Chapter One

Friday, August 23rd, Las Vegas, Nevada

Jason saw his reflection wavering in the pool of blood under the streetlight. Pale eyes, buzz cut, burly. He looked like what he was: a hard man. He glanced to the body lying across the curb, its throat carved into a grim smile. The executive type, soft. The knife snicked shut in Jason's hand, its blade flashing for an instant in the light. Not even a challenge.

Beyond the stark channel of the security light, shadows moved. Jason closed his eyes and drew the power from deep in his belly. The world went red and he knew they couldn't see him anymore. He was safe. No one would believe these homeless guys if they said they'd seen the murderer disappear into thin air. They'd know that. Probably wouldn't even bother telling their story to the Vegas police when the body was finally found.

Jason walked toward the distant kaleidoscope of neon that created a glow on the night sky. He wouldn't need to cloak his presence there. The crowds would do it for him. Half an hour later, he made his way through the casino toward his hotel room. At three a.m. it looked tawdry, like a whore whose mascara was running. When he'd left the jangle of false excitement and ringing bells behind, he whipped out his cell phone. He liked reporting by phone. He'd caught a glimpse of the old woman once. He'd rather not chance that again.

"Hardwick, give her the phone," he barked and sat on the bed in the darkened room. The windows looked out on the Strip. If sirens were acing to the abandoned factory, you wouldn't hear them from up here. Damn, he was good. Nobody better. Except the old woman. But old as she was, she couldn't live much longer. Someday soon he'd be leading the Clan.

"You were right," he said when he heard her rasping breath on the line. "He's in L.A. Got a wife and six kids. Goes by the name of Tremaine these days."

He could feel her anger, though her voice was even. "Any sign of power in their get?"

"The guy I... questioned...was real close to the family. He didn't see any."

A faint sigh of relief wheezed from the phone."Trevellyan doesn't know that the Talismans are the way to true power either, or he'd be searching for them just as we are." The old woman wanted the one thing she couldn't have. Jason hoped she never found it."So their spawn are vulnerable," the voice like wind through dry leaves continued. "I want to know where they are."

"I'm not a Finder."

"Find them, or you know what will happen." The voice was flat now.

Jason's mind skittered over the last time she'd been angry at him. When he hadn't wanted to give up Selah. He couldn't go through that again. "You got it." He kept his voice as flat as hers and pushed the cascading images away. She wanted Tremaines, he'd find her Tremaines.

Saturday, August 30 – Austin, Nevada, population 340

It was a hundred miles into Fallon. She'd been so anxious to get away, she hadn't eaten breakfast. Since she was flush, at least for a minute, she decided to stoke up on some of Jake's steak and eggs. Maggie O'Brian's rig clattered into the dirt parking lot next to the diner. The four horse trailer was one of those old iron slat jobs where the horses were tied in at an angle. It made a God-awful racket when it was empty. Truck wasn't exactly new either. Ford F250, vintage 1970. But the big 390 diesel did the job. You couldn't see much of the faded red paint under all the dust anyway, so the dings and dents didn't matter.

She climbed out of the cab. A kick-ass black Harley with minimum chrome and scarred leather saddlebags leaned on its stand in front of the diner windows. Covered with road grit and sporting a couple of dings itself, it wasn't a Sunday afternoon ride for some rich Hell's Angel wannabe. That bike had seen action. Maggie pulled open the ancient screen door.

The only people in the diner were locals. It was too early for tourists in the "living Ghost Town." The counter was filled with single old guys, leaving only one empty seat next to a really broad-shouldered man. He was the youngest guy in the diner by probably forty years. His black leather jacket was slung over the low back of the barstool, leaving a faded blue work shirt, longish black hair and some three-day stubble the only things she could see.

Maggie felt something go down her spine.

She shook herself and squeezed onto the stool between the big guy and one of the geezers. The young guy seemed even bigger up close with that shoulder looming over her. He exuded testosterone and ... and some sort of danger. Bet he did well in bar fights. He had that "I don't care what happens" attitude. And... and wow, close up, he was really doing something to her. What was that all about? Pheromones?

Get hold of yourself, girl.

He sipped his coffee. What a profile. Classic good looks.

She did so not care about that. She saw him glance at her out of the corner of his eyes. A healing cut slanting over his eyebrow and pink, shiny skin on his cheek indicated that he'd been in a scrape. To another woman, he would have been intimidating. Another woman would have taken a booth. But she was in no danger. He wouldn't even notice someone like her. Plain, tough as nails, no makeup, dusty jeans. That was Maggie O'Brian. Take it or leave it.

Mainly they left it. Just the way she wanted it.

"Hey, Jake," she called to the guy in the white apron and the paper hat through the window to the kitchen.

"Maggie!" Jake glanced up from his griddle, grinning. He had jowls and squinting, kind eyes. "You look like shit, darlin'. You okay?"

"Boy, you make a girl feel like a million bucks. Just drove in from Cheyenne."

"All night?"

"Grabbed a couple hours sleep at Elroy's. Gotta get over to Fallon."

"You win?" Ethel, the waitress, must be seventy-five if she was a day in spite of her bright orange hair. Her face was folded in a thousand wrinkles.

"You bet your ass." Tough as nails, that's me. She made a point of telling herself that a lot-a fact that wasn't lost on her. She wasn't stupid. Fake it 'til you make it. Jake whistled approval. Ethel put down the plates she carried in front of the old coot three seats down and gave Maggie a whoop and a high five. "I'll get you the usual, honey."

The guy next to her shifted on his stool to look directly at her. "What'd you win?" he asked in the deepest baritone she could remember hearing. She was a sucker for deep voices. She glanced over and couldn't help a double take. Damn, but that was one good-looking man. Green, green eyes, eyelashes a mile long, cleft chin, fair skin. Had some old scars as well as the recent scabs. He'd knocked around some, like his cycle. The dark hair curling over his collar and his three-day stubble made him seem even tougher. Only his lips looked soft. He belonged on movie posters, but he might be playing either the hero or the villain.

Way out of her league. Like she had a league.

"Ladies Bull Riding." She pulled up the coffee cup Ethel had plunked down in front of her. "Cheyenne Rodeo Days."

"You look kind of...uh... small to be riding bulls."

"Yeah," she agreed. "Always surprises the crowd when I win. Promoters like that."

"She wins a lot," Ethel sniffed. Ethel was okay.

"Much money in it?" the old man on the far side of the looker asked.

Maggie shrugged. "Not for women. Enough to make the next entry fee, stay on the road." Sometimes pay the mortgage.

"You like staying on the road." This from the looker.

"If that's your bike, you do too," she snapped.

His brows arched in surprise, but his lips didn't smile. "Got me there. What drives you to it?" Just as she was about to lie to him he said, "And don't tell me it's wanderlust or some bullshit like that. There's always a real reason."

She snapped her mouth closed. She owed this guy jack. But she found herself answering anyway, "Family."

"Yeah," he grunted, turning away. She couldn't see the look in his eyes. "I get that one."

She sipped her coffee. Had he just admitted something personal? She could feel his big body next to her. The heat. But something more too. She couldn't say just what. "So... Fallon. What's there?" His words came out reluctantly. He was having steak and eggs too. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled to his elbows. He had dark, straight hair on his forearms. She couldn't help watching the muscles work as he cut the steak. "Rodeo?"

She sucked in a breath. "Uh... no. Mustang sale at Indian River Ranch."

"How many you gonna take this time?" Ethel asked.

"I figure eight." They wanted more, but her trailer only held four. It would be two long trips just to get eight down to L.A.

"What'll you do with eight wild horses?" The guy seemed amused.

That annoyed her. "Take them to a camp for disabled kids that can't afford to buy the kind of horses rich kids get from their parents."

A brief flash of something that looked like guilt flashed over his face and was gone. Then he frowned. "You got it in for disabled kids?"

Maggie had an urge to smack him. Or pull him down by his hair and kiss him. Whoa, girl. Disaster for someone like you. Before she could act on either impulse, Ethel intervened.

"She's got a waiting list of camps, Mister. Must work out okay."

He sat back in his chair, still frowning. "Maybe the old, broken down ones...."

"Steak and eggs, up," Jake yelled, though Ethel was only six feet away. Ethel turned to the window and slid the plate over to Maggie, followed by a side of sourdough toast.

"Nope," Maggie said, her mouth tight as she stabbed the steak and sawed the knife across it. "The old ones go out to contract retirement places. Big pastures, good care. They're fine. The young ones get sold to private buyers, resellers or the job program that teaches prisoners horse training." Maggie's gut began to churn. "Which leaves the incorrigibles. No reputable trainer will buy them. They scare individual buyers. Won't halter. Won't trailer, so they don't make it to pasture. They end up meat, no matter how hard BLM tries to stop it. Or they get put down."

The guy frowned. "So...those are the ones you take?"

Maggie sighed. When she started talking about the mustangs, she always got carried away. Why did she even feel like she had to explain to this guy? She stabbed a piece of steak. "Yup."

"Oh, that makes me feel better for the disabled kids."

"You wouldn't understand." That should shut him up. She didn't want to hear that baritone any more. It was doing funny things to her in places that had forgotten how to do those things a long time ago.

"I might surprise you."

His statement itself surprised her. Why did he insist? It wasn't like he cared. Time to get tough. "I doubt it. I know your kind." Rude, but she needed to control this situation.

He blinked twice. For an instant, she saw hurt and... maybe confusion... flash across his expression. Then turned to his plate like he was slamming a door. 'Yeah. You probably do." She had an inexplicable urge to apologize, to say she hadn't meant what she said. That was crazy. How was this guy getting to her like that? She knew better than to let her guard down.

So she bantered with Jake and Ethel just to show she didn't care. She teased the old guy two stools over who'd eaten at Jake's every day for twenty years since his wife died. But she was hyperaware of the man next to her. She felt every shift in his weight on the stool, every clench of the muscles in his jaw as he ate.... What the hell was wrong with her? He dawdled over his hash browns and asked for a refill on coffee even after Ethel had taken his plate away. But he seemed nervous. Kept adjusting himself on the barstool. Couldn't he just leave?

When Maggie slapped down fifteen dollars and left the diner, he was still sitting there.


That was one tiny, exasperating woman. Who'd given him a painful erection within five minutes of sitting down next to him. Tris couldn't understand it. She was a nothing kind of girl in dusty cowboy boots and jeans meant for working. The women he bedded wore three hundred dollar jeans that looked like they were painted on and boots with three-inch heels. They hung out on Rodeo Drive, not at the rodeo. He'd lost interest in all of them during his last year in L.A. He didn't even care about the starlet he was with when the whole rotten brawl broke out. Since he left he'd lost interest in everything. Including women.

Not that this girl didn't fill the jeans out nicely. The faded red shirt with the pearl snaps on the breast pockets, too. He could practically feel her nipples scraping against the cloth of her bra. Down boy. Don't go there. She wasn't special: light brown hair streaked by the sun pulled back in a ponytail at her nape, gray-green eyes and freckles. She had a little bow mouth. He couldn't imagine this girl clinging to the rope around a ton of plunging, horned beast. Riding rodeo wasn't like taking a turn on the mechanical bull in some bar on Friday night. Men got hurt, killed. And this tiny woman? If she had a man, how could he let her put herself in danger like that? The thought made him angry.

He swallowed. Angry wasn't good for him. He'd been trying to lose angry so hard he'd lost everything. Think of something else.

She sure didn't give him the time of day. Odd. Though he'd lost interest in women, they never lost interest in him. Nuisance. This one the cook called Maggie had no use for him at all.

He still didn't dare stand up or everyone in the place would see just how attracted to this girl he was. The old waitress refilled his cup. He'd be stopping to piss every twenty minutes at this rate. Maybe this girl attracted him because underneath that tough outer shell, she was hiding something vulnerable, even broken. Why else would she ride rodeo?

Get hold of yourself, jerk-off. She thinks she knows who you are, and she doesn't like what she knows, just like everybody else. What a shock.

How had he been drawn into asking the girl questions like that? Hell, he hadn't said more than four words to any one person in months. But he couldn't help himself. And he'd wanted to know the answers. What was she running from? How did she avoid getting her face kicked in by wild horses? Like she's going to tell you.

He took a slug of coffee. Time to move on.

Move on to what? He knew the answer to that one. To nothing. He was a ghost sliding along the highway, mostly at night. He'd cut himself off from all ties. Family. His shop. He was free. And lost. After trying to feel dead inside for a year, he'd succeeded. Great.

He was uncomfortable but not laughably erect any more. He pushed himself off the stool and slapped a bill on the counter. "Keep the change." "Thanks," Ethel said, scooping up the twenty. "See ya around."

"Not likely." He slung his jacket over his shoulder and trudged out to his bike. He'd seen a motel next door that was just his style. Maybe get a day labor job in Ely tomorrow if he couldn't find a motor that needed fixing. Anything that paid in cash.

That prospect was so bleak it suddenly felt like a razor cutting its way out of his belly. Maybe he was alive after all. Alive didn't feel that great. He was at a crossroads. Right this second, he hated the nothingness inside him. Maybe because the thrill of life he'd felt sitting next to that girl made him remember what it felt like to want something.

Choice clear. Either fade away entirely or embrace the razor and let the pain draw him back into living. He slung his leg over the Harley and had to ease onto the seat. Ribs weren't quite healed from that bar fight in St. Louis. Stupid jerk that he was, he'd thought that girl objected to being pawed by those two huge guys. That was the last time he'd emerged from his fog of indifference, and look where it had got him.

The engine roared to life. The thrum of the machine between his legs was the one constant of this past year, along with the slowly spreading numbness he'd craved. He paused where the parking lot gave on to the highway. A truck roared past. The smell of diesel and exhaust hung in the high desert air. The rising sun peaked over the mountains around the tiny town. He looked toward the run-down motel next door. The sign said, "Shady Pines."

Fuck it. Can't do it.

He fumbled for his phone and looked up the Indian River Ranch, memorized the directions. For about a second he thought about calling home, telling Mr. Nakamura (who'd answer the phone at the house) that he'd make it back for his mother's fiftieth. The whole family always gathered on her birthday. Him not showing would worry her to death. Then sanity returned. He glanced at his hands. No matter how you washed, grease stained your cuticles and the creases in your fingers. Did the whole party last year with his hands in his pockets. A joke. They all knew the grease was there. Then his father dropped the bombshell. That was pretty much it, wasn't it?

Cut the cord, Tris. Not showing up for his mother's birthday would do the trick for good. Why did he care? Little Tristram didn't want to hurt his mother's feelings? Shit. He was born to hurt her. Damn them for who they were. For who they thought he was. He threw the phone against a telephone pole. It fell onto the broken asphalt of the parking lot.

If he thought his itchy dissatisfaction would disappear with this final decision, he was dreaming. He'd scratched until he bled for years. You could numb it a little with his old friend Jack D. You could make it fade by existing only in shadows. But it was there. Even now.

He wasn't crawling back to his family just to make his mother happy. Still he wasn't ready to fade entirely away. There must be something else out there.

He gunned the bike onto the highway, west toward Fallon. He could embrace the shadow later. There were shabby motels in Fallon, too. But right now maybe he'd try out being interested in something. Like a mustang sale. Like a nothing-special little firebrand who rode bulls and made him want her with an intensity he hadn't felt in a long time. Maybe ever.

"What is it?" the hoarse voice whispered through the phone.

Jason ran a handkerchief over his neck. He'd located the Tremaine kids. But most of them lived at The Breakers, the Tremaine estate. The oldest girl went to Brown, but she was home for the summer. There was only one who was vulnerable.

"Good news," he said, trying to sound as confident as usual. "Second son has been wandering around the country, totally unprotected. He's living off the grid. But he's got a phone with a GPS he bought under another name. Got a hacker kid to track him. He's in Austin, Nevada. Middle of nowhere."

There was short silence. He could feel her suppressed excitement. More life in her than he'd heard in a long time. Good, because that meant he was useful to her. Bad, because at this rate she'd live forever. "Then you know what to do."

Actually, he didn't. "You want him brought in?"

"They're Trevellyans, even though they call themselves Tremaines. They'll never join us."

Oh. What she wasn't saying was that the Clan couldn't afford a rival faction vying for power and these Talisman things she was always on about. Not in the old woman's plan. "Make it look accidental," she wheezed. "I don't want to alert Tremaine to our presence."

"My pleasure." He was on his way to the middle of nowhere.

April 7, 2012
Amazon ASIN: B007SH6YL2
Barnes & Noble ID: 2940014234399

“Susan Squires has a fascinating, unique voice; she is a rare talent.”

—Christine Feehan

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