Staking His Claim

By: Lynda Chance
Dedication


To Rita,

Whose help has been like gold dust sprinkled around me.

And to Clayton,

Because . . . just because.





***





CHAPTER ONE


Raul Vega leaned against the wall and surveyed the scene around him. Condensation from the ice melting in his mixed drink soaked the red and gold napkin wrapped around the transparent green cup in his hand.

What the hell was he doing here? He wasn't into the social scene at all, his time eaten up with running his ranch and the everyday minutiae that went along with it. He didn't have time for this shit.

But Brian and Janie Canton were the closest thing to neighbors he had, and if truth be told, the closest thing to friends, as well. Janie had made it known to all and sundry that Raul would be at their Christmas party, and in the end, as cold and icy as his heart was, he still hadn't been able to say no.

So now, here he stood, his back to the wall, and watched the beautiful blond couple entertaining what felt like the whole damn county. The house was beautiful, richly decorated and spilling over with lights and greenery that reflected Janie's passion for all things holiday.

It was nauseating.

He took a drink of the bourbon he had been nursing for the last hour and wondered how quickly he could leave without coming off like the rude fuck that he was.

His eyes travelled around the circle of people standing near him. Two women stood side by side, one blonde, one red-headed, playing up the other's charms, both vying for his attention. He had felt their shrewd, calculating eyes coming back to him over and over since he arrived. They were both over the top glamorous, with long hair and manicured hands. Both had attempted to draw him into conversation, and after his second heated glare, had given up momentarily. He knew from experience they would try again.

They always did.

Raul wasn't interested in either one of them. They both looked like they wanted the same two things. Getting him exclusively in their beds, and then getting to his bank account. He'd met their type before, many times, and as distracting as taking one of them to bed would be, he knew he'd regret it tomorrow. Neither held enough appeal for him to have to suffer the ordeal of extricating himself from the situation after.

He had to admit, the selection of available women this far out in the rural countryside was limited. Driving to San Antonio was always an option, but the pleasures of mindless sex were always mitigated by the long drive and the irritation of having to take time away from the ranch.

These days, he didn't think it was worth it. The women that he had met lately were all transparent. They all had an agenda. He didn't know when or how he'd become so cynical, but recently, there hadn't been a single woman to cross his radius that seemed genuine.

He didn't exactly know where to slot Janie. His neighbor's new wife seemed okay. She was pretty enough, and in her mid-thirties, she hadn't been married before. She was blonde and vivacious and he knew Brian doted on her. Raul figured she wasn't as bad as the rest, and was glad his friend had found her. But still, when Brian had returned from his trip to Houston last year with a bride in tow, it had been a shock to the whole county. But Janie had eyes only for Brian, and her gaze constantly found her husband's across the crowded room and flashed wickedly. Raul was floored that her apparent love for her husband seemed to be authentic and if she had an ulterior motive, he couldn't see it.

There were probably fifty people crowded through the house, laughing and mingling around the kitchen and living areas. He had parked himself in this corner and hadn't moved since he arrived.

John Garrett, another neighbor, walked over to speak to him. John's wife had died a couple of years before, and the guy was almost as anti-social as Raul was.

"What's up, man?" Garrett asked in a smooth drawl.

Raul lifted his chin in a small, imperceptible nod of greeting. "Humoring Janie. Ready to leave."

Garrett nodded his agreement. "County sure doesn't know what to think since Janie came. Parties and bullshit."

"Yeah."

Garrett had stayed true to his wife for twelve months, but Raul knew from the small town gossip that since then, his neighbor had been screwing everything far and wide. Garrett was sandy blond, in contrast to Raul's own dark-haired, Spanish heritage.

Everybody around town was blond. It was an anomaly being so close to Mexico. People should have been dark, but in this small forty or so square miles close to the Texas Hill country, most were blond. Raul's coloring always attracted attention. And now, standing straight and tall next to his equally tall neighbor, the two females who'd been watching him since he'd gotten there were practically salivating. Raul saw the two women eyeing them up, not even attempting to hide it anymore.

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