Juno Books

An Excerpt From Blood Bargain by Maria Lima

[ Information on Blood Bargain ]

Small towns are like glaciers. Moving slowly in their majestic beauty, ideas, mores, thoughts frozen in the ice--pretty to look at. Occasionally, you see things happen, slight changes, tiny cracks in the ice, drips melting away piecemeal as Johnny Rodriguez takes a job in Austin and moves himself, his wife, the kids, Mom and Aunt Betty out of the homestead. SueEllen Parker leaves her husband of fifteen years to live in quietly proud defiance with her best friend of even more years, Mary Rose Messing. But overall, life continues as it was, these small ripples hardly changing the face of the ice. Until suddenly, one day, that which you thought was immutable, fixed in stone, carved into eternal ice sheers away, large chunks tearing away with a shriek, crashing and splintering into a million knife-edged shards.

If you're lucky, you're watching this from a safe distance, through binoculars of emotional dampeners. If you're not, you could be closer than you think, the looking glass of your life falsely making items closer than they appear, allowing one or more of those jagged shards to pierce your complacency.

One can even compare small towns to onions . . . you know, layers. As far as I knew, there weren't any ogres in Rio Seco, Texas . . . maybe a few demons. Some of them were even the psychological kind.

Whether or not that's a good thing remains to be seen.

Chapter One

The sound was more than a thought, less than a whisper.


I don't know how, but I heard the insistence behind the words and I knew they were meant for me.


The sound faded, even less distinct than before. I strained to hear more.


The last hissing sibilant was drowned out by the sound of a door shutting upstairs. I heard a shuffle of movement, then muffled steps descending the thickly-carpeted staircase.

"Tucker?" My own voice sounded overloud to my ears.

Adam appeared at the bottom of the bedroom staircase holding two open bottles of wine in his left hand, each suspended by the neck. His right hand cradled two wine stems, each two-thirds filled, the red liquid gleaming in the low light.

He was dressed in his usual casual elegance--black silk dress shirt, sleeves rolled back to reveal muscular forearms, collar open to show a small V of pale skin at the neck, shirt tucked into finely-woven custom-tailored black slacks. His feet were bare, owing to his habit of removing his shoes at the front door. Adam told me once he liked to feel the textures of the carpets, the fine grain of the hardwood floors, the cool of the tiles as he walked. Occasionally, he'd spend entire nights free of footwear, even outdoors.

He paused on the final stair, giving me a small nod and a smile, lifting both hands. "I'm sorry I'm a bit later than I intended," he said, stepping down. "Did you--" Adam stumbled a little; jutting his elbows out, as he tried to regain balance without spilling the wine. He seemed to waver a moment, then stilled and sank slowly to his knees, sitting back on his heels, arms held carefully in front, keeping the bottles and glasses steady.

"Adam!" I scrambled towards him. I'd been reading in bed the past couple of hours, having decided--since he was working late--I'd skip my usual meal at the Inn's restaurant, have a snack at the house and curl up with a good book. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Keira. Seem to have slipped on the last step." He turned his head to look at the stair, mouth twisting a little, then he shook his head and with the distinctive liquid grace that vampires have, he rose to his feet, still holding bottles and glasses.

The fall surprised me a little--it was so unusual for any supernatural to lose balance and slip like that. But it was probably nothing. He was carrying two bottles and two glasses. He'd done a damned good job of keeping them upright, too.

There was no evidence of spillage, except for a single blood-red drop of wine sliding down the side of one glass. We both watched its slow progression as it followed the curve, went down the stem, then slid across the pale skin of the back of Adam's wrist.

He caught my gaze and without a word, extended his wrist to me, the dark drop of clear red poised, shimmering on the pulse point against the outline of blue veins beneath. I reached to cup his hand, two fingers extended underneath the offered wrist, holding it steady.

I held Adam's gaze as I bent my head, inhaling the wine's bouquet, deep notes of darkest red-purple woven through with hints of smoky oak and cedar. The scent of Adam's skin lay beneath, soft spice and coolness, with a hint of nutmeg and--

Something else. My nostrils flared. Mingled with the wine, underneath the liquid-blood. Not Adam's, not the living rich scent of life, but concentrated, a heavier weight of ironmetalcopper infusing the liquid. The aroma of Adam's own blood lurked under this, beneath his skin, pulsing, heat growing as I drew closer. My own pulse quickened as the scent reached the back of my throat.

This wasn't my wine that spilled, but his. Wine laced with blood extracts. Animal blood, not human, drawn from living donors, the procedure inflicting no more pain than a vet's blood test. Inhaling the rich aroma, I closed my eyes, confused, not certain of his intent.

"Are you sure?" I whispered, opening my eyes to look up at Adam, watching his face.

He held my gaze, expression frozen in a neutrality held by the strongest of wills. A test then? A challenge? What was he doing?

An eternal heartbeat, two, then the briefest hint of a nod as a word I barely heard escaped his lips. "Yes."

I closed my eyes again, letting myself get lost in the heady scent, then licked the crimson globule from his wrist.

The taste expanded in my mouth, stronger than a single drop should be, dark red oakironblood flavor exploding, catching me off guard. I swallowed and straightened, opening my eyes to look at Adam.

"Not what you were expecting?" He'd dropped tight neutrality for a composed amusement, any hint of emotion still hidden behind the mask.

"Not," I answered, stepping back, letting go his wrist and taking the correct glass from his hand. I had to force myself to imitate his dispassionate detachment. We obviously weren't going where I thought we were with his little display of whatever it was.

I took a sip of my own wine, to mask my confusion. The once heady Torre di Pietra Petite Syrah, a favorite, now tasted flat, less real by comparison. I'd never tasted the special blood-laced wine before. Ever since I'd moved in, our nightly wine had become a ritual; Adam would either return from his office up at the Inn with a couple of bottles, one for each of us, or--if Adam had elected to stay in and work from home that night--one of the Inn's waitstaff would deliver the wine. The ritual never varied. The bottles would already be decorked and ready to pour. Adam would pour a glass for me, then one for himself. We'd clink a wordless toast then enjoy, usually sipping in silence.

I'd come to think that Adam drinking his blood wine with me was his way of letting me in, letting me be a part of his life, part of the private side of Adam Walker.

"What was that in aid of?" I asked, finally gaining enough control to speak.

Adam set the wine bottles down on a small table, then took a sip from his own glass before he spoke. "A thought," he said. "Simply that." He sipped again. "You called out for Tucker?" he asked.

Avoiding the subject, Adam Walker? I thought. So that's the way he's playing this. A thought, indeed. More like a whim that turned out to be less whimsical than he'd expected.

"I did," I answered. "Before I heard you upstairs, I was reading and I thought I heard a voice calling me. It said, 'come here', then I heard it say 'sis'. Tucker wasn't here, was he?"

"He was not."

"I don't think I'd dozed off," I said, "but maybe...no, I'm pretty sure I was awake. Maybe I should call Tucker and see if something's wrong."

Adam's hand on my forearm stopped me. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."


"I don't think your brother would appreciate the interruption."

"I'm sorry--what?"

Adam's expression, accompanied by the raising of his right eyebrow, could only be called a smirk.

"Interrupt what? You know? How could you possibly know?" My mind zoomed to a place I didn't particularly want to go--to where my brother and his lover were doing things I wish Adam and I were doing. Except Adam and I hadn't been doing anything in that area for more days than I cared to count, which is one of the reasons I'd been so confused about the whole spilled wine thing.

"Niko is tied to me by blood and bond," he answered. "When you called Tucker's name, I instinctively--"

"Holy crap, you can read Niko's mind?"

He laughed. "No, not exactly. I can sense many things, strong emotion being the...shall we say, loudest. I don't think either Tucker or Niko would welcome your phone call."


Chalk that up to Vampire Lesson #694. I'd been with Adam for a few months. Some days, I felt as if I knew everything there was to know about him; evidently, this wasn't one of those days.

Of course, learning about each other was par for our particular course. When Adam found out last year that I was as supernatural as he was-more so, actually, because I'd been born that way--he'd been as interested in my abilities as I was in his. Problem was, I wasn't sure what those abilities were quite yet. Like a child entering adolescence, I was beginning my own Change, moving into what would eventually be my nature: weather witch, healer, shapeshifter, necromancer. Odds were, since my father and all six of my elder brothers were shifters, I'd be joining them, but that wasn't a given. My own experience so far remained completely out of the realm of the usual. Six months ago, I started having visions and feeling the power surges that heralded Changing--some twenty years ahead of schedule. My omniscient double-great-granny-the matriarch of our clan--figured it out long before I did and sent my brother to watch over me. So far, my body failed to follow any sort of normal pattern. By now, I should be Changed. Six months after onset, I still experienced the odd surge of power, but nothing more. No wonder I was hearing things.

"Okay, I guess I was dreaming," I said. "I doubt my brother is calling for me when he's...busy."

"I'm quite sure of that." Adam smiled and took another sip of his wine as he walked toward the bed. He picked up a copy of this week's edition of the Hill Country News from the nightstand, set the wine down and, as he started reading the paper, unbuttoned and shrugged off his shirt, then climbed onto the bed, the picture of domestic bliss, still reading.

"Hey," I said, walking to the bed, setting my own glass on the other nightstand and crawling across the mattress, settling in at his side. "The night's not all that old yet and I've still got a few hours before I need to meet with the realtor guy about the mortuary sale."

"The estate agent, yes. He sold it quickly, didn't he?" Adam said absently.

"Well, now that Marty's dead and my family's moved, no one really wanted to deal with it. I let the realtor do what he thought was best. It's not like the family needs a funeral home. I sign the final paperwork, around eight A.M. or so. Evidently realtors don't work at night."

Adam nodded, still intent on something he was reading. I had no idea what it could be, since most stories in the small town weekly were along the lines of what the week's school menu items would be and discussing area bond voting issues and whatnot.

"So you want to?" I snuggled closer to Adam. Hey, it didn't hurt to try. I wasn't sure why the recent lack, but I thought it was time to end the dry spell and from his action earlier, maybe he'd thought about it, too.

Adam looked at me over the newsprint, folded it carefully, took a pen and circled something before placing both on the bedside table on his side of the bed. "His side"...when had we chosen sides?

Six months ago, this thing between us was all "what the heck are you doing in my very obscure little redneck corner of the world?" Now, evidently, we had sides--both of the bed and philosophically. We'd agreed to disagree on whether he should hunt for his blood fix--especially since I mostly sided with his second-in-command Niko. I held the opinion that hunting was fine as long as you ate what you killed and in Adam's case and most of the vampires at the Wild Moon, they didn't even need to kill their prey: local fauna, carefully managed by Niko in his role as wildlife manager. Vampires may not need human blood but they do need blood to survive. Adam refused to hunt, but continued to subsist on the blood extract-laden wine, which I thought was a poor substitute. We managed to sublimate our difference of opinion most of the time. Tonight had been a bit fraught already, so I figured a little closeness couldn't hurt. "What did you circle there? In the paper? You seemed so interested."

"Nothing...well, perhaps something," he corrected himself.

I made an attempt to emulate the slightly sardonic raised eyebrow that came so naturally to him. I failed miserably and probably looked somewhat demented. My eyebrows had never learned independent movement.

"It's a ranch," Adam said.

"A what?"

I sat up from my semi-recline and reached over him to snag the paper with my fingertips. I had a long reach, but it was a very big bed.

"Actually, it's an advertisement for a ranch for sale. I wish to buy it."

Again I tried for the raised brow. Again I failed.

"Ha. Funny. You own a ranch--well, more of a fancy haven for vampires to hang out. You thinking of going native? Working cattle, riding horses?"

Now that was a picture indeed: Adam Walker, undead king of the local vampire tribe, long black hair, green eyes and pale skin, all decked out in faded jeans, Lucchese boots, western shirt and...oh my everloving overactive imagination...chaps. Jesus. I seriously needed either a cold shower or a hot vampire. Ten guesses as to which I preferred and the first nine don't even come close to counting.

I tossed the newspaper to the side and ran my hand up Adam's leg, the fine weave of his trousers smooth to my touch. I dropped my head to his shoulder, tasting his skin as I murmured, "What say we talk about ranch ads later? Let's spend the next couple of hours doing something a hell of a lot more interesting."

My shoulder kiss turned into a neck nuzzle. I moved my hand further up his thigh, across his bare belly and up his chest. Under my touch, his skin was cool at first, his natural temperature heating up as the energy between us built. I wasn't sure if this was magick or something else. It didn't matter.

We'd started having sex a couple of months ago. I'd been willing to go for it right away. My initial reluctance when I knew him in England had been due to the fact I'd thought he was human. When I discovered differently, I was ready to act on the attraction.

But Adam was old-fashioned. He'd wanted to woo me, to court me. So for four months following Adam's arrival in Rio Seco and my cousin Marty's brutal murder, Adam played the suitor.

He'd started with traditional standards, a single rose, elegant dinners at fine restaurants in Austin or San Antonio and then, bit by bit upped the stakes, no pun intended. I'd enjoyed every decadent minute of it.

By week six of the sweet onslaught, I'd been ready to lay down an ultimatum to get laid, but then he pulled out all the stops and handed me an envelope with tickets...tickets to a three week holiday in a remote vampire encampment at the Arctic Circle during the height of polar night. We'd spent the greater part of the time in bed...not sleeping.

When we got back to Rio Seco, I hadn't even bothered to go back to my own house. I'd taken all my luggage and gone straight to the Wild Moon Ranch and Adam's place. When I asked for closet space, he'd looked at me, seemed about to ask a question, but then shrugged and bowed to the inevitable. I'd been there ever since.

The sex was great, the company even better. Adam would spend a few hours a night doing ranch and other vampire business. I'd amuse myself, something I'd managed to do for two long years babysitting Marty. Compared to that, this was cake...with sprinkles on it.

I smiled against Adam's skin, remembering how hard he'd worked, how earnest he'd been to make a good impression. He was definitely different from any of my previous liaisons.

My neck nuzzle turned into a kiss, deep, intense and oh, yes, most definitely a prelude to much, much more. I slid over, moving on top of Adam, letting my hands, my body, show him exactly how much he'd come to mean to me. How much I wanted...

Our skin heated with the contact, the energy growing, building, generated by two supernatural people letting down all their walls. Adam reciprocated, his hands skimming my sides, wrapping around my back, his legs twining with mine. Yes.

I needed more--more skin, less clothing. I sat up with a moan, hands scrambling to take off my T-shirt. Adam's hands tangled with mine as he pushed my hands to the side, grabbed the neck of the cotton tee and ripped it down the middle, pushing the pieces off me. We were both sitting up now, my legs wrapped around his hips, only the thin cotton of my panties and his trousers keeping us apart.

I bent my head to his, losing myself in another kiss, taking, demanding, needing to connect. I threw my head back as the heat rose, gasping with the need to breathe.

A low growl issued from Adam's throat as he bent his head, lips to my neck, mouthing, nuzzling, tasting, then nipping a little, teasing me.

"Yes." I arched in pleasure as I hissed the word, palming the back of his head and pressing it to me.

His lips moved against my skin as he licked me again. I felt a sudden scrape, then a sharp pressure/pain.

Finally, I thought. Finally.

Adam's fingers dug into my back, slid into fists as a huge shudder gripped his body. He froze then, every muscle stone. He didn't pull away, didn't continue.

I kept silent, waiting. I knew what he'd nearly done.

After a moment...an eternity...during which the only sound in the room was our mutual harsh breathing, Adam lifted his hands from my back, placed them on my biceps with a gentle stroke. His head dropped to his chest with a huge exhalation.

"What?" I whispered. There had been a word buried in his sigh.

I pulled away a little, brought my hands up to cradle his face.

"Adam, what?"

With a visible effort, he dropped his hands to his thighs, shuddered again and with a deep intake and release of breath forcibly relaxed.

"No." The word hung out there, bald and blunt.

I blinked, not sure I understood.

"What do you mean, 'no'?"

Adam slid back and off the bed, moving about three feet away. His erection was still visible through the thin fabric.

I scrambled to join him, to confront him. I was sure we looked a sight, both of us half naked, still flushed with arousal, except mine was quickly turning to anger. Damn it all, I was going to get to the bottom of this. He simply could not keep ignoring me.

As I opened my mouth to speak, the not-so-dulcet tones of my mobile phone rang.

Chapter Two

Along with the role of vampire lover I'd also assumed the job of occasional Renfield...well, maybe not Renfield, but definitely the daytime representative of a nocturnal (duh) vampire. I didn't procure babies, young virgins or goats, not even blood. Simply paperwork and legal dealings.

Dealing with humans was part of my resume in the supernatural family business. And, although I preferred night to day, I could deal with it. It had never been a problem before, but then it had never interrupted too-long-delayed whoopie, either.

And now, a supposedly brief early morning appointment had stretched into the afternoon. I was not a happy Renfield.

It was Adam's not-so-bright idea I should be here, losing sleep and listening to an extremely annoying real estate broker. Adam was looking to acquire the last bit of ranch land adjacent to the Wild Moon that wasn't nature preserve.

In fact, it was also Adam's way short of brilliant idea to have given my mobile phone number to the brokerage. Kevin, the annoying real estate guy representing the ranch sale, had been the one who'd called and interrupted Adam's and my not-sex. Adam thought he was making things convenient for me--you know, I had an appointment already to sign paperwork regarding the mortuary sale, why not spend a little more time and conveniently take care of this business, as well? Except my real estate guy didn't handle ranches. He also did not have my private mobile number. I was picky about that sort of thing.

Adam had meant to talk to me about the ranch, but I'd distracted him. Or so he said. Whatever--it wasn't as if I were alone in that bed. After a confusing phone call with Kevin and then an explanation from Adam about rezoning and a referendum and developers and things I didn't want to talk about right then, I'd given up, agreed to go look at the place and also given up on finding why buying ranches was more important than great sex. It was close to seven by that time, so I'd gone to take a shower and let Adam go to sleep while I'd tried to get ready for the day ahead.

In the interests of keeping it all in the family, I'd risked interrupting things and dragged my brother out of his own comfy bed and from the side of his own vampire lover so he could join me in my frustration and sleeplessness. He totally owed me. If my great-great-granny could send him here to be my babysitter, then Tucker got to be dragged along on the less fun errands, too.

It wasn't as if I knew anything about ranch land, other than what I'd gleaned over the years living in Rio Seco. Adam had thought (probably rightly) that purchasing this land site unseen (so to speak) was likely to attract attention. So, here we were, Tucker and I, listening to the very unnecessary spiel from a guy who seemed to think my face was somewhere in the middle of my chest. My brother was all too amused.

"It's about five hundred acres all told, got a nice creek running through the middle of it." Kevin Barton gestured, his hands pointing past the smallish house on the left. "The creek's a couple hundred yards back there, past the foreman's house and the bunkhouse. Lots of oaks, most of it's unimproved, but the main house is really nice. And your friend is in luck, property's priced to move quick."

I tried to listen as I shaded my eyes from the afternoon sun. Early morning had morphed into high noon as our original appointment with the broker got delayed. Kevin had called my mobile before Tucker and I had been even halfway to the ranch property and asked to postpone the meeting until noon. Didn't this guy eat lunch? After some choice words, I'd agreed and Tucker and I made a detour and spent the next couple of hours getting some power-napping in at my house, a place I hadn't been to in a while.

At least I wasn't completely sleep-deprived, but I was definitely in need of some caffeine. We'd overslept a little and hadn't had time to stop by Bea's caf for more than a single to-go mug. As a result, my mood was less than agreeable. All I really wanted to do was to get this farce over with and go back to the ranch to catch some shuteye.

It was mid-March but the beginning of the Texas heat was already making its presence known. Daytime temps were running in the eighties with a hint of ninety hovering over the horizon. This was the part of the year I hated most. We mostly called it "Summer: Part One." The Texas Hill Country isn't known for mild cool springtimes, except extremely occasionally. I remember a time or two during a late March weekend when a blue norther ripped through and plunged the temperatures below freezing. This was not one of those times. If there were any reason in the known universe to get me to emigrate to British Columbia with the rest of my family, this current hot spell might be one of them. Who says there isn't any global warming?

I'd slathered on some SPF 50 before I'd left the house; tan was something alien to me. All my life, I'd mostly stayed out of the sun since my skin, heritage from my faery mother, was only a shade darker than Adam's and had a terrible tendency to burn. Geared up in jeans and a light long-sleeved cotton shirt over a tank top, I was ready for bear...or ranch buying. A black "gimme cap" I'd appropriated from my late cousin's funeral home topped off my attire and helped shade my face. Hard to avoid sun at the peak of the day, though. Even the expensive shades weren't helping much.

"So, okay if I take a look around?" Tucker straightened up from his lean against the porch railing of the main house. The place was really nice: small, but well built, obviously cared for over the years. Not that it mattered. Adam wasn't planning on living here after all; he was buying the place as a precautionary measure. The vampires had been at the Wild Moon since this past October and had managed to keep a low profile. That wasn't too hard, around here, mostly folks kept to themselves.

Kevin shrugged. "Be my guest," he said. "Stay away from the corral, though. Hear Pete's breaking a new horse. He gets a mite cranky with strangers around."

"Pete?" I turned back to Kevin, who was standing in the shade of a giant live oak.

"The foreman," he answered. "Been working for the judge for awhile now."

"Judge?" Tucker asked.

"Judge J.D. Pursell," answered the broker. "County judge. He's retiring at the end of the month and Bitsy's none too fond of the ranching life."

"There's a person named Bitsy?" Jeez, I hope she's twelve and his daughter, I thought, because really.

Kevin chuckled. "Elizabeth's her given name," he said. "His wife. Hear she's of the trophy persuasion." His hands started to move, cupped upwards. He seemed to think better of it and aborted the motion. Great. I'd already spent close to an hour with this guy ogling my own breasts and now I had to listen to him describe Bitsy, with all the attending male chauvinist hand gestures. Bitsy, evidently, was not so much twelve as twenty-something, tanned, most likely with frosted hair, frosted pink and highly unnatural nails and a penchant for lunch and tennis bracelets. Figures. I didn't know this judge, but there were too many like him around. I'd bet anything that he had a former Mrs. Judge and mother of his children somewhere around.

"I imagine she prefers San Antonio or Austin," I said aloud. "This place a little too remote?"

"Got that 'bout right," Kevin said. "They've got new place up in one of those new McMansion subdivisions outside of San Antonio." He leaned in a little, dropping his voice, although there was no one around to hear. "I heard through the grapevine that Ms. Bitsy is buying all new furniture for the new house and that's why the quick sell on this one. Kind of surprised me, though. Judge P's old man bought this place dirt cheap during the Depression and it's been in the family ever since. Guess now that it's the two of them, though . . ."

He let his voice trail off as if to intimate there was more to the story. I got the feeling I was supposed to huddle closer and join in the gossip. So not likely. I'd already had enough of Kevin Barton and I was not about to put my breasts in closer proximity to him. I was pretty sure Kevin had his own version of Bitsy at home. Not that I was necessarily in favor of the 'til death do us part type of marriage. Marriage for life wasn't exactly a model in my family. Couldn't be, really, when "life" meant "just short of immortality." But I hated the good ol' boy penchant for dumping the first wife without much warning to marry a younger version. Their first (and sometimes second) marriages never ended well. A lot of times, the original wife and kids suffered from financial hardships, while the second Mrs. Good Ol' Boy raked it in, unlike the more rational arrangements of my own family.

"Their new place is nice," Kevin added in a more normal tone of voice as he realized I wasn't going to play the gossip game. "Three acres per house minimum with private tennis courts, pools and a really amazing golf course."

Sounds like the last place I'd ever want to be, but these types of developments had become too damned pervasive for my tastes. Too much of that going on up Highway 281 and further, places that were once sprawling ranch land cut up for urban sprawl, every year, getting closer to Rio Seco. Come to think of it, that's probably what Adam meant about the rezoning. The state conservation area couldn't be touched, but the Pursell place was an outlet mall and subdivision waiting to happen. Yeah, we were far out from the madding crowd, but the folks in San Marcos, Katy and Allen had thought that, too, and now all those locations had ginormous temples to the retail gods.

"Kevin, you hear anything about any commercial rezoning up around here?" I asked. If anyone would know, he would. He would, of course, have an eye out for new sales possibilities.

He nodded. "There's been talk in town meetings. This could be a decent crossroads once some of the towns get a little bigger. Could be a prime location for a developer. Nothing's come of it yet, though. Judge P said he was fixin' to sell the place, but not to some developer. They've all been arguing the zoning for a couple of months now. Coupl'a real loudmouths thinking to bring in tourist money. Don't think it'll come to a decision on the zoning until Judge P retires next month. He's a big influence on the rest of them."

"He's at the meetings in his capacity as judge?" I asked, confused. Texas politics wasn't my strong suit-hell, most times, politics in this state were incomprehensible even to those whose job it was-but I was pretty sure a county judge had no official place in a town meeting.

"Nah," Kevin answered. "He's there as a private citizen. Thing is, once he retires, some folks gonna start seeing him as a weekend landowner, since he doesn't live here anymore."

"Yeah, I see that," I said. "Thanks. I guess if he sells the place, then it's all moot."

Kevin shrugged. "Depends. Your friend wanting to move here or buy it as an investment?"

"Neither." I wondered how much Adam had told Kevin during yesterday evening's discussion that I hadn't been privy to. "He owns the adjacent land and wants to avoid exactly what we were talking about."

"'Kay then, guess we should get on with it, so we can get to the point where you want to sign the papers." Kevin motioned with his hand as if it was all settled. Nice realtor's trick, that, but totally unnecessary.

"So, what happens to Pete?" Tucker crouched down near Kevin, idly picking up a stick and making circles in the dirt.


"When the ranch is sold," I said, understanding where my brother was headed with his question. "What happens to the current staff?"

Kevin snorted a laugh. "Staff? Ain't no one here but Pete and a few, you know . . ." He made a hand gesture that could mean anything from "shoo fly" to "around the world."

"Know what?" He looked around a bit and dropped his voice into the same almost conspiratorial tone he'd used before. "I imagine there are a coupl'a hands, you know, of the exchange variety." He gave us a wink with a bit of a smirk. I wasn't sure what he was getting at, but all it was missing was the "nudge, nudge" to make the look even more disgusting. "Since Pete's foreman, guess he'll be looking for a new job."

"I imagine that would make him a wee bit cranky." Tucker stood from his crouch in one swift movement, startling Kevin, who took a step back.

Kevin grimaced, his jaw setting as he stared at my imposing six-foot-four Viking brother. I knew Tucker was doing this on purpose, for all his amusement at my expense, he obviously liked Kevin Barton about as much as I did, and it wasn't beyond him to use his height and presence as an advantage. I didn't think Kevin was aware of it, but I could see the machismo percolating.

"Imagine so," Kevin said, leaving the shade, moving away from Tucker. He took my arm as he approached, leading me away from the front of the house, toward the other buildings, some fifty yards to the right on a small rise. We'd parked his over-expensive yuppie truck in the muddy drive near the corral. I'd offered to drive, since my Land Rover Defender was meant for this kind of terrain, but Kevin insisted on showing off his new toy. Whatever. I'd left the Rover in the parking lot of the caf and he'd be the one scraping mud off a fancy paint job and from the overdone interior...or at least paying someone to do it.

Tucker stayed where he was, his face showing no emotion, no feeling. I shot him a glance full of meaning. He grimaced back at me, then threw me an engaging grin. "I'll go look around," he said to no one in particular.

Good. My brother was always able to read me fairly well. "Look around" meant scope out the place as only a 1200-year-old shapeshifter could. I didn't expect anything out of the ordinary, but I'd heard of ranch hands doing some creative growing of less-than-legal herbs on these weekend type properties. Absentee owners often meant a very lucrative side business for underpaid hands. Not that I really minded, but the last thing either side needed was a delay in the sale due to the discovery of an illegal activity. If Tucker found anything, we could always come back under cover of darkness and take care of it.

"You do that." I tossed the words over my shoulder, and turned my attention back to Kevin.

"What about the hands?" I asked as we walked.

"They go back." Kevin stepped in front of me, stopping to open the door to what was obviously a bunkhouse.

"Back?" I stepped through into the dark interior. It was slightly cooler than it was outside, but not by much. I could tell that this building would quickly turn into a roasting oven during the summer months. No sign of air conditioning either. A couple of ratty old ceiling fans hung up high. Place looked clean, but run down...the opposite of the precisely kept main house. I was betting the foreman's place was nicer than this, too.

A row of steel-framed bunks lined either side of the concrete-floored building, small windows broke the monotony of the wooden wall about every ten feet. It looked very much like an army barracks. Not that I'd ever actually been in one, but I'd seen what Hollywood thought they looked like.

I suppose it wasn't too bad of a place for a ranch hand to live. Most of these guys were probably single, drifters; the last of a dying breed. Places like Texas, Colorado, Wyoming still had cowboys-men who preferred life among livestock, drifting from place to place in search of whatever. Soft voices in the distance filtered through the hum of the cicadas. I realized that I could hear the men at the corral. Cowboys, yeah, but here, they mostly spoke a broken mixture of Spanish and English, as if undereducated in both languages. Spanglish, common language of most Hill Country ranches.

"What did you mean by 'back'?" I asked again.

"You know," he said, moving forward to join me. "Back across." He made a swimming motion with his arms.

"They're wetbacks?"

One meaty hand patted me on the shoulder, as the other came up to his lips. "Shush. Exchange students." His eyes twinkled as he emphasized the euphemism that I suddenly understood. Students-more like severely underpaid and underappreciated labor.

"Once the contract is signed and the place is deeded over, Judge'll make sure they get back. Or go work on another place if someone needs 'em."

I shrugged away from his touch. Yeah, I knew this went on in various places, ranches nearby, even. But I'd always thought it was something done by the good ol' boys trying to buck the system. Not by respectable pillars of the community. I should have known, I suppose, should have at least guessed. The ratio of money and power to poverty and hunger never really changed. The powerful would always overshadow the needy-here, or in the bowels of the Welsh mountains where I was a child. Only the venue changed.

"For the love of...." I exclaimed. "He's a county judge. How the--"

Sounds of shouting interrupted. Kevin and I exchanged glances and ran outside.

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