. Riding whips and spurs, along with at least three separate pairs of Western boots, were visible in the den, and magazines had overflowed the coffee table to fall haphazardly onto the floor. Books were scattered here and there, as were pillows rightly belonging on the couch. It was a mess.

Instinct told Maggie that Rafe was not that sloppy and, besides, he’d said he had help. “I thought you said you have a housekeeper.”

He sighed. “For my sins, I do.”

She looked up to see that peculiar hesitancy in his eyes again. “An old girlfriend getting even?” she asked dryly, then winced inwardly. Why couldn’t she get off that particular subject? But Rafe was laughing.

“If it were only that! Unfortunately my problem is a bit more complicated. Obviously I have the world’s worst housekeeper.”

“Ever thought of getting another?” Maggie suggested politely.

“Dammit, I can’t.” Raking one hand through his thick hair, he looked down at her dolefully. “Kathleen’s been with the family longer than I have. After our parents were killed, she started keeping house for my oldest brother. Burke put up with her until he couldn’t take it anymore, then passed her on to York. When York couldn’t take her anymore, he passed her on to me. But I didn’t have anybody to pass her on to, so now I’m stuck with her.”

Maggie choked on a laugh.

“I try to keep things neat myself,” he went on, “but with so much work to do outside…Kathleen can’t cook very well, although she hasn’t poisoned me yet. I average losing at least one shirt a week in the laundry. Heaven knows how, exactly, and she certainly doesn’t. And the hell of it is”—he stared around him, bewildered—“she cleans. I mean, I’ve seen her do it. She dusts and polishes and mops and vacuums, but somehow it never looks as if she does.”

“I don’t suppose,” Maggie said unsteadily, “she’d consider retiring?”

“Fifteen years until she’s sixty-five,” Rafe said despairingly, “but she’ll never retire. She’s looking forward to ‘doing for your sons, Mr. Rafe.’ If only I had a third cousin to send her to…”

Maggie leaned against the archway leading off to the right and laughed herself silly. By the time she straightened and wiped her streaming eyes, Rafe had gone outside to the Jeep and returned with her two bags.

“This can’t be all your worldly possessions,” he said, hefting the bags.

“No,” she agreed, “but I was thinking of the thirty-day trial. Most of my things are in storage with friends. When the house is ready, I’ll send for them.” It occurred to Maggie as she followed him to the bedroom wing that Rafe Delaney had quite effortlessly charmed her into his house. She decided to think about that later.

He led her past half a dozen bedrooms, then deposited her bags just inside the door of the room at the end of the hall. It was a light, airy bedroom–sitting room with sliding glass doors opening out onto the veranda at the back of the house. A large bathroom was to the left, and double closets to the right. Decorated in restful shades of blue and green, it was surprisingly neat, and Maggie couldn’t help but look at Rafe questioningly.

Leaning against the doorjamb, he grinned disarmingly. “Yesterday was Kath’s day off, and I hired my foreman’s sixteen-year-old daughter to get this room ready for you.”

Maggie didn’t ask why he hadn’t made a similar arrangement for the remainder of the house. She knew why. It would have hurt Kathleen’s feelings, and he couldn’t bring himself to do that.

She smiled. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to take a shower and change before dinner.”

Rafe nodded agreeably, straightening away from the jamb. “I’m going to do the same. Then,” he added dryly, “I’ll see what Kath’s taken out of the freezer for our so-called meal. Just come out whenever you’re ready.” He closed the door behind him as he left.

Maggie stared at the closed door for a long moment, lost in thought. Was she being unfair to Rafe by accepting his reputation as truth? He had surprised and disconcerted her with his instant perception and casual references to that reputation. The question was, Had he played truth for laughs, or had he played false gossip for laughs?

Was Rafe Delaney a reckless heartbreaker, or simply an attractive man whose wealth and charm had made him notorious?

As she unpacked, Maggie reminded herself yet again that his romantic reputation had nothing to do with her. How weak, how uncomfortably weak that was beginning to seem to her. Dammit, she thought, the man was attractive, and she was having a difficult time keeping him in the neat mental pigeonhole labeled BOSS.

Methodically, she finished unpacking, then took a quick shower. After dressing in fresh clothing she braided her long hair into a single neat plait and tried to define her reaction to Rafe.

The first impression had been of a strong-willed, temperamental man, his face a bit too unconventional for good looks. The devil brows above black eyes had been too sardonic for handsomeness, his unsmiling mouth too grim. But then he had smiled. The deep voice had been amused, the eyes willingly acknowledging he’d been at fault, and Maggie had felt her heart flutter. He had looked at her with respect and admiration, charm, making his unconventional features exude warmth and sincerity.

Maggie gazed unseeingly at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. What would Rafe’s personal magnetism do to her plans? She had decided a year ago to quit the gypsy life-style of following the show circuit; she was more than ready for a home. She’d spent the better part of the past ten years on the move. Eventually she wanted to own a ranch or stud farm, and had begun planning carefully for that years ago.

The invitation to work for Shamrock fit perfectly into her plans, and so did Rafe’s obvious delight at the prospect of having her stallion stand at stud for his mares. Shamrock didn’t stint on stud fees, so she could look forward to making good money for her stallion’s services. Maggie had found out that Rafe had recently purchased a very young American Saddlebred stallion and three young mares, as well as a Tennessee Walking stallion and two mares, one of them already in foal to a champion stud.

Shamrock did nothing on a small scale, and she’d heard only recently that Rafe had expressed interest in a score of young mares out of three top Kentucky farms.

Leaving the bathroom, Maggie paced her bedroom restlessly. Professionally she couldn’t have been in a better position. She’d been given the job as trainer for gaited horses at one of the most prestigious horsebreeding operations in the country. If she did well—and she intended to—it could only enhance her reputation. And she would have the distinction of building Shamrock’s reputation for champion gaited horses. It would be her training on display in show rings, which would in turn bring in mares from other establishments to breed with Shamrock stallions.

No, professionally she was exactly where she wanted to be.

Personally, however…

“Personally you’re an idiot,” she told herself aloud, fiercely. “Your work is enough. It’s always been enough.”

Maggie was hardly a starry-eyed girl dreaming of Prince Charming. Virtually on her own since she was sixteen and determined on a demanding, competitive profession, she had learned early to fight for what she wanted. She had friends, both male and female, ranging from the wealthy owners of the horses she showed to the stablehands, who were little more than kids. There had been interested men at various times, but she’d had her gaze fixed on a distant pinnacle of professional achievement and had kept relationships on a friendly basis.

But now Maggie had a curiously hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. She had reacted to Rafe Delaney more strongly than to any man she’d ever met, far too aware of his charming personality and drawn powerfully to him in spite of distrust. That hardly boded well for her professional goals. Whether or not she discounted his reputation, her own attraction to her boss posed a potential problem.

Absently she halted her pacing and glanced down at her neat jeans and knit top, then swore softly. What did it matter how she looked? The man was her boss and nothing more. Nothing. Feeling grim, Maggie headed for the door.





Chapter 2


The instant Maggie walked into the den, Rafe rose from a deep armchair and asked, “Now what’ve I done?”

Since the men she knew weren’t in the habit of standing when she entered a room, Maggie was unwillingly impressed by his manners. She would find out eventually that all three of the Delaney men were “gentlemen” as far as their manners were concerned.

His question finally sank in, and she asked puzzledly, “What do you mean?”

“You look very fierce,” he explained. “I’m just assuming I’ve done something to upset you.”

“Of course not,” she said, feeling herself flush—again, dammit!

“I’m glad,” he said solemnly, clearly amused. “Here, sit down. Dinner, such as it is, will be ready in about an hour. Would you like a drink?”

“Whatever you’re having,” she managed to say, still a little unstrung. She sat down in an armchair across from his.

“Good Irish whiskey, of course,” he said cheerfully, heading for the bar in one corner. He fixed their drinks and carried hers to her before sinking down in his chair. He, too, had showered, his black hair still damp and a bit mussed. He was in jeans, and the sleeves of his white shirt were rolled back to show strong, tanned forearms.

Maggie felt her fingers itching with the desire to tangle in his thick, silky-looking hair, and frowned at her glass irritably. Enough was enough, for Pete’s sake! Why couldn’t she keep Rafe in his pigeonhole, and out of thoughts that could only be termed “personal”?

“You checked out Shamrock before you came, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Of course,” she answered honestly, meeting his quizzical gaze.

He nodded. “And I, of course, checked you out, Maggie.”

She’d expected nothing less.

Musingly, he said, “You’ve been showing professionally since you were sixteen—and winning. Gaited, hunt, dressage. Even a few summers in the rodeo circuit. You’ve been able to pick and choose your mounts for the past six years.

“You were born in Richmond, Virginia,” he went on impersonally. “Your mother died when you were a young girl, and your father took you along with him while he worked at various stables and ranches. He’s a name trainer of Grand Prix horses and is currently training in Europe. When you were sixteen, there was—according to various opinions I heard—a falling out between you and your father. I gather it had to do with a certain…competitiveness between the two of you. True?”

Maggie stared at him, but raised no objection to the personal history. She’d researched him just as thoroughly, after all. “True enough,” she said evenly.

Still impersonal, his gaze holding hers, Rafe went on. “The two of you shared a home for a while after that, but you were virtually on your own. Because you and your father disagreed on your choice of career, it was somewhat difficult for you to get a job. Your father’s highly respected, and no one wanted to hire his daughter when he made it more than obvious that he disapproved. Still, when he took a trip to Germany some years ago, you managed to find a stable owner who didn’t particularly care about your father’s opinion. You took a job in that stable, and delighted your employer by turning two Thoroughbred hunters from temperamental slugs into prizewinning jumpers. Within a year you were on your way to earning a reputation, and not even your father could hinder your advancement. You pleased your employer enough so that he gave you a secondhand horse trailer in decent shape. He mentioned you to other people, who in turn hired you to show their horses for a percentage of the winnings.

“You finished high school at night, then took college courses at night, too, since you worked every day. You doubled up on most of your courses, because you often had to show at night. By the time you were twenty, you’d earned enough to buy a couple of fairly cheap young horses. You trained them, showed them successfully, and sold them at a profit. The next two horses you bought were slightly more expensive, and your profit after training and showing was larger. You began riding gaited horses and performing in dressage events, and were good enough in Grand Prix jumping to earn a place on the Olympic equestrian team. You won the gold in individual events, and the team took the gold primarily because you had the fastest clean round in the finals. And you rode your own horse.”

“Lady Fair,” Maggie said softly, her gaze a bit unfocused. “I had to put her down a year later.”

Rafe’s dark eyes showed quick sympathy, one horse lover to another, but he said nothing more about her lost horse. “I gather your father continued to disapprove, even though you’d become so successful?”

Her lips twisted in a bitter smile. “Because I’d become successful,” she said flatly. “He didn’t think I could do it. He told everyone I couldn’t. And…he never rode for an Olympic team.”

Rafe nodded, hearing not only her bitterness, but also her pain. “You left Grand Prix events for a while after that, concentrating on gaited horses. You bought and trained other horses, selling at a profit every time. Two years ago you bought your present horses as colts.” He grinned suddenly. “Calypso and Dust Devil—both of them with champion bloodlines and well on their way to being champions in their own right due to your training and showing. And when you received my letter offering a thirty-day trial, you bought that Jeep out front.”

It was a far more comprehensive history than Maggie had expected, and she reluctantly tipped a mental hat to his ability to ferret out information. But Rafe wasn’t finished.

“I talked to a few of my friends you’ve ridden for recently. I was told you’re a fine rider, an excellent trainer, and a model employee. You can work with any horse, get along with all kinds of people, don’t cause trouble, and if something makes you mad, you never take it out on a horse.” He smiled just a little, his gaze intent. “Your conduct in the ring is impeccable, you possess a vast amount of dignity for your young years, and your judgment with horses is nothing short of uncanny. If there were any personal criticisms directed toward you by former employers, they had to do with the belief that you’re a bit too serious.”

The last didn’t surprise Maggie, since she’d been told often that she should loosen up and enjoy herself more. It had always puzzled her to be told that. She was enjoying her life, she thought.

Commenting only on the information in general, she said, “If you knew all that before I came, why didn’t you think I could handle Diablo?”

“I told you,” he said. “You looked too damn small. I’ve wrestled with that hellion for weeks with no result. How did you do it?” he asked with honest interest.

“My father is a born horseman,” she said slowly, the praise clearly sincere—and difficult for her to express. “He was always…careless with money, so he was never able to afford a place of his own and always handled other people’s horses. He put me on horses before I could walk, taught me everything I know about them.” She paused, brooding on the complex temperament of a man who would teach her all that he knew, and then disapprove violently when she chose to use those teachings to build a career. Then she sighed and shrugged. “He used to say ‘You never broke a young horse, you gentled it.’ And no matter how wild the horse, he could gentle it within a day. He talked to them, treated them with the kind firmness a parent uses with a child.” She shrugged again. “And he taught me. I’ve never stopped to wonder why I’m successful with horses, or how I can gentle a wild one. I just do what he taught me to do.”

Listening intently, Rafe heard more than she said. He heard the source of her ambition, its roots deep in the father who had always been “careless with money” and forced always to work for others. He heard the determination of a young woman painfully estranged from her father because of that ambition—and because of her success. And he heard the deep love of a woman with horses in her blood and her soul.

Rafe had been born, as the saying went, with a silver spoon in his mouth, his family old, wealthy, and powerful. But he knew well the hard physical work that went hand in hand with horses. And he knew that for Maggie to have weathered roughly ten years in a profession in which hard physical labor was a daily thing, she had to be much stronger and tougher than she looked. And it had been twice as hard on her, he realized, because the father who could have smoothed the way for her had instead turned his back and made his disapproval painfully obvious.

After listening to her and sorting through the facts of her life, he knew that no step in her career had been taken by chance. Maggie meant to be a success, eventually her own boss, and the seriousness her previous employers had mentioned had taken her steadily up the career ladder in spite of her father.

Which explained, he thought, her wary distrust of her new employer’s reputation. She wanted no personal involvement to hinder her career, and Rafe knew well that gossip painted him a cheerful seducer. He wondered how that particular myth had gotten started. Heaven knew he’d been too busy since taking over the ranch to have time for any seducing, cheerful or otherwise.

As he studied Maggie, taking in the fine-boned, delicate face emphasized by her severe hairstyle, he realized that for the first time he was no longer accepting his reputation with equanimity.

In fact, it looked like it would be a hell of a complication.

She had won his respect by standing up to him with a challenge, and his admiration by handling Diablo. But his heart had been won in the flash of an instant, when she had laughed helplessly at his predicament with his housekeeper. Her violet eyes had gleamed with amusement, her small face had lit up with endearing warmth, and her quiet, cool voice had been husky and musical in laughter.

He’d had to step outside for more than her luggage, needing a moment or so to wrestle with the abrupt emotional jolt she’d given him.

Rafe was a normal man, not at all the rapacious charmer gossips portrayed. There had occasionally been women in his life, but the relationships had been casual on both sides, ending without regrets. He’d never been quite sure how his reputation originated, but suspected the very few golddiggers he had met and neatly sidestepped during the past years. Gossip born of frustration? Perhaps. He’d never really thought about it until now, but it seemed probable, and he could accept it without cynicism. A few ladies ambitious enough to try to catch a Delaney had sown seeds in frustration, and a reputation had grown.

And he hadn’t, he thought, helped matters by remaining blithely single and dating different women. But he’d wanted to find the right woman and get married. That was the irony of it. He’d searched consciously and unconsciously as most men did, but no woman had jolted his heart.

Until now.

And this lady, he knew, would do her damnedest to keep him at arm’s length because of his reputation and her own ambition.

He pulled himself from his musings to find her gazing at him curiously, and hoped no emotion had shown on his face.

If he only knew what a vain hope it was. Maggie had wondered why his black eyes had seemed so abruptly bleak and his strong jaw had tensed in determination. What was he thinking to bring an expression of resolution to his lean face? She wasn’t about to ask.

The expression was fleeting, though. He smiled at her, an elusive dimple appearing to the left of his mouth. “Your father obviously taught you well. Strictly speaking, Diablo isn’t one of the horses I hired you to handle, but if you wouldn’t mind…?”

“Glad to.” She returned his smile. “Do you want him trained any particular way? To show, I mean.”

“No, he’s seven years old now. I bought him to breed because his bloodlines are good, but he’s always been too wild. Train him any way you like. I just want him to learn to be handled without going berserk.”

“Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”

Briskly, he said, “You’ll have four Saddlebreds and three Walkers in your string to begin with. I’d like to show all of ’em next year if you think they’re ready. All except one mare in foal, that is. I have my eye on some good breeding stock, but we’ll need to build a reputation first in the show ring.”

Maggie was nodding, his plans exactly what she’d expected.

“All your stock’ll be in barn number four, along with whatever tack and equipment you’ll need. I’ve got the basics, and you can make a list of what else you want. I’ve hired six hands to work under you. All have experience with horses in general, but only one knows gaited. They’re your people, and you’ll train them any way you like.”

She lifted a questioning brow. “No…interference?”

Rafe shook his head. “None. Your barn, your stock, your people. You manage as you see fit. You’ll decide who handles the stock, who assists you in training, and who eventually shows. I have maintenance men to clean the stables, but you and your people are responsible for tack and equipment.” He smiled slightly. “The whole point of hiring a trainer was that I know next to nothing about gaited horses. I’ll expect you to know, whatever comes up, and you to make decisions concerning training. I’ll probably be watching pretty closely—not because I doubt your competence but because I’m interested.

“We have a permanent vet on the ranch, and three other trainers employed. They handle Quarter horses, Arabians, and Thoroughbreds. I’ll introduce you tomorrow. Tom Graham—the man who was with me in the corral—is general foreman. If you have a problem and can’t find me, talk to Tom. We also have a blacksmith and a few other specialists. And if we decide to tackle dressage, you’ll have your pick of horses to train.”

Maggie could say nothing for a moment, because it was much more than she’d dared hope for. Complete control….Granted, only time would tell if Rafe’s “hands-off” policy where her training was concerned would pan out, but she’d never been offered such complete authority. “I’ll try not to disappoint you,” she managed finally.

“You won’t disappoint me,” he said flatly.

She wondered how he could sound so certain. For the first time in years she questioned her own abilities. Could she handle the responsibilities he seemed so confident of?

Time would tell that too.

Rafe sighed. “You won’t disappoint me professionally, that is. Personally is another matter.”

Maggie felt the muscles of her face stiffen as she stared at him warily.

With an absurdly mournful look on his expressive face, Rafe sighed again. “I’m going to feel very uncomfortable if you keep looking for horns, or listening for a leer in every innocent word I say.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she muttered, feeling herself flush again.

“I’m not being ridiculous, I’m being honest. I can be honest, you know, in spite of what people say. Even when the moon’s full.” Realizing that Maggie wasn’t going to say a word, he went on.

“I have what I believe is a normal enthusiasm for the feminine half of humankind, but if you’ve been warned to expect seduction, I hope you’ll put it out of your mind.” He ignored her stifled protest, continuing in a calm tone, “I don’t make a habit of getting romantically involved with any of the ladies here on the ranch.”

Maggie was surprised, and it showed, because Rafe immediately responded.

“Yes, I employ other women. My Arabian trainer, for instance, is a woman. Also a score of assistants, quite a few riders, and a number of general stable hands. Some of them have been here for years,” he said blandly, “and I haven’t put the make on them…yet. Feel free to ask them.”

After a moment Maggie said, “I’m…sorry.”

“Accepted. If it’ll make you feel better, you’re not the first to come here expecting to have to lock your bedroom door. I have to fight my reputation just the way I’d guess that you have had to fight your size. Now I know you’re bigger than you look. Can you accept that I’m not quite what gossips paint me? For one thing, you know what ranches are like. I’m usually too damn busy for…uh, romance.”

He had a point, and Maggie absorbed it. She was being ridiculous, and his dry voice made her realize it. His black eyes were grave, containing no devil-laughter; his expression, serious. Fleetingly she wondered if he had to go to such pains to reassure each new female employee, then dismissed the question.

“Friends?” he asked lightly.

“Friends. And I am sorry, Rafe.”

“Don’t mention it.” He grinned. “Besides, after eating one of Kath’s meals, you may well wish seduction was all you had to worry about!”

Right on cue, heavy footsteps sounded and a round face peered around the doorway to the den, followed by the rest of Kathleen. She was fiftyish with a medium build and bright, merry blue eyes in an amiable face. Vivid red hair was wound around her head in a braided coronet, and she was dressed simply in a light blue housedress.

“Dinner, Mr. Rafe,” she said, her voice still containing a faint Irish brogue after more than thirty years on this side of the Atlantic.

He was on his feet, gesturing toward Maggie as she, too, rose from her chair. “Kathleen, this is Maggie O’Riley, our new trainer.”

The housekeeper gazed fixedly at Maggie, and Maggie’s eyes widened slightly. Kathleen’s round face took on an oddly eager expression and a pleased smile curved her lips. “Welcome to Shamrock, Miss Maggie,” she said softly.

While Maggie was replying suitably, clearly unaware of undercurrents, Rafe shot a quick look at his housekeeper. How on earth, he wondered, had the woman guessed so quickly? And she had guessed, because the only other woman he’d ever heard her address with that special affectionate formality was his mother.

As they made their way into the dining room, he made a mental note to be certain Kathleen didn’t ruin his chances because of a wrong word to Maggie. He’d just spent a great deal of effort in convincing her he had no rakish intentions toward her. The last thing he needed was for Maggie to find out too soon that his intentions were strictly honorable….

—

Years of getting up before dawn to attend to horses had molded an unbreakable habit with Maggie. She found herself wide awake and restless at five the next morning. The sky was still dark, the house silent, and she was clearly the first of the household to stir.

After a fruitless attempt to go back to sleep, she tossed back the covers and rose. By the time she had tidied her room and dressed herself in jeans, a short-sleeved blouse, and boots, and had braided her hair neatly, the sky was beginning to lighten. She turned off her bedside lamp, left her room, and quietly made her way to the kitchen.

Rafe had told her firmly to consider the house hers for the duration, to come and go as she liked. She wasn’t entirely certain that meant free run of Kathleen’s kitchen as well, but Maggie was ready for breakfast and eager to get started with her new job. Rafe had said he would show her all around the ranch and introduce her to everyone this morning, but she had no idea what time he meant to do that.

Maggie tidied the cluttered kitchen with the automatic movements of someone to whom disarray was anathema. She grimaced slightly when she realized what she’d done, but decided that Kathleen probably wouldn’t notice anyway.

She found what she needed with some difficulty and had to force herself not to rearrange both cabinets and pantry into more efficient order. Within moments she’d assembled the ingredients for an omelet and had coffee perking and fresh-squeezed orange juice standing ready on the small kitchen table.

The omelet was golden brown and the kitchen filled with enticing scents when Maggie looked up suddenly, some instinct telling her she was no longer alone.

Rafe stood in the doorway, and she had to hold back a laugh at the pensive expression on his lean face. He was gazing at the omelet the way a half-starved man would look at a feast, she thought.

“Good morning,” she said politely. “I hope you don’t mind—or that Kathleen won’t either. I was hungry.”

He cleared his throat. “Morning. No, I don’t mind, and Kath certainly won’t. I meant to tell you last night, but I forgot. Kath’s breakfasts are so lousy that I told her ages ago not to bother. I usually just scramble a few eggs or something.”

Maggie turned the fluffy omelet onto a plate and glanced at the ingredients she hadn’t used. “There’s more than enough for two,” she offered, still trying not to laugh.

His expression brightened, then turned regretful. “I didn’t hire you to cook,” he said uncomfortably.

Slightly uncomfortable herself because the only man she’d ever cooked for had been her father, Maggie merely set the plate on the table, said, “The coffee’s ready,” and turned back to the range to prepare a second omelet.

By the time her omelet was done, Rafe had poured coffee and juice for both of them, and he held her chair for her before sitting down across from her. He had done the same thing the night before, his manners seemingly automatic, and she wondered how long she’d feel awkward about accepting gestures he took for granted. She also wondered when she would begin to relax in the presence of her new boss.

The rather slapdash meal served to them the night before had kept the atmosphere between them both casual and humorous. Maggie had struggled more than once to choke back laughter at Rafe’s too expressive face as one barely edible dish succeeded another. But she had retired to her room somewhat hastily, the meal barely finished, because of an entirely different emotion.

Despite Kathleen’s shortcomings Rafe was still careful not to hurt the housekeeper’s feelings, and that concern had roused in Maggie a strange and inexplicable surge of tenderness. The emotion had disturbed her deeply last night, and was still disturbing her this morning. She tried to think of something light and casual to say to break the long silence between them. But her mind had gone blank, and it was Rafe who spoke first.

“You are a very good cook,” he said.

“Thanks. But omelets aren’t hard.”

“Every one of my attempts has been,” he said sadly. “Hard as rubber.”

She laughed, feeling her own tension ease. “I’ve had a lot of practice.”

“I’d ask you to give your recipe to Kath, but she’d only mangle it.”

She glanced up at him, then stared fixedly at her plate. Damn the man! she thought a bit wildly. How could he look so ridiculously wistful about an omelet? And she wasn’t really surprised to hear herself speak. “I get up early every day, and it’s just as easy to fix two breakfasts as one.”

She was so grimly unsettled by that point that if Rafe had reminded her a second time her job wasn’t cooking, she wouldn’t have said another word about the subject. Rafe, however, did no such thing.

“In that case,” he said solemnly, “I’ll play the fiddle at your wake.”

Maggie smiled. Getting up to take her plate to the sink, she said only, “Two questions.”

“Which are?”

“Can you play the fiddle?”

“I’ll learn. Second question?”

“What makes you think you’ll be around for my wake? In the nature of things, you know, you’ll predecease me.”

“The chances of that are even stronger than nature allows. My mother used to say I was born to be hanged.”

Maggie decided not to comment on that. Before she could say anything at all, a small flap at the base of the back door, unnoticed by her until then, swished open to admit a black cat. The cat sauntered across the kitchen with an air of belonging and leaped briefly to the counter before taking a second jump to land neatly on Rafe’s shoulder.

He had gotten to his feet to carry his own plate to the sink, and now stared at his passenger. “And where have you been all night?” he demanded severely.

Green eyes returned his stare for a moment, then the cat yawned widely to show an impressive set of teeth.

“Your familiar?” Maggie asked.

“A tomcat,” he answered dryly. “Like me.”

Rather hastily, she opened the dishwasher and began loading it. “What’s his name?” After a somewhat prolonged silence, she looked back at Rafe to find him clearly torn between reluctance and amusement. “His name’s a secret?”

“No.” Rafe sighed. “But after your remark, his name’s a bit too apt.”

“What is it?”

“Merlin.”

Maggie closed the dishwasher and straightened, fighting to keep an expressionless face. “I see. Sure he isn’t your familiar?”

“He’s not even my cat. At least—I suppose he is, but it was his decision rather than mine. He showed up late one night about a year ago. It was storming, and I let him in. He’s been here ever since.”

“It’s supposed to be good luck for a black cat to adopt you, especially during a storm. Why’d you name him Merlin?”

“I don’t know.” He looked at the cat bemusedly. “It just seemed a good name for him.”

“Merlin…” She laughed. “If you had Warlock as well as Merlin, people would begin to wonder.”

“Who—or what—is Warlock?” Rafe asked as they left the kitchen by the back door and headed for the barns. Merlin continued to ride on his shoulder with the ease of an old habit; obviously he was a companionable cat whenever not out courting.

“Warlock is a horse.” Maggie breathed in the early morning air with unconscious pleasure. “He’s a three-time national champion, and only four years old. He’s so black, his coat has a blue sheen. His only marking is a perfect white exclamation point between his nostrils. And his owner—Ted Hawkes of Blueridge Farm in Kentucky—won’t sell him for love or money. Rumor has it he’s been offered plenty of the latter.”

“How much is plenty?” Rafe asked, studying her profile and listening to the lilt in her voice.

“Well, I heard he’s been offered a quarter of a million. That isn’t so uncommon for Thoroughbred racehorses, but it’s a bit steep for a Walking Horse—even a champion.”

“It’s possible he could earn that much in winnings and stud fees, isn’t it?” Rafe asked thoughtfully.

“Yes…if he breeds true. But the oldest colt he’s sired hasn’t entered the show ring yet, so who can tell?”

“What’s your guess?”

Maggie was a little surprised at the question, but answered honestly. “Well, I rode him once when he was a two-year-old, and I’ve seen some of his foals. My best guess is that he’ll be a champion for years yet, and stand at stud well into old age. If he remains sound, that is.”

“Seems like he’d be a real asset for any stud farm,” Rafe commented casually.

—

Barn number four, Maggie’s domain, showed careful planning in layout, as did the other barns. It was a T-shaped structure. The crossbar of the T was an indoor training ring—necessary in this land of intense heat and strong sun—fifty feet wide and nearly a hundred feet long, with a firm and well-kept sand floor. The barn proper was composed of a hall fifteen feet wide with roomy stables on each side, along with a large tack and equipment room and a feed room. Dutch doors gave access to each stable, and the north row of stables also had Dutch doors opening out into individual paddocks to the rear. High above along the rows of stables and adding insulation against the heat, lofts were stacked with sweet-smelling hay. At each end of both barn and training ring, also high above, were huge fans to circulate air and help to cool the buildings.

It was a trainer’s dream, and Maggie couldn’t believe it was her domain. She was speechless.

Until she met Figure.

Entering the shaded coolness of the barn hall from the equally cool training ring, Maggie stopped at Rafe’s side to stare at the gray-and-white animal barring their way. Rheumy brown eyes stared at her balefully and long ears swiveled around to lie flat in unprovoked anger.

Merlin hissed, obviously annoyed, and leaped from Rafe’s shoulder to stalk back the way they’d come.

Maggie, having been around show horses all her life, knew a mascot when she saw one. Often high-strung horses became attached to stable companions and tended to remain calm in their presence. Older horses, ponies, donkeys, goats, cats, and dogs were sometimes so important to the show horses that they even accompanied them from show to show, riding companionably in the trailers with their friends.

“Mascot?” Maggie asked, gazing at the donkey.

Rafe sighed. “He thinks so. Maggie, meet Figure.”

She sent Rafe a half-incredulous, half-amused look. “You named him after the famous Morgan?”

He chuckled. “No. One of the definitions of the word is ‘a well-known personage.’ That’s what he thinks he is.”

She laughed softly. “He does have a certain air about him.”

“Doesn’t he? And I hate to do this to you, but I’m afraid you’re stuck with him—at least as long as you’re training Diablo.”

“They’re buddies?”

Rafe nodded. “I had Tom move Diablo here early this morning, and Figure came with him. Sorry, Maggie. He’s an ill-tempered old mountain burro and hates every living thing except that stallion.”

Maggie was unperturbed. “Oh, we’ll get along.”

“He bites,” Rafe warned.

“He won’t bite me,” she said calmly.

And that, Rafe found to his astonishment, turned out to be more than true: By the end of the day the damn burro was following her around like a puppy.

Rafe was even more astonished when he realized he was doing the same thing.





Chapter 3


Rafe had shown Maggie around the ranch, introducing her to everyone. They wound up at her barn, and Maggie had immediately gone to work. Getting out her own two horses, she saddled them while talking with apparent casualness to the people Rafe had hired to work with her. After working both horses herself, she then asked all six of her new apprentices to mount, two at a time, until all of them had ridden each horse. Only one of the riders was familiar with gaited horses; the other five particularly benefited from Maggie’s patience and the beautiful training of her horses.

By lunchtime she told Rafe that the two young women, Lisa and Pat, as well as Tyler, one of the young men, would be showing Shamrock horses by the following year. The remaining three men—Russell, Mike, and Brian—would need more time before showing.

“But Brian has shown gaited horses before,” Rafe said.

“Did he win?” Maggie asked, though it wasn’t really a question.

They were walking up the lane to the house for lunch, and Rafe felt his respect for the woman growing as he looked down at her. “No, I don’t think he did. How’d you know that?”

She frowned a little, gazing ahead. “He’s heavy-handed and overcues, and his seat is too forward. He’s also too ready to use his whip. He may not work out, Rafe.”

He nodded and said, “Your decision.”

She was, Rafe quickly found out, a very decisive lady. She also possessed the ability to command—and to do so without rousing even a flicker of resentment. By the end of the first day her apprentices had been briskly assigned duties, and all were clearly respectful of both her authority and her knowledge.

She also was not a woman who gave up easily or delegated the tricky or hard work to others. Watching her during the next few days, Rafe noted that she unerringly recognized both the horses—and the people—who needed the most careful handling. Rather than simply give up on Brian, she spent a great deal of time working patiently to correct his riding problems. And when a temperamental young Saddlebred showed off a few dangerous tricks, she handled him herself until some of his nasty habits were broken.

Rafe found his gaze drawn to her whenever she was within sight, and found himself searching for her when he couldn’t see her. He invented questions to ask her just to hear her voice—and to get her to focus on him rather than her work. He mocked himself silently for his inability to hold her attention. Rafe, the charming rake! In a horse race—he lost out to the horses.

He asked himself honestly if the attraction could possibly be one-sided. But Maggie seemed to be too aware of him for that to be the case. She avoided any physical contact with him, he noticed, and that was not so with everyone else. With her apprentices casual contact seemed just that—casual.

The hell of it was, Rafe thought, he could make her aware of him. But the tactics he’d have to use—wanted to use—would quite effectively destroy his claim that he never got involved with women on the ranch.

He spent every spare moment he was able to find or steal watching her work in the training ring, to the point that Tom Graham—on whom the burden of Rafe’s daily work fell—fiercely demanded a raise.

Both sheepish and startled by this reminder of his responsibilities, Rafe murmured only, “Sure, Tom.”

The foreman pushed his hat to the back of his head and stared at his boss for a long and, to Rafe, uncomfortable moment. Then he began to laugh, crinkling the fine network of wrinkles at the corners of his faded blue eyes. “Hell. That little lady’s got you corralled.”

Rafe assumed a total deafness and continued to observe Maggie riding Diablo in the ring.

Tom, who had watched Rafe grow up, leaned against the gate and gazed into the ring himself. “She’s a damn fine horsewoman,” he said. After a sidelong glance at his boss he added, “And ambitious, I’d say. Wants her own place. Not the kind who’d marry to get it either.”

Rafe sighed, abandoning his deafness. “Yeah, I know. And she’s about half convinced I’m the playboy of the Western world.”

“So what’re you goin’ to do about it?”

Frowning, Rafe considered the question. Again. He’d thought of little else for days now. What was he going to do about it? In spite of all his efforts Maggie was wary of him. They were rarely alone together. Breakfast was a time she clearly made a point of putting quickly behind them, and she always went to her room immediately after dinner.

Rafe knew himself to be hotheaded, but he was finding himself hot-blooded as well. These last nights had been pure hell. He had also grown increasingly nervous about Kathleen’s inability to hide her matchmaking hopes for him. Sooner or later Maggie was bound to notice the housekeeper’s misty-eyed looks and wistful sighs.

Kathleen was a potential problem. Rafe thought about that for a moment, then pushed it to the back of his mind, confident he’d come up with something sooner or later. He turned his attention again to the slender woman astride the gleaming devil-horse.

He knew himself to be a patient man in most regards, but too much proud blood flowed in his veins to allow him to wait patiently for the woman he wanted to rid herself of misconceptions and mistrust. Especially while most of her attention seemed fixed on her job.

“Boss?”

Rafe turned to find Tom gazing at him with an expression somewhere between uneasiness and amusement. “Boss, you aren’t goin’ to do somethin’ crazy, are you?”

Straightening from the gate, Rafe grinned at his foreman. “Crazy? Well, the rational approach hasn’t gotten me very far, has it?”

Tom nearly groaned. “Rafe, the last time I saw you in this mood, all hell broke loose!”

“That,” Rafe said cheerfully, “is a lie. I was in complete control of the situation.”

“Tell that to your brothers.” Tom was disgusted. “They’re the ones had to bail you out of jail!”

Ignoring this, Rafe said only, “Do me a favor and get Saladin out, will you?” He looked at his watch, murmuring to himself, “Ah….Just in time.”

Tom seemed about to question, then shook his head and strode off, grumbling audibly.

Rafe waited until Maggie and Diablo passed near him before calling out, “Can that brute be trusted around another stallion?”

Maggie pulled up and regarded him quizzically. “I think so,” she answered. “Why?”

“You’ve spent all your time here so far in the barns. You should see more of Shamrock.” He swung open the gate without waiting for her response. “C’mon.”

She rode Diablo slowly from the ring and out through the barn, following the tall, lean figure striding ahead. She glanced aside only once to watch Figure trot from his open stall and take up a “heel” position at Diablo’s flank, and felt more than heard the stallion rumble a greeting to his small friend. Then she looked once more at Rafe.

Rafe Delaney, she had found, was not an easy man to ignore—even when he didn’t call attention to himself. Rafe drew people as the sun drew flowers to lean toward it. She had watched him unobtrusively during every day here, noticing that nearly all of the employees at Shamrock found some reason to speak briefly to him as often as possible. Men and women alike seemed to bask in the warmth of his grin. Every last one of them, she thought, would have done anything short of murder for him—and possibly even that.

It made Maggie very nervous. He was a devastatingly charismatic man, and he was beginning to haunt her dreams. His reputation still made her uneasy, even though common sense told her a great deal of that had to be malicious gossip and wishful thinking. She kept reminding herself that he was her boss and nothing more. Nothing. And he hadn’t so much as hinted that she was anything other than an employee he valued because of her ability.

Maggie was unnerved to discover that, for the first time in her career, being valued for her skill alone was not enough. She was disgusted with herself, and morbidly anxious not to betray her growing fascination with the man she still desperately wanted to pigeonhole as “boss.”

And now she held Diablo to a slow walk, more concerned with controlling herself than him, bothered by her confused emotions. The carefully planned course of her life seemed to have run amok somehow. Her professional goals loomed nearer than she had dared to hope, but she was more than ever conscious of her lack of personal goals.

Maggie wrenched her thoughts to the here and now and focused her attention on the stallion Rafe was mounting several yards away. She had seen the horse at a distance, running free in the paddock attached to his stable. Saladin was Rafe’s “personal” horse, raised and trained by him from long-legged coltish unsteadiness to magnificently graceful adulthood. A fiery chestnut, he was pure-blooded Arab from his delicate face to his arched tail, every inch of him a reminder of desert sands and hot winds.

She watched Rafe settle into the English saddle with a grace all his own, watched Saladin prance and snatch at the bit playfully, and felt an odd, unfamiliar weakening somewhere inside her. A headdress for Rafe and tassles for the horse, she thought dazedly, and the image would be of a powerful and arrogant sheikh riding out to survey his kingdom….

“Ready?” he called cheerfully.

Maggie swallowed and needlessly rearranged Diablo’s reins in her hands. “Ready.”

Rafe led the way, cantering along the lane dividing barns, training rings, corrals, and paddocks for nearly half a mile. Figure, braying irritably, kept up with his friend, and heads turned to show grinning faces as they passed.

It was late afternoon, nearly evening, and reasonably cool, though the sun was still glaring. Hills rose all around them as they left the lane and the greener land near the San Pedro River behind them. Rafe stopped only once to open a security gate and close it behind them. Then they rode for nearly an hour across rolling land covered with the short, sparse grass that was so different from the lush eastern pastureland Maggie was used to.

Finally they followed a well-worn trail up to the top of a high hill, and she found herself gazing across a breathtaking expanse of the San Pedro Valley. The bulk of Shamrock Ranch lay to the east, the buildings seeming small in the distance, while all around sprawled the curiously wide and empty reaches of the valley. The sun cast slanting rays and shadows, an occasional cloud high above leaving its dark silhouette on the valley floor.

Maggie, caught up with her work, had not really looked at the land until now. She felt her senses open up in what was almost an agony of sudden awareness, conscious of the vastness, the raw beauty of this land. Mountains reared their stark, jutting peaks, shadows and colors changing moment by moment as the sun lowered. And the sun itself, sinking gracefully, was a brilliant light playing over a land not even man had dared to claim he had mastered.

She thought she could see forever.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Turning at Rafe’s hushed voice, Maggie looked at him. He sat erect yet relaxed in the saddle, his hands folded and resting on the pommel. And he was a sheikh, Maggie thought…his headdress tossed aside. A king without his crown. A man gazing out over land for which his ancestors had shed blood, sweat, and tears to call their own. A land as untamed as a part of him still was.

“It gets in the blood, this land,” he said, his tone still soft. “The sun bakes you and the wind parches you and the river’s dry more often than not. Ride casually down into a dry wash, and a flash flood may sweep you away before you’ve time to hear it coming. And at night you can see lightning in the mountains, and clouds roll out over the sky in front of you only to disappear behind you, leaving the stars so near, you could put them in your pocket.”

Maggie took a deep breath, only half aware of being enmeshed in a spell conjured by the lonely grandeur of this land and the unconscious, soul-deep pride of this man. She heard herself speaking, and the husky voice was not hers but was right for this place. “Did your family settle here?”

He shook his head. “Not originally. East of here roughly, in the Sulphur Springs Valley. That’s where Killara is.”

“Killara?” She was fascinated by the way he spoke the word, the soft brogue cloaking a curious blend of pride, contentment, and an ineffable sense of roots set deeply and immovably.

Rafe continued to gaze out over distance and time. “Killara. Old Shamus decided the place would be a new beginning, a new dawn for his family. Killara was the name of the ancestral home in Leinster Province, Ireland. That was the…piece of Ireland Shamus brought with him.”

“He must have been an extraordinary man.”

Abruptly Rafe turned his head to grin wickedly at her. “I’ll say. He missed being hanged three times just by the skin of his teeth!”

Maggie laughed in spite of herself. “Good heavens, why?”

“Reiving mostly. You’re Irish; you know what it means.”

“Cattle rustling?” She laughed again. “Here?”

“No, in the Old Country. Smuggling too.” When his horse moved restlessly, Rafe absently passed a strong hand gently over his stallion’s neck. “I’m not sure whether he came west because he wanted to or had to.”

“Did he tread the straight and narrow here?”

“I don’t doubt he did a bit of reiving here as well,” Rafe answered whimsically. “But it was a common thing then, with longhorns running wild and free for the taking. He was fairly well occupied with the Apaches, though.”

“This is Apache country, isn’t it? Raids?”

“For years.” Rafe laughed softly. “They tried to drive him out. Stole his horses, set fire to his homestead. He rebuilt Lord knows how many times. When the other settlers took to their heels, Shamus stood firm and said he’d shoot anything with feathers, so friendlies had best be cautious how they approached the place.”

“What finally happened?” she asked, fascinated.

With a meditative air he answered, “I believe several tribes finally got together and decided they were losing face. Since they couldn’t get rid of Shamus, it seemed logical just to call him one of their own. He wasn’t very amenable to becoming a blood brother, but it so happened that one of his sons—Joshua—had been prowling where he shouldn’t have and had fallen in love with the daughter of a chief. After a bit of sparring and horse trading, Rising Star became a Delaney.”

“No more raids?”

“None to speak of. I believe there was an occasional argument over the horses the Delaney boys took a great deal of pleasure in stealing back, but with a chief’s daughter in the house things were pretty quiet.”

Maggie gazed out over the land spread all around them, again conscious of a heightened awareness. “How exciting it must have been then,” she murmured, half to herself.

Rafe looked at her, his hands tightening one over the other. She would not have been out of place then, he thought. For all her delicate appearance and tiny size, she was tempered steel within. She would have fought her way across a virgin land, then carved a home from wilderness with a will and the strength to endure.

She would not have asked another to bear her burdens or fight her battles or carry her gun.

And if an Apache raid had come with a red dawn, even old Shamus would have felt stronger with her gun booming beside his.

Rafe took a deep breath and let it out slowly, still watching her. He felt Saladin shift beneath him, and had to force himself to relax the grip of his knees. The movement of the stallion drew Maggie’s attention.

“He’s a beautiful horse, Rafe.”

Clearing his throat, Rafe murmured, “I thought so the first moment I saw him, staggering around banging his head and getting his legs all tangled. He has two half-brothers born within a day. I raised and trained them, then gave them to my brothers.”

Maggie remembered hearing about that. “Sheikh and Shalimar, right?”

“Right. Sheikh’s a black hellion—very suited to York. And Shalimar’s a gray with the speed of the wind. Both are at Killara, since York spends most of his time at the mining camp.”

“Who lives at Killara?” she asked curiously. “Your oldest brother?”

“Burke. Yes, he lives there when he isn’t at the Tower in Tucson. He should be home now—that is, if he listened to York and me—taking some time away from the office.”

Feeling suddenly uncomfortable at her own display of curiosity, Maggie turned her gaze back to the horizon. The sun had lowered while they talked, and shadows were lengthening as the red orb began to dip below the peaks of distant mountains. “We should start back,” she said.

Rafe reined his stallion around to start back down the trail, and Maggie fell in behind. Figure, who had been grazing idly nearby, instantly took up his accustomed position beside Diablo. Once they reached the base of the hill, Rafe waited for Maggie to come up alongside him. They were walking the horses now, neither of them showing the natural inclination of stallions to fight one another.

Maggie glanced once at Rafe, then looked ahead, disturbed. It wasn’t, she thought, anything she could pin down in his expression that was making her suddenly breathless. His black eyes seemed a bit brighter than usual, and his lazy smile quirked upward a bit higher on one side. Small distinctions in a very expressive face, Maggie thought. And when he spoke, his deep voice was the same as usual—almost.

“You should always wear red,” he said. “Makes you come alive.”

Instinctively she glanced down at her red knit shirt, then tossed a second glance his way. “Thanks,” she muttered, resisting an impulse to demand if she didn’t look alive without wearing red.

Rafe might have heard the silent question.

“You’re so controlled, you know. So calm. It’s startling what a change a little color—or animation—makes.”

“Control is necessary when working with horses,” she said as if reciting a well-learned proverb, and grimaced without surprise when he laughed.

But he said only, “I know it is. Never thought of taking it to extremes myself, but to each his own.”

Maggie felt tension in her jaw and realized that her teeth were clenched. The wildness of this land was rousing an equal wildness in her, she decided. Why else would his comments grate so? “I get the job done, don’t I?” she snapped, her anger showing only in words and not in the hands firmly holding her horse’s reins.

“That you do, Maggie,” he agreed cheerfully. “That you do.”

For some reason his agreement grated even more on Maggie’s nerves. And when he followed up with a critical comment, she found herself longing for a riding crop.

“Still, it wouldn’t hurt you to relax a bit. You’ll be old before your time if you’re not careful.”

“That’s my business!” She felt a moment of horror after her outburst. Oh, Lord. What if he fired her? She loved it here, more and more each day. Her job and the country and the people….Sneaking a glance at Rafe’s face, she saw he was still smiling, and she sighed silently.

“Tell me something, Maggie.” His voice was casual. “You obviously asked questions about Shamrock and the Delaneys before you took this job. Right?”

“Yes.” Her meek tone was a result of relief rather than humility.

“What’s the one most common thing you’ve heard about my family, past and present?”

She didn’t even have to consider. “That the Delaneys take care of their own.”

“Right.” Somehow he managed to infuse that single word with a great deal of meaning.

Relief faded into uneasiness. Maggie turned her head to stare at his profile. “Just what,” she asked evenly, “is that supposed to mean?”

He turned to meet her eyes, his own dancing with that devil-light of laughter and mischief. “Just what you think it does,” he answered amiably. “We take care of our own, Maggie. So you see, your welfare is very important to me. And I can’t help feeling that you need to relax and enjoy life.”

“I’m fine,” she said flatly. “I’ve taken care of myself for ten years, and—”

“That was before it made a difference to me.”

She felt her throat close up, and stared between Diablo’s ears fixedly.

After a moment Rafe said admiringly, “Maggie, you’re a woman in a million! Any other would have pounced on that remark instantly, reading all kinds of personal meanings into it. But not you. No, you just accept that I’m a concerned employer and that’s all.”

She felt her teeth gritting again, and uncharacteristically clapped her heels into the stallion’s sides to urge him forward. Startled, Diablo leaped instantly into a gallop, angling away from the path they were following to cut across the open pastureland. Figure brayed loudly at being left behind.

“Maggie!” Rafe’s voice was not bland, casual, or amiable. It was a hoarse roar packed with surging emotion.

She would have stopped, but couldn’t, all her attention occupied in remaining in the saddle as her mount raced over land far more uneven than it had seemed. Twice Diablo literally dropped beneath her as undetectable dry washes appeared under his hooves, and he had to scramble wildly for steady footing. Perforce his reckless gallop slowed, but the third wash caught him unawares, and the loose sand robbed him of his balance. The stallion lurched sideways and nearly fell, throwing Maggie over his head and forcing him to leap awkwardly to avoid stepping on her.

Maggie came down hard, the sandy ground and sparse tufts of grass no cushion, but she rolled instantly to disperse her weight more evenly. Sitting up, she rubbed her right shoulder with a muttered curse, her gaze following her horse as he slowed and turned back toward her. She was far more embarrassed than hurt, and silently ridiculed herself for the unthinking dash across land she was unfamiliar with.

Sand sprayed her as Saladin slid to a halt nearby, and she nerved herself to face Rafe’s justifiable anger. The face she hesitantly looked up to see, however, held emotions other than anger. His skin was gray beneath the tan, the black eyes burning with a flickering wildness. His mouth was rigid, but she could have sworn the bottom lip quivered faintly for a flashing instant.

“That was stupid of me…” she began as he reached her side.

He dropped to one knee and hauled her against him, his arms holding her in a rib-crushing embrace. “I should have warned you,” he said thickly. “Dammit, Maggie, don’t ever do that to me again!”

Shaken by the toss and still conscious of her odd, heightened awareness, Maggie was further unsettled to find her body molding itself bonelessly to his hard form. She could feel his taut, work-hardened muscles, feel the raw power in his arms. His heart was pounding against her. One large hand held her head to his neck, and she was stingingly aware of the pulse throbbing beneath the flesh of his throat.

For a moment she remained limp and mindless, but then her instincts rose up within her, shrieking an alarm. Before she could make a move to push him away, however, his embrace gentled. She was suddenly being cradled instead of crushed. His entire body seemed to soften and draw her within a warm hollow.

“I should have warned you,” he repeated, his voice quieter but still husky. “This is an unforgiving land, Maggie, a land that gives no quarter.” His cheek was pressed to her hair, and his hand slid down to rest gently at the nape of her neck. “Promise me you won’t take chances again, or ride out alone until you know the land.”

“I promise,” she whispered, her hands lifting of their own volition to rest on his chest. She couldn’t remember ever being held like this in a caring embrace. Her father had been a taciturn man, more interested in horses than in the emotional needs of his daughter, and her own driven ambition had held all others strictly at arm’s length. She felt strangely cherished, and a dimly recognized part of her gloried in that unfamiliar sensation.

She forgot that he was her boss and, moreover, a man to be wary of. She forgot ambition and safety and the certainty of herself. Her consciousness tunneled, focusing only on this moment. The sandy ground beneath her knees was hard but distant, and a soft, warm breeze played over her newly aching body. Even the animals—including Figure, who had caught up with them—were still, not intruding, and the setting sun bathed them all in a reddish glow.

Rafe held her in silence, stroking her back with the same gentling touch with which he had so recently soothed his horse. And it soothed Maggie, but it also sapped her willpower and strength. Without thought she watched her hand slide from just beneath the hollow of his shoulder to where dark hair curled at the opening of his white shirt. She saw her fingers touch that silky hair, and felt a tingle in her fingertips and an instant liquid heat being released somewhere within her.

Alarmed, she raised her head and then stilled, gazing into black eyes with lambent flames in their bottomless depths. She wanted to speak, to say something that would instantly allot them their clearly defined positions as employer and employee, but she could force no sound past her suddenly tight throat.

The hand at her nape shifted to warmly cup the side of her neck, tilting her face up, and those black eyes came nearer until they filled her vision, her thoughts.

“Maggie…” he breathed softly, all but inaudibly, just before his lips touched hers.

For an instant, an eternity, Maggie gave in to the giddy sensations rushing through her body. His lips hardened in desire, slanting across hers with a sudden fierce hunger, setting wildfire alight deep inside of her. She felt her body, her emotions, everything she was, swaying toward him, pulled irresistibly by a strong sense of affinity. A part of her had been waiting for this, yearning for it. It was more than desire, more than anything she’d ever known before, and fear washed cold sanity through her mind.

Violently she tore her mouth from his, and would have broken completely away from him but for the iron strength of his arms. The hold trapped without hurting, and she was powerless to escape. She met his gaze, her own fierce and wary, and for a moment felt the breath catch in her throat. There was, she saw, something not quite tame in his eyes, something hot and primitive. Then the fleeting wildness was gone, and his crooked smile dawned.

“I won’t apologize,” he murmured.

“I didn’t expect an apology!” she snapped breathlessly, clinging to anger and telling herself that the gossips had been right after all. Rafe was scalp-hunting and nothing more, and she was no trophy.

“No,” he said, “you expected a playboy. Well, Maggie love, I’ve decided I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.”

“What?” she asked, bewildered.

Mournfully he quoted, “ ‘My reputation, Iago, my reputation!’ ”

She stared at him.

Grinning now, he said, “I’ve lost my reputation where you’re concerned, and without even a trial either.” He rose to his feet, pulling her gently up and holding both her hands in his. “I might as well take advantage of it. I don’t know if I can live up to your image of a rapacious rogue, but I’m willing to try, Maggie love. Try very hard.”

She had the peculiar feeling that she was being manipulated, and stared at his wide grin and the dimple that was incongruous with his otherwise rugged face. For the life of her she didn’t know whether to hit him with something or to laugh.

“You’re not—That is, you—you wouldn’t…” She wasn’t a stammering sort of woman, but she couldn’t seem to formulate either her thoughts or her words.

“Wouldn’t I? Darlin’, I’m a rogue, a rake, a scoundrel. Women litter the road behind me like so much confetti. My bedroom has a revolving door. I’m trying desperately to break Don Juan’s record, and—”

“I get the point!” she said crossly, still not entirely sure how she was supposed to react to the combination of his unnerving words and bland tone of voice. “Rafe, you can’t be serious!”

His eyes widened innocently. “But, love, you cringe whenever I come near—filled with visions of ravishment, I’m sure—so I just thought I’d earn the reaction.”

“I do not cringe!” Maggie wanted to command him to stop using the endearments, except that she didn’t want him to know she’d noticed. She’d never felt so confused or off-balance in her life. “You said your reputation was all a lot of hot air—vicious gossip!”

“But you believe it,” he reminded her smoothly.

Baffled, she stared at him. “You said you never got involved with the women here on the ranch.”

“Blarney. I decided to make an exception in your case. I changed my mind….I lied.” He lifted one flying brow mockingly. “Take your pick.”

For a moment Maggie wondered a bit wildly just how many men boasted the name of Rafe Delaney. She seemed to have encountered at least four just during today’s ride: a thoughtful man proudly aware of his land and his blood, a gentle man who had held her like a cherished thing, a fiercely passionate man, and now this devil.

It was like gazing into myriad mirrors, each reflecting a Rafe. One was the real man—but which?

“That’s—that’s harassment,” she managed.

Clearly wounded, he explained patiently, “No, darlin’, not harassment. Your job’s secure no matter what happens between us. A rake I may be, but I’m not an idiot. You’re too damn good a trainer to lose.”

Suddenly conscious of his hands holding hers, Maggie jerked away from his grasp. “I’ll quit!” she threatened.

“No, you won’t. You’re no coward.”

She glared at him for a full minute, then turned on her heel and stalked over to where Diablo was waiting patiently. Angry as she was, she nonetheless automatically accepted a leg up into the saddle from Rafe, and muttered almost inaudible curses as she watched him mount his own horse. Damn the man! she thought. What did he want from her? A playmate? Another scalp to dangle arrogantly from his Delaney belt?

Was her position at Shamrock worth the battle she could envision building up between her and Rafe?

—

Rafe observed Maggie’s confusion much more closely than he allowed her to see. He was gambling, gambling on her response to him, and on her own ambition. She wouldn’t leave, he thought. At least not while he could keep her off-balance and uncertain. And in the meantime he meant to take full advantage of her confusion.





Chapter 4


Riding beside Rafe as they started back to the ranch, Maggie carefully kept her gaze fixed straight ahead. She was worried and uneasy and wanted, oddly, either to laugh or to cry or to knock Rafe from his horse with a well-aimed blow…or something.

She didn’t want to leave Shamrock, both because of her professional plans and because she was growing to love the place, yet her every instinct urged her to fold her tent and steal away—now, before it was too late. Rafe possessed the uncanny knack of drawing all her emotions closer to the surface, leaving her feeling unsettled and vulnerable, and that was a feeling she’d never known before. It was dangerous, she knew.

Obviously Rafe wanted nothing more than another conquest. And she wanted…What did she want? A secure future, her own ranch. Success. Control. She’d worked for ten years, and more years of hard work stretched ahead of her before that driving wish could come true.

It would take even longer if she left Shamrock and was forced to accept a position at a less prestigious ranch….

She couldn’t leave. Not just because her boss’s fickle fancy had settled on her. He was a chameleon, and chameleons were creatures of change. He’d lose interest in her soon enough. Surely he’d lose interest. He could have any woman he wanted, and she was nothing special. She could keep him at arm’s length until he lost interest.

Unwillingly Maggie remembered an embrace that had sapped her willpower and a kiss that had left her weak and defenseless. She swallowed hard and clenched her teeth. That, she decided, wouldn’t happen again.

“You won’t leave,” Rafe said calmly.

The assurance in his voice very nearly provoked her, but Maggie checked her temper. “I like my job,” she said as evenly as she could.

“Good. I hope you like your boss as well.”

“Don’t fish with me,” she warned. “You wouldn’t like the catch!”

He burst out laughing, a deep, lilting sound.

They had reached the pasture gate, and as soon as he opened it Maggie urged Diablo to canter down the lane to the barns. She didn’t look back to see if Rafe was following, but heard his good-humored shouts to various stablehands as he passed them. She also heard him halt Saladin near barn number two, where the horse’s stable was, while she rode on to number four.

Reaching her barn, Maggie swung off Diablo and removed his tack. The stallion had proved fairly tractable where women other than Maggie were concerned, even to the point of allowing the apprentice Lisa to ride him, but six years of men trying to break him had left scars. Diablo despised men and allowed none to touch him.

After carrying the saddle and bridle into the tackroom, Maggie returned to groom the stallion thoroughly. The long walk back had cooled him, so that there was no need to walk him further, but she carefully made certain he had not injured himself during that mad race across the pasture. She had just turned Diablo into his stall when Rafe strolled into the barn.

“Tomorrow,” he said, “I’ll take you out to see the brood mares and foals. They’re pastured farther up the valley.”

“I have to work,” she said. Without waiting for his response, she went back into the tackroom to get her bridle and the saddle soap, then sat in the doorway to clean the gear.

Rafe leaned against the wall and watched her, still wearing that crooked, oddly dangerous smile. “I’m not about to let you work seven days a week, Maggie, and tomorrow’s Saturday. You can take a few hours off. Besides, I noticed you’ve scheduled your people so that at least two of them are here everyday.”

She wanted to snap at him, but he was her boss. She tried to tune out his presence, listening to the sounds of Lisa and Mike working two of the Saddlebreds in the training ring and staring down at the bridle in her lap as she automatically cleaned it.

“Nearly dinnertime,” Rafe said, just as the interior barn lights came on automatically with the dusk.

“Tell Kathleen not to bother with my dinner, would you, please? I have some work to finish up, so I’ll fix a snack or something later.” She still refused to look up at him.

After a moment he said quietly, “You don’t have to keep working your two horses on your own time, Maggie.”

She was surprised that he’d noticed that; she tended to ride her own horses just after breakfast or around lunchtime. “I’d rather, if you don’t mind,” she said evenly. “When I work for you, I’ll work for you. I work for myself on my own time.”

“You’re a lot like this land, Maggie,” he said softly. “You give no quarter.”

She looked up slowly, but he was gone. She sat there for a long time, thinking. No quarter? No mercy. Was she that unyielding? So rigid there was no way for her to bend? Had the long, lonely years of hard work made her so inflexible that her every movement, every thought or action, had to bring her a step nearer her distant goals?

Automatically she finished cleaning the tack. Lisa and Mike brought their mounts into the hall to be unsaddled and groomed, and she spoke to them casually. She saddled and worked her two horses, calling out a cheerful good night to her two apprentices as they left the barn, but not halting her own work.

It was late when she finally left the barn after giving all the horses a final check and turning out all but the dim night-lights. She locked up the barn by closing the huge, electrically powered doors that closed off the hall and training ring, then activated the security system for the building. As she walked up the lane between the barns toward the house, all was dark and quiet, only the occasional stamp of hooves or soft nicker disturbing the silence. She turned between barns seven and eight, following the lane where it curved toward the house, familiar enough with the way by now to be unperturbed by the pitch darkness between and beyond the buildings.

She was so lost in thought that she heard nothing, and was so completely taken by surprise that only a squeak escaped her when hard arms caught her in a crushing embrace. Lips ruthlessly captured her own, kissing her with a driving passion that stole her breath. For an instant shock held her still, then she fought fiercely. But before she could do more than begin to struggle, she was free—and alone.

Breathless, Maggie peered through the darkness all around her, ears straining for the slightest sound. Nothing. Confused, she remembered the sensation of some kind of buckskinlike fringe beneath her fingers, and remembered a fleeting glimpse of what must have been a very tall man. No, she thought, bewildered, not just tall. There had been something on his head.

She straightened, then grabbed quickly at her neck. Something was tickling her, something protruding from the V neckline of her knit shirt. Visions of spiders and other unpleasant things faded as her fingers grasped the object and pulled it from her shirt. She stepped out of the inky blackness of shadows, she heard her own voice say incredulously, “A feather?”

Glancing warily around as she continued toward the house, Maggie toyed with the feather bemusedly and attempted to collect her thoughts. She tried to decide if there had been anything familiar about her attacker, her suspicions instantly focused on Rafe. She didn’t know why he would do such a ridiculous thing, but the devil-light in his eyes made it at least plausible.

But something was nagging at her, something she had sensed more than seen. She was somehow convinced it hadn’t been Rafe. Who then? And why?

Her stride quickened as she neared the house. If it had been Rafe, he couldn’t possibly have returned to the house and changed from that buckskin outfit—or whatever it had been—so quickly. She entered the house through the kitchen, relieved to find it empty, and hurried on toward the den.

Rafe was there, hanging up the phone as she paused in the doorway. He was dressed casually in jeans and a black shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, and showed absolutely no signs of having just run several hundred yards or changed in a hurry.

Black suited him, she thought fleetingly. He looked more devillike than usual tonight, even without the dancing light of mockery in his eyes.

He rose to his feet as he looked up and saw her. “You worked late tonight. Maggie, you really shouldn’t—”

“How long have you been here?” she interrupted, not caring whether he’d consider the question impertinent.

His brows rose quizzically. “If you mean here in the den—a couple of hours. If you mean here in the house—since I left the barns. Why do you ask?”

She frowned at him, playing absently with the feather. “Oh…no reason. I just wondered.”

He nodded toward her hands. “Where’d you get the feather?”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I found it.”

He continued to look quizzical, but shrugged and allowed the subject to drop. “Are you hungry, or would you rather unwind a bit first?”

“I was going to my room—”

“Why don’t you sit down and relax for a while? I promise not to pounce,” he added dryly. “Tonight anyway.”

Flushing, she moved past him