Rainslinger

YOUR PLACE OR MINE?

Winona Snow came to the wilderness of New Mexico expecting to claim her inheritance and establish a new life for her and her troubled young sister. Love was the last thing she wanted. But the seductive man who had taken up residence in her abandoned house had other ideas….

Daniel Lynch paid little heed to Winona’s “expectations.” He was determined to work the land in the way of his proud Navajo ancestors, and just because they lived under the same roof didn’t mean she was going to get in his way…. Until their hearts got involved.

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Chapter One

Daniel Lynch drove back to the ranch in a roar of spitting gravel, unable to fathom what had just happened. For nine months, he’d been waiting for this day, April 30, when he could legally claim the land that was his birthright.

For almost a year, he’d lived at El Durazno Ranch, refurbishing the abandoned adobe farmhouse, clearing irrigation ditches of tumbleweeds, pruning the peach trees that gave the land its name. Last June, after determining the peach trees occupying the warm, protected canyon were indeed the mythical Lost Orchard—the only Navajo peach orchard to escape Kit Carson’s burnings—Daniel had paid the two years’ back taxes owed on the property and moved in. All winter he’d been waiting for this day, when he could pay the third year of taxes that was were owed claim the land as his own.

It was his. The orchard had been planted by his great-great-grandmother in the mid-1800s, and members of his family had owned it until prejudice had forced them out. Now Daniel had worked the land for a year; he had begun to understand what it asked of him. He’d fixed the house…

His.

But someone had beaten him to the assessor’s office. By one day. Late yesterday afternoon, Winona Snow, to whom Jericho Snow, the previous owner, had left the land in his will, had paid the current year’s taxes.

Legally Daniel Lynch didn’t have a single recourse. Legally the precious, long-sought land and its orchard belonged to Winona Snow.

Daniel gnawed his lip as he turned into the long drive that led to the farmhouse. Against the whitish desert afternoon light, cottonwood leaves glittered, a dark, gray-green counterpoint to the mountains on the horizon. Below the sturdy branches of the cotton-woods, the farmhouse lay in a pool of cool, inviting shade, the deep porch in shadow.

Daniel cursed again. He hated to lose the fight now. Hated it as he’d never hated anything.

Maybe this woman, the heir to the ranch, had simply become aware that the taxes were in arrears and had paid the current year to maintain her claim on the land. It didn’t mean she wanted to live there; wanted to take it away. If worse came to worst, surely she could be convinced to allow him to live in the house and act as caretaker.

The thought made him feel marginally better. If he could get an address and phone number for her, maybe she’d even be willing to talk about a fair price for the land. At the very least, he had to maintain his temper until he could talk to her.

But a burning anxiety filled his stomach and he peeled an antacid from the roll. Damn. Damn. Damn. He’d known the risks when he’d started with this plan, but he had never expected anyone to come forward. Jericho had been dead almost three years. What were the chances of an heir materializing after so long?

As Daniel came around the final curve of the drive, he saw the child first. Small and thin, dressed androgynously in jeans, flannel shirt and baseball hat. Only the narrow face and delicate hands gave away her sex. She sat on the porch steps with her hands clasped around her skinny knees.

Daniel parked, then turned off the engine of his truck. He didn’t immediately get out but leaned back and narrowed his eyes. A Volkswagen Bug—“Slug bug!” he heard Giselle say in memory, and it pained him—loaded to the gills, was parked beneath a tree. It had Wisconsin plates. The paint was worn, the tires almost bald.

Not a particularly good sign. He’d been half hoping Winona Snow might turn out to be a wealthy suburbanite, with maybe a husband who practiced some kind of civilized law. What would a woman like that need with four hundred acres of ranch land in the wilds of northern New Mexico?

Unfortunately, it didn’t appear that his little fantasy would turn out to hold even a gram of truth. The back seat of the Bug looked as if everything in the world were packed into it. Daniel saw the triangular head of a well-used iron pressed against the glass—not the sort of thing a casual traveler carted around—and the handle of either a broom or a mop.

The girl on the steps hadn’t moved; only sat there, watching him. It finally penetrated his anxiety-stricken brain that the kid hadn’t driven there by herself. He peered into the deeper shadows cast by the vigas of the porch roof and saw a woman sprawled in the hammock. His hammock. She seemed to be out cold.

Could that be Winona Snow? He couldn’t make out many details, only a tumble of corkscrew blond curls and long, strong-looking legs poking from well-worn cutoffs. Her feet—big feet—were bare but clean.

Daniel stepped out of the truck and slammed the truck door hard, hoping to wake her. To the girl he said, “Who are you? And may I ask what you are doing here?”

The girl, her eyes owlish behind a singularly unattractive pair of glasses, only stared at him.

Daniel kicked out a heel in the dust and put his hands on his hips, looking from girl to woman and back again. The woman hadn’t stirred one iota. “Is she sick or something?”

“It’s malaria.”

The voice was thin and whispery. He had barely heard her.

“Malaria?”

“She took her medicine about two hours ago, but she won’t be better until morning. Maybe a little longer.”

“Is she Winona Snow?”

The girl nodded. Daniel noticed with a small part of his mind that the kid was older than he had thought at first, maybe thirteen or fourteen. Probably pretty, with those cheekbones and light, clear skin, but the glasses made it hard to tell.

“And who are you?”

“Joleen.”

Lips pursed, Daniel measured the situation—the girl and the packed, shabby VW Bug, the woman passed out on the hammock. He climbed the steps to take a closer look at her. “Where did she pick up malaria?”

“Peace Corps.”

Even in the cool shadows of the porch, the woman’s face was dewed with perspiration, and quite flushed. Daniel touched her cheek and found the skin clammy. He didn’t know a lot about malaria, but she was plainly quite ill.

As he stood there in the cool shadows of the porch, pondering what his next move should be, he noticed something else—Winona Snow was not a small woman. He’d lain in the hammock often enough to know that she’d be almost as tall as his six-feet-three-inch frame. Nor was her body the sort of fashion-model emaciated that he’d come to associate with very tall women. She was busty and broad of hip, with big hands and big feet.

Not his usual type, but he found himself admiring the look of sturdy strength in her bare arms and legs. In contrast, her hair was a tumble of pale, airy curls, as glittery as a silver bracelet. Her mouth was plump, her brow wide and intelligent. As he bent over her, she made a whimpering noise, low in her throat.

“She’s pretty sick,” he said.

“Her medicine will help soon,” the girl replied.

Daniel sighed. He could hardly turn them out. And the truth was, he was obligated to them, considering everything. Technically it was their house, even though he’d begun to think of it as his own. It was disconcerting to be suddenly dropped to the status of poacher.

“Well, open the door,” he said, tossing the girl his keys. “Maybe you can help me figure out what to do.”

Once upon a time, it wouldn’t have been much of a task for him to carry a woman from the porch inside. But this was no ordinary woman and he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He slid his right arm under her knees, his left under her shoulders and lifted all six feet of her. For less time than the space between two breaths, he hesitated, surprised at the startlingly pleasant feel of womanly softness against him after so long a time. Her breasts pushed against his chest, and her hair brushed his arm, and there was the faintest scent of soap and skin that made him remember the things men and women did together.

With a grunt, he turned and carried her inside, his muscles straining to hold her utterly unconscious weight. He’d thought to take her to the small bedroom at the back of the house, but as soon as he got inside, he knew he couldn’t make it that far. Instead he settled her on the couch in the living room.

To the girl he said, “Run into the back room, down that hail, and bring me a pillow and a blanket off the bed.”

She did as she was told, literally running down the hall. On the couch, the woman made a soft, murmuring sound and shifted.

Daniel knelt beside her. “Can you hear me?” he asked. Some instinct made him brush a lock of spun silver hair from her cheek, and his fingers registered the elegance of her skin before he let go.

A tumble of nonsense spilled out of her mouth, a warning, he thought, but couldn’t be sure. “Shhh,” he said. “It’s all right now.”

She shifted abruptly to her back. Daniel tried not to notice anew the rich, rich curves the position displayed, but he was a man, after all, chemically rigged to respond to siren swoops of miles of womanly dips and swells. It wasn’t a figure currently in fashion, but he didn’t know too many men who wouldn’t take a minute or two to admire it with the reverence it deserved.

Mama mía.

The child—Joleen—came back and hesitantly held out a feather pillow and a striped cotton blanket. Daniel smiled, wanting to ease the timid terror lurking in her big eyes. “Thanks. You want to lift up her head and I’ll put the pillow under?”

Joleen nodded and did as she was told. When Daniel would have spread the blanket over the woman’s endless legs, Joleen said, “I think it’s better if you don’t cover her.”

“Oh.” Made sense. “Okay. Is there anything else we should do for her?”

Joleen shook her head sadly. “She’ll just sleep for a while, and then she’ll be better. It’s only malaria.”

He chuckled. Only malaria, indeed. “Well, then, how about if you and I go in the kitchen and find us something to eat?” Kids he could handle. “I’m hungry. How about you?”

She shrugged. “Okay.”

* * *

When Winona opened her eyes, still adrift in the confusion malaria put upon her brain, she couldn’t remember where she was. A smell of grilled cheese and coffee wafted on the air, so it wasn’t Africa. No, no. She was home now. Of course. The cushioning layers of fabric below her body were far too fine to be anywhere but in America.

Home. She let her eyes drift around the dim room. An open doorway showed a darkening sky and a horizon she didn’t immediately recognize. She closed her eyes and let the dizzying fever cocoon her, carry her away—

She jerked awake. “Joleen!” she cried out, remembering. Her sudden movement sent her sprawling a foot or two to the floor, and started strange ripples of dizziness through her head. Too confused to get up, she covered her face with her hand and tried to gather the various instructions for her body parts to move her to a standing position.

But then there was someone nearby, talking in a deep, lilting voice, and gentle hands moved on her upper arms. She lifted her head.

Malaria often twisted her vision, so it was no surprise to see the shimmering lights around the face that was so close to hers. Nor was she surprised to find the face itself almost dreamlike in its perfection. It was the sort of face Winona’s fevers were inclined to produce—dark, dominated by cleanly cut cheekbones and beautiful, cocoa-colored eyes with light deep within them. Long, long hair, the color of pecans, fell over his shoulder as he tried to help her up. A lock of hair touched her mouth and she dizzily lifted a hand to it, unsure whether she was dreaming. The hair was cool and coarse and heavy, a vividly sensual impression.

He was real.

Terror jumped in her chest. “Joleen!” She had meant to cry out the word, but it came from her throat as a croak.

“Joleen is fine,” he said. “She’s okay. Rest now.”

Winona nodded heavily, and had to close her eyes against the shivery arcs of light. Somehow she found herself again lying down. Gentle hands—his hands?—settled a blanket over her. She thought she felt a lingering hand against her ear, but couldn’t be sure.

The fever carried her away.

* * *

“Was that my sister?” Joleen asked, coming into the room.

Daniel straightened, nodding. “She wasn’t really awake.”

“It’s good she woke up a little, though.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah.”

The kid still wore her baseball cap and the painfully ugly glasses. She carried her milk with her into the room, obviously feeling more comfortable as she wandered over by his computer desk.

“You like computers?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I guess. I’ve never seen one this fancy, though.”

“It’s what I do for a living.”

“Make computers?”

“Software.” He was actually supposed to be working now. A major project was due in two weeks, and he was a long way from finished. “Maybe I’ll let you mess around on it in the morning if you want.”

“That’s okay.” She moved away carefully, her face blank. “I know adults have to use them to work.”

He frowned. “Do your parents use computers for work?”

The tiniest flicker of something crossed her schooled face.

“Nope. They died.” As if she’d said no more than she lived in Ohio, she wandered toward the bookshelves. “You have any reading books?”

Daniel grinned. “Reading books?” He picked up the comb he’d been using when Winona had scared him with her shout. A faint, sensual memory of her fingers twining in his loose hair flashed over his vision. Firmly he rewove his braid and fastened it.

“You know, like novels,” Joleen said, tilting her head to read titles.

“Some.” He stood and pointed out the various sections of the bookshelves. They were organized according to the Dewey decimal system. He hadn’t gone quite so far as to put numbers on the volumes, but only because he’d lacked the time for all his projects. “Fiction is over here. It’s alphabetized, so if you take a book, please put it back where you found it.”

The girl paused, looking up at him with a startled expression. “You alphabetize your books?” she asked, biting her lip. “All of them?”

He gave her a rueful smile. “Yep. I hate not knowing where something is.”

“Oh, so do I,” she said fervently.

It was the first real emotion he’d heard from her.

“I used to have all my drawers at home labeled.”

“Is that right?” He smiled. “I guess I don’t have to worry about you messing up my system, then, do I?”

“No, Mr. Lynch.”

He shifted. “Listen, Joleen, I have to work tonight. You can read anything up there, and I also have a bunch of movies in the basement.”

“Movies?” She brightened. “You have movies?”

“Bunch of ‘em.” Television reception at the ranch, unless you had a satellite dish, was next to nothing. “Nothing fancy, but it’s a pretty good TV and VCR. You know how to work a VCR?”

She nodded.

“All right, then. I’ll get you some blankets and you can sleep down there. If you get hungry, you don’t have to ask me—just go into the kitchen and get something. I kind of forget things when I’m working.”

“I understand.”

Something about her fragile maturity tugged at him. This was a child who’d been too much on her own. “Are you okay? Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you,” she said, her blank expression firmly in place. “How do I get downstairs?”

Daniel showed her the door to the basement and flipped on the light, then watched her go down. “Remember,” he said, “you want anything, just come get it. There’s Kool-Aid and fruit and chips. Just help yourself.”

“Thank you,” she said politely from the bottom of the stairs. “I’m fine.”

Daniel nodded. But she wasn’t fine. He could see that easily enough. Poor little waif.

Back in the living room, his gaze fell on the snapshot he’d framed from Luke and Jessie’s wedding. Luke, Jessie and Giselle, a family at last. It reminded him forcefully just why he couldn’t afford to let his emotions get caught up in the needs of lost little Joleen.

His heart had been shredded quite enough for one lifetime.

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