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       WARRIOR, p.1

           Elizabeth Lowell
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  ~ 1 ~

  She's the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nevada Blackthorn thought, and she's headed right for me.

  Nevada watched her approach in disbelief. Most people took one look at his light green eyes and unsmiling mouth and decided to strike up a conversation with someone else. Anyone else. This woman was different. She had taken one look at him and hadn't looked anywhere else.

  With a grace that was totally unconscious, Eden Summers worked her way through the bar's crowded room, heading instinctively toward the dark, broad-shouldered man who sat alone. Very much alone. No one in the packed room came within arm's length of the man with the unflinching gaze and black, closely cut beard.

  Even if she hadn't been told to "ask the guy with the beard" about supplies, Eden would have been drawn to this man. His isolation attracted rather than worried her. She was accustomed to working with solitary, wild animals.

  "Hi, I'm Eden Summers," she said, smiling when she finally reached the bar. The lack of an answering smile didn't deter her. She would have felt better if she could have seen the color of his eyes, but they were shadowed by the brim of the black Stetson that he wore. "The man at the gas station said the store was closed, but that you might open it so I could buy supplies."

  Eden's voice was like her smile, warm without being flirtatious. The tone was husky, as though she hadn't talked to anyone in hours. Nevada wondered if she would sound that way first thing in the morning, and if her taste would be half as sweet as her smile.

  Even as he tried to push the sensual speculations aside, Nevada felt the rush of his body changing to meet the uncalculated femininity of Eden herself. It had been a long, long time since he had responded to a woman like that – quick and hot and hard, suddenly filled with a need as elemental as breathing itself.

  "The man you're looking for is Bill," Nevada said, his voice roughened by the fierce racing of his blood. "He's the bartender."

  "Oh. Sorry. Wrong beard." Eden's large hazel eyes went from Nevada's sleek, well-trimmed pelt to the bartender's rowdy chin fur. "That's Bill?"

  Nevada nodded.

  "Thanks," she said, smiling as she turned away. Nevada nodded again and said nothing more. Nor did he smile. His bleak green glance went from Eden's lithe, alluring body to the faces of the men in West Fork's only bar. Every male in the packed, seething room had taken Eden's measure the instant she had come in the door. There was more than casual curiosity in their looks. Whether Eden knew it or not, the two other women present in the bar could most politely be described as working girls. Saturday in West Fork was their busiest time. They had been in and out of the bar and the adjoining motel with the regularity of clocks striking off the quarter hour.

  When Eden turned away from Nevada, the men in the bar realized that she wasn't his date. Nor was there any other man hovering in the background, waiting for her. She was alone.

  Instantly the men became more aggressive in their interest. In a town with one gas station, one general store, one café, one motel and one bar – all of which were collectively known as the OK Corral – strangers weren't that common. An unknown, attractive young woman with a graceful walk and a generous smile was unheard of.

  And she had no man escorting her, no man to discourage the blunt sexual interest of the males in the bar.

  Normally the lack of an escort wouldn't have been a problem for a woman, even in the wildest areas of the Four Corners Country of southwestern Colorado. But today wasn't normal. Today was West Fork's Eighth Annual Rattlesnake Roping Contest, an event that drew every bored, restless young man for a hundred miles around. As the snakes were still sleeping off winter – a fact that the men had counted on – approximately forty healthy males had spent the dreary March Saturday drinking beer, swapping lies and coarse jokes, ragging newcomers, passing comments about the availability and desirability of local females, playing practical jokes, and generally being a pain in the butt to everyone in the bar who wasn't at least four beers under the weather.

  Nevada had been watching his second beer go flat and trying to decide which would be less tedious – helping the town's lone mechanic to patch a leaky gas tank on the Rocking M's pickup truck or watching the brawl that would inevitably break out in a bar jammed with bored young cowboys. On the whole, Nevada had been leaning toward patching leaky gas tanks when he had looked up and seen a flash of pale blond hair and the kind of easy-moving walk that was guaranteed to bring him to attention.

  It had done the same for the other denizens of the OK Corral, who immediately assumed that the pretty stranger had come to West Fork for the kind of action that its bar was famous – or infamous – for delivering on a Saturday night.

  Nevada knew that the other men's assumption was wrong. It wasn't just that Eden wore jeans, outdoor shoes and a hip-length down jacket. It was something both more subtle and more final than her lack of party clothes that told Nevada this woman was different. The openness and generosity in Eden's smile when she greeted him had announced that she wasn't in the market for sex. Women who were for sale were neither spontaneous nor uncalculating in their approach to life or men.

  Unfortunately, Saturday in the bar at the OK Corral was the day and the place where pros and semipros came to display their shopworn wares. Eden's gentle manner and open smile didn't belong in the OK Corral's sexual marketplace, but she was there just the same.

  Wrong place, wrong time, wrong woman.

  And the longer she stayed there, the more insistent the men would become about attracting her attention.

  With increasing irritation Nevada listened to the men nearby speculate on the subject of Eden's sexual expertise and price. He watched from the corner of his eye as the bartender came around the bar and stood close to Eden under the pretext that he couldn't hear her over the crude background comments. Standing that close wasn't necessary. Nevada, who was four feet away, could hear Eden all too well. She had a voice like summer, rich with warmth and life. The sensual promise in her voice made blood beat visibly at the base of Nevada's throat.

  "The man at the filling station said you were closed, but that you might open the store so I could buy supplies," Eden said, speaking quickly, ignoring the catcalls and crass propositions coming from behind her. "There's no other store between here and the government cabin. I've driven all day, and there's supposed to be a storm in the high country tomorrow so I'll have to leave before dawn or take a chance on getting snowed out. As it is, I'll need a room for the night."

  "No problem," Bill said, leaning back long enough to pull a room key from a board beneath the bar. He handed the key to Eden. "What else do you need?"

  Before Eden could answer, a voice called out, "Yeah, that's it, Bill. Find out what she needs and I'll give it to her!"

  Nevada didn't have to turn and look to know that the voice belonged to a young cowhand called Jones. Tall, well built and almost as handsome as he thought he was, Jones had earned his reputation as a lady-killer, drinker and fighter. Nevada's brother Tennessee had fired Jones from the Rocking M ranch. Since then, Jones had spent more time raising hell than working cattle. The cowboys drinking with Jones were the same as he was, too old to be boys and too undisciplined to be men.

  Eden pocketed the key and acted as though she and the bartender were alone in the room.

  "I need basics, mostly. Salt, sugar, flour, coffee—"

  Jones inserted a stream of words that would have made a seasoned streetwalker wince. Nevada was the only man sober enough, and perceptive enough, to notice Eden's almost invisible flinching at the ugly language. But that was her only reaction.

  "Hey, babe, look at me when I talk to you!" Jones yelled. "Pieces like you give me a pain. You sell it all over town and then act like you're a nun when a man tells you what he wants and how he
wants it!"

  Nevada's hand tightened on his beer bottle, a reflex as involuntary as his own arousal in Eden's presence. Slowly he relaxed his fingers.

  Eden unzipped her jacket and pulled a small tablet from an inside pocket, praying that no one would notice the fine tremor of her fingers. She had dealt with too many wild animals not to have a sixth sense for danger. She was in danger now. What was a coarse verbal assault could change at any moment into something worse. The men around her had drunk enough to be uninhibited but not unable – and she was a stranger who had walked into their territory with nothing more to protect her than whatever basic goodness might exist beneath the veneer of civilization.

  If the situation were different, Eden wouldn't have worried about being alone with even the cowboy who was running his mouth at her expense right now. But he had made his brags in front of the pack. Now he had to dominate her or lose face. It was an old, old story among animals.

  And man was definitely an animal.

  While Eden flipped through the tablet to find her supply list, Jones started wondering aloud what she would look like without her clothes, stripping her verbally, adding fuel to the savage fires that always burned just beneath the restraints of civilization.

  Nevada turned and looked at Jones and the four men who were urging him on. The rest of the men in the room didn't notice Nevada's abruptly predatory intensity. They were watching Eden with the single-minded purpose of a pack of jackals closing in on their prey.

  A glance at Eden told Nevada that she sensed the building ugliness. Beneath her calm expression was an animal wariness that increased with every deep voice that joined the chorus egging Jones on. Nevada had heard similar mutterings from men before, and with each guttural word civilization had been eroded a bit more until finally the savagery beneath broke free, destroying everything in its path that wasn't stronger and more vicious than itself.

  With a feeling of acute relief, Eden found her supply list, tore it out, and handed it to the bartender. Not by so much as a fast sideways glance did she acknowledge that there was any other man in the room.

  "This is all I need," she said.

  Reluctantly Bill looked away from the opening in Eden's jacket to the piece of paper. He took it, scanned it quickly, and shrugged.

  "Yeah, I got everything." His smile was just short of a leer as he looked back at Eden. "The store's in the next room. I'll unlock it for you. When you're done, holler and I'll open up the cash register."

  "Thank you," Eden said, zipping her jacket again despite the stuffy heat of the bar. "I appreciate your kindness."

  Bill had the grace to look uncomfortable.

  With half-closed eyes, Nevada watched Eden follow the bartender through the inner door that joined the store and the bar. As though sensing that Nevada was watching, the bartender came back quickly and resumed selling drinks. The door joining the two rooms remained open. From where he sat at the bar, Nevada was in a position to watch both Eden and Jones without appearing to notice either one.

  Through some eccentricity of the heating system, the empty store was even hotter than the crowded bar. Eden hesitated, then peeled off her stifling down jacket and worked quickly, finding supplies and stacking them on the checkout counter. When she was finished, she walked to the doorway. Backlit by the bright lights of the store, her distinctly feminine silhouette was a siren call far older than civilization.

  A silence came over the bar.

  "I'm ready, Bill."

  Jones's hand shot out and fastened on the bartender's arm. "I'll take care of the little lady."

  Jones grabbed his half-empty beer bottle and headed for the store. Four of his friends quickly followed. Although many of the men in the crowded bar looked around uneasily, no one stepped forward to stop Jones. Alone, the cowboy was bad enough. At the head of a pack, he was more trouble than anyone wanted to take on.

  Except Nevada.

  With a deceptively lazy motion Nevada came off the bar stool and stood between Jones and the path to Eden.

  "Get out of my way," Jones said.

  Nevada said nothing.

  With a quick, practiced motion, Jones flicked his beer bottle against the side of the bar. The lower third of the bottle disintegrated, leaving behind the smooth neck and three wicked blades of glass.

  Nevada neither moved nor spoke. He simply watched Jones and his four friends with the pale, unblinking green eyes of a cougar.

  In the electric silence, Eden's harsh intake of breath was as clear as a scream. From her position in the doorway she could see that the dark, aloof stranger she had spoken to earlier was even more isolated now than he had been when she first walked into the barroom. She looked at Bill, who was backing away from the bar as quickly as he could, making clear that he wanted no part of whatever fight developed. The rest of the patrons obviously felt the same way. They were backing up as quickly as possible, leaving a wide clearing around the other men.

  Alone, Nevada waited, feeling the world change as it always did when he was fighting, time stretching, dragging, nailed to the ground, leaving him free to move and other men mired in slow motion. It was a primitive physiological gift, a trick of the adrenal glands, a quirk that had been passed down through centuries of Blackthorn warriors; adrenaline coursing through his body with each rapid heartbeat, speeding him up, a warrior's reflex that had saved Blackthorn lives when other, slower men had died.

  Eden saw the subtle shifting of his body, the electric tension of a cougar set to spring.

  "No!" Eden called, her voice tight with fear for him. "Damn it – no! There are five of them and you're not even armed!"

  Having reached the same conclusion, Jones rushed forward, dosing the distance between himself and Nevada.

  Nevada moved.

  His hands flashed out, grabbing Jones, then he pivoted, throwing him against the bar so hard that bottles danced and skidded. As Nevada finished the pivot, he smoothly converted his momentum into a different kind of force, lashing out with hands and feet in an intricate sequence. Two of Jones's buddies went to their knees and then onto their faces. One staggered backward and fell. The remaining cowboy grabbed one of his dazed friends, yanked him to his feet and headed for the exit.

  Even though Eden was accustomed to seeing big cats take their prey, the speed, coordination and precision of Nevada's attack shocked her. He was so quick that individual motions blurred. Only the results were clearly visible. Three men down, two men running away.

  Nevada's pale glance flicked over the remaining inhabitants of the bar, dismissed them as a source of danger, and came back to focus on Jones. With a silent, gliding stride, Nevada started forward to teach the cowboy the kind of lesson a man would be lucky to survive. But at the moment Nevada didn't really care about Jones's future. Better men had died and the world had kept on turning.

  Just as Nevada reached for Jones, two slender, determined hands locked around one of Nevada's wrists. He could easily have shaken off the hands, but the combination of softness and strength was quintessentially feminine, disarming him. Eden smelled of sunshine and her breath was a rush of warmth flowing over him.

  "Don't," Eden said softly, holding on to Nevada's hard arm, seeing his eyes for the first time. A cougar's eyes, pale green, bottomless, hell unleashed and waiting to spring. She brought his unresisting hand to her face. Her lips brushed his palm. "Please. He's not worth what it would cost you."

  Eden felt the tiny shudder that ripped through Nevada's strength, sensed the gradual uncoiling of steel muscles, and breathed her thanks into his hard palm. Slowly her fingers slid from his arm until she no longer touched him.

  Restrained by nothing more tangible than his acceptance of Eden's plea, Nevada reached once more for Jones. He lifted the heavy cowboy to his feet in a single motion. Stunned, Jones sagged between Nevada's hands.

  "That's your free one," Nevada said calmly. "Understand?"

  Jones tried to speak, couldn't, and nodded. Nevada opened his hands, releasing the co
wboy. Jones staggered, caught himself on a bystander, then pushed free and reeled toward the front door. He didn't even pause to look at the two groaning men who had followed him into the fight.

  "Take them with you," Nevada said.

  His voice was still soft, but it carried clearly through the stunned silence of the room. Struggling, limping, able to use only one arm, Jones got the two other men upright and out the door.

  Nevada turned to the bartender. "Total her bill."

  "Sure thing, Nevada," the man said hastily. "Right away."

  His hurried footsteps were the only sound in the bar. Nevada turned and looked at each man in the room as the tense silence stretched. Smoothly he stepped behind Eden, putting his hands on her shoulders.

  "Gentlemen," Nevada said softly, his tone transforming the word into an insult, "I want you to meet Eden Summers. In the future you will treat her the same as you would Carla, Diana, Mariah or any other Rocking M woman."

  Nevada said no more. He didn't have to.

  "Go get your supplies," Nevada said, squeezing Eden's shoulders reassuringly before he released her.

  While Eden paid her bill, Nevada shrugged into his shearling jacket, leaned casually against the bar and waited for the groceries to be bagged.

  Slowly the other men in the bar turned away and began talking in subdued voices. Most of the conversations centered around the fight. Or rather, around Nevada. Tennessee Blackthorn's lethal fighting skills were well-known. Nevada's had often been speculated upon, but no one had been curious enough to rattle his cage and find out for sure.

  Until tonight. West Fork had just discovered that the aloof, silent cowhand called Nevada was every bit as skilled at fighting as he was at tracking cougars – and he was known as the best cat-tracker in five states. When Eden was ready, Nevada helped her carry the supplies. Outside a raw March wind combed the streets, sending shivers of motion over puddles that had just begun to freeze in the early evening chill. Where there was no snow, the landscape had taken on a vague hint of green, promise of the hot summer to come. For now, it was promise only. The earth itself was still locked within winter's cold.

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