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Staking His Claim

By:Lynda Chance

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.

Garrett spoke in a sneer. "Unless you got dibs buddy, the one on the left goes home in my truck."

Raul knocked back the rest of his drink and casually glanced over at the woman in question. He studied her intently, waiting to feel something other than sheer boredom. He saw her eyes flare with a heated, predatory look that left him cold. Nothing had changed since the last time he looked. She seemed exactly like all the rest. Out for a good time. Out for a rich man. Out for some sex. She did nothing for him. "Be my guest."

Raul knew Garrett was about to make his move on the woman when Janie breezed back into the room, her arm wrapped tightly around a young, dark-haired girl carrying a backpack. The girl was wearing jeans and a pink t-shirt, with her hair in a ponytail and her face free of make-up. She was pretty, couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen, and he felt Garrett freeze beside him.

Raul didn't know who the girl was, but he vaguely remembered Brian telling him something about a niece who had lost her mother recently. She was small and looked Hispanic and some protective instinct he never realized he had rose up within him. He felt his body tighten and hissed a warning to the man standing next to him. "Don't even fucking think about it man, she's just a baby."

The other man's eyes stayed narrowed on the girl, and Raul held himself stiffly until Garrett seemed to think better of it and turned his attention back to the two women.

Raul took a calming breath, using the moment to excuse himself from getting caught in a social foursome that he had no intention of allowing. Relieved that Garrett had moved his attention away from the younger girl, he spoke both to reward the man and to extricate himself from the clutches of the two women. "Take 'em both. I'm getting another drink."

He walked into the den where his host stood mixing cocktails and socializing with his friends and neighbors. Raul caught Brian's eye and in moments the other man was pouring him another drink. All the while, Raul felt, rather than saw, Janie leading the young girl around the guests, casually introducing her.

New drink in hand, Raul was checking his watch for what seemed like the hundredth time when Janie came up behind him and spoke, "Raul, sweetie, look what I've got here." Janie's voice was melodious and filled with sincere, sweet southern honey.

Raul shifted around and his gaze ran over the girl with Janie. He stiffened imperceptibly when brown eyes lifted to his and he was ensnared by the exotic beauty of her young face. Immediately, he was swamped with unwanted heat. A raw, basic hunger pulsed through his system he had no right or desire to feel for a girl this young. But nonetheless, it was there, and it was beating forcefully through his bloodstream.

She was small with silky dark hair and a skin so porcelain-fine his eyes narrowed in on her and studied her intently, looking for a flaw, any flaw.

There wasn't one that he could see.

Her eyes were sexily slanted, dark brown and intense, and her nose was straight with a slight upward tilt that only enhanced her delicate beauty.

Of their own volition, fighting everything his brain was advising, his eyes dropped and slid down her body. Her hips were narrow below a sharply indented waist. The pink t-shirt clung to her frame and accentuated the slight feminine mounds of her breasts.

A fierce arrow of arousal and an alarming need to possess slammed through him and he tightened his body to rein in control. Total heat swamped him and he had to force words out of his mouth. "Who's this?"

"This is my sweet baby niece, Elaina. She's home for Christmas. Elaina, meet our neighbor and very dear friend, Raul."

As Raul studied the girl in front of him, someone called Janie's name from the other room.

"I've got to see what that's all about. I'll be right back." She floated off and Raul was left alone with the young girl.

He felt the need to touch her and couldn't stop himself, so he offered her his outstretched palm. "Raul Vega."

*

As the deep, commanding voice lacerated her insides, Elaina tentatively reached out to give her palm to the tall, dark man standing in front of her. His hand encapsulated hers completely and didn't let go. A searing moment of shock hit her as she glanced at the rough, masculine hand holding hers captive before her eyes slowly climbed back to his face.

His hand was lean and strong, gripping hers with enough force to momentarily hold her immobile without actually hurting her. The calluses she felt only emphasized his masculinity; the combination of his hand gripping hers and his eyes swallowing her whole were almost more than she could handle at the moment.

Her heartbeat accelerated and blood pulsed through her veins. Heat swam down her body and she prayed her face didn't show the effect he had on her. As he continued to hold her hand in a tight clasp, she silently studied him.

The man was magnificent. There were no other words.

She guessed his age around thirty, and his surname was indicative of the looks he carried. He was dark and swarthy, his features chiseled and defined in a way that was very much Castilian. He was tall, probably a couple of inches over six feet, with a steely magnetism that ran through his body.

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