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       Ryan's Hand, p.10

           Leila Meacham
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  “You’re trying to sell me a bunch of bull!” Jeth thundered, getting up to return to the bar. His back to her, Jeth in frustration sent his empty glass skimming along the polished surface until it came to rest in a padded leather corner. God. How could lips like those, eyes that guileless, concoct such a story and expect him to believe it? Since she was not a naive or stupid woman, she must be very sure of herself to take him on.

  “Why can’t you believe me?” she pleaded to his back, her voice very soft and small, projecting still the role of the innocent. He sighed.

  “Because I knew my brother, Miss Martin. He would never have kept his hands off you. Why would he want to?” From the way she rose to meet him, clutching the handkerchief, he must present a terrible sight.

  “He never touched me!” she cried as Jeth approached her. “You know, Mr. Langston, I was very hurt when you told me that Ryan had not mentioned me to you. I wondered why not. We were the best of friends, in the deepest, finest way. But now I can understand why he didn’t discuss our relationship with you. A man like you isn’t capable of understanding the way it was between us.”

  “You’re frightened, Miss Martin. I wonder why. Is it because you think I might harm you? But I promised I wouldn’t hurt you, remember? Do you think I’m not a man of my word?”

  “I—oh, I believe you’re a man of your word, but you are…misguided. You have the wrong impression about Ryan and me.”

  “Why should it matter to you that I think Ryan was your lover?”

  “Well, because he wasn’t!” Her eyes, he saw, had taken on the color of smoky lavender and widened in the alarm of an animal being circled by a predator. “I don’t know why it’s important to me that you believe that, but it is!”

  “Don’t you know why, Miss Martin?” Jeth’s voice was as smooth as the sliding of a snake across her skin. Before she could register his next intention, he had reached out and pulled her into the inescapable confines of his arms.

  Cara struggled like a wild thing caught in a trap, but it was too late. Jeth’s embrace pinned her arms to her sides, and the boots protected his shins from the kick of her evening shoes.

  “It would seem that it has become necessary one more time to make clear to you that I know what your game is, Miss Martin—why you are so hell-bent on staying here.”

  “You promised!” Cara choked, her heart beating like a maddened bird.

  “I promised not to hurt you. Am I hurting you?”

  “This is physical abuse.”

  “Nonsense. The denial of what you want is physical abuse. Come here.”

  His dark head was descending as he spoke, and Cara, held steady by the grip of his hand entwined in her hair, could not escape a kiss she knew was meant to punish and humiliate. She squeezed her eyes tightly and compressed her lips before he could reach them. Her hands gripped his back, intending to dig nails of protest into his flesh. She waited. The kiss did not come. A harsh chuckle reached her ears. “Miss Martin, you are the world’s greatest actress.”

  The violet eyes flew open to find the kiss still hovering, the sensuous lips quirked in a slight grin.

  “Is all of this necessary?” she whispered. “Can’t we just have a nice dinner?”

  “Are you hungry?” he asked softly, kissing each side of her mouth.

  “Very,” she answered, trying to ignore the traitorous flutter beginning in the pit of her stomach. Her heavy lashes lowered, and Jeth drew her deeper into the cradle of his shoulder. The contact of his breath on her earlobe sent a shock of awareness through her. Warm and sensuous, the fingers that he thrust through her hair moved to cushion her neck for the gentle play of his lips over her features. Slowly Cara began to yield to the soothing caress of his other hand moving down to her hips.

  “Then let me feed you,” Jeth suggested huskily, as his hand moved down her back. Expertly he clasped her to the waiting convexity of his body.

  Cara yelped in dismay, but not before he had felt her response. “Cara—” Jeth said her name like a prayer, finding her mouth and drinking of it hungrily, cupping her tightly to him.

  Enveloped in the sensual male warmth of him, conscious only of her need for him, Cara could not resist the desire that surged up from the most hidden depths of her being to meet the tide of Jeth’s passion. Her fingers dug into his hard-muscled back, not to hurt but to press him closer, closer, with a terrible and urgent craving.

  Then, unbelievably—just as she was poised on a crest of incredible longing—the hands that had caressed her with such finesse clamped a grip on her forearms and pushed her violently away.

  Surprise exploded within her. Jeth’s eyes bore into her with glittering anger. “Now will you deny that you and Ryan were lovers?” he raged. “You’re too hot to stay out of many beds, Miss Martin—certainly not Ryan’s, so don’t ply me with any more Florence Nightingale stories. What really galls me is that you don’t even have enough feeling for Ryan’s memory to admit that you had an affair with him. You still hope to buy some kind of chance with me if I can be convinced that Ryan never touched you—though what kind of chance only that devious little mind of yours knows. Well you can forget it, Miss Martin. I don’t take any man’s leavings, not even Ryan’s.”

  In a daze, Cara heard him. How could one human being have this kind of devastating power over another? What is happening to me? she wondered, recognizing the searing pain of grief.

  “Cara?” Jeth spoke her name warningly and shook her for her attention. “Whatever role you’re playing at now, cut it out, do you hear me?”

  “Yes,” she answered dully.

  “Look at me!” he ordered. Cara lifted dazed eyes. “Tomorrow morning dress warmly in the oldest clothes you have. Come out to the breaking corrals. You are not getting a free ride this year, lady, no matter what you may have hoped. This is a working ranch and everybody works here, including you.”

  When she said nothing, he left her to open a closet door in the paneled wall, taking out a split-cowhide jacket lined with fleece. He buttoned into it while she watched, then returned to her carrying the fawn Stetson with the black band.

  “I won’t be joining you for dinner. I seem to have lost my appetite. I hope you haven’t. You’ll need your stamina tomorrow. Enjoy your meal and the piano, and be at the corrals by eight o’clock. Pleasant dreams.”

  Cara watched him stride from the room without looking back, much as he had left her the first day they met. At her feet was another of the white handkerchiefs, which, again, she picked up and held to her lips. This time, however, he had left her with the deepest pain and confusion she had ever known.

  The next morning Cara threaded through the compound of ranch buildings to the maze of fences she assumed were the breaking corrals. Cowhands were assembled around one huge corral, unmindful of the rising dust and fresh manure that choked the brisk air. As she drew closer, she guessed that over fifty horses were in the enclosure, and standing in their midst, his back to her, was a tall, slim man with a clipboard. He happened to turn as she approached and surprised her with a nod.

  She scanned the group of men apprehensively. Nearly all of them were eyeing her, some with boldly inquisitive eyes, others in embarrassment. Where in the world was Jeth? Even his contempt was better than standing awkwardly before the curious gazes of thirty or more strange men.

  “Miss Martin?”

  Cara turned in relief at the sound of the familiar voice. Jeth had come up behind her, apparently from a long, low building that bore the name “Feedtrough” over its entrance. “Mr. Langston, what am I doing here?” she demanded in a low voice.

  “Right now, nothing. In a minute, you’ll be working.” The cold, clear eyes raked her up and down. “Those are certainly not the kind of clothes you’ll be needing for the roundup, Miss Martin. We’ll have to do something about that this afternoon, if there’s time.”

  Some of the men were within hearing distance, and she felt their sharp surprise along with the jolt that hit her. “What do you
mean?” she asked tensely, determined to keep her composure, but a tremor of foreboding rippled through her. Jeth’s face wore the cynically hard expression that she had come to recognize as trouble for her.

  “You’re going on a roundup with us, Miss Martin—as Leon Sawyer’s assistant. He’s our cook. The man who usually helps him is in the hospital recovering from an emergency appendectomy. I can’t spare a man to replace him, so I’ve decided that you will go in his place. When Toby gets well enough to ride out, he’ll relieve you. But until he does, consider the next month to six weeks of your life reserved.”

  By now, Cara and Jeth had everyone’s attention but the horses. They were cantering about the corral, stirring up dust around the tall man in the center. The men appeared to be busy with ropes and saddles, but Cara knew they were listening. “You can’t be serious,” she said between her teeth.

  “Do I not look serious, Miss Martin?” Jeth took a step closer to her.

  Cara restrained an impulse to draw back. “I thought you didn’t want me to distract the men.”

  “You won’t. That I can promise you. I’ve just been to tell Leon the good news. He wasn’t any more excited about it than you are, which is too bad because I like to keep the cook happy.”

  “Mr. Langston, you surely don’t mean what you’re saying.”

  “I always mean what I say, Miss Martin, as you will discover to your grief if you decide to sit this one out. Your only alternative is to leave La Tierra—after you sign the papers releasing Ryan’s half of the ranch.”

  Cara stared up at him. The sensuous mouth was an adamant line, the gray eyes the color of slate. There was no doubt in her mind that he would force her to go on the roundup. “So that’s what this is all about,” she said quietly.

  “You got it, lady. I’m giving you one more minute of my very valuable time to make up your mind which it’s to be. I’ll take as your answer either your heading back to the house or going into the Feedtrough to find Leon.”

  It took Cara less than the minute Jeth gave her to make her decision. With a last defiant look at him, she did an about-face and marched into the Feedtrough.

  Chapter Seven

  The Feedtrough was the ranch kitchen where food was prepared and served family style to the men who worked for La Tierra. Leon Sawyer, the cook and chuckwagon master, ruled over his spotless domain with an absolute authority that even Jeth Langston took care not to breach. The appendectomy that had claimed Leon’s helpmate and dishwasher the afternoon before had left the cook facing the coming roundup in a foul temper.

  Cara walked into the Feedtrough to interrupt a profane berating the irascible cook was heaping onto the thin shoulders of a young Mexican cowboy picked as a temporary replacement.

  “Now get outta here!” the small, wiry man finished, taking a booted swipe at the fast-retreating backside of the hapless young cowboy. “No-good worthless young pup!” he added, scowling at the swinging back doors through which the cowboy escaped.

  Cara struggled not to grin. Leon was exactly as Ryan had described. He was indeed a caricature of the legendary chuck-wagon boss of the late-night movies. Behind the ample white apron, the jutting, whiskery chin, the fighting-rooster stance, there had to beat the soft heart of a Gabby Hayes.

  “Hello,” she said, and Leon spun around on his boot heels to discover Cara. With eyes as blue and round as robin eggs, he peered at her over the tops of his rimless glasses, dropping a jaw to reveal tobacco-stained teeth. “Who in the Sam Hill holy Moses are you?” he exclaimed.

  “Mr. Langston’s idea of an assistant for you, I’m afraid,” Cara replied with a smile, and extended her hand. “Cara Martin, Mr. Sawyer. He said you were expecting me.”

  The bottom jaw snapped shut. “Oh, I see…” He gave her hand a swift shake. “You weren’t what I was expectin’ a’tall. However, young lady, ideas are for usin’. Especially the boss’s.”

  By midmorning Cara found that for all his gruff manners, Leon was her kind of boss. He was an orderly man, accustomed to giving explicit, no-nonsense instructions that Cara’s quick intelligence appreciated. She learned at once that the two of them had the double duties of getting the men fed for the next two days as well as preparing La Tierra’s modern version of a chuckwagon for the roundup that was to take place the day after tomorrow. By lunchtime the shambles that had been breakfast had been cleared away, and an edge of Leon’s temper soothed.

  Cara was too busy to be nervous about serving the men or to be conscious of the stares she received when they trooped into the dining room. Each man seemed to have his designated place at one of the tables that surrounded a longer table in the center of the room. Every table was occupied when Jeth and the tall man she had seen in the corral entered with Bill and several others. They took their places at the central table. Jeth and Bill ignored her when she carried in their food, but the tall man again gave her a friendly nod. They were the last to be served, and afterward Cara had to pause for a tired sigh when she went back to the kitchen. Leon, standing at the huge stainless-steel counter, heard her. “I must say, for a li’l un, you got a lot of work in ya,” he said, and Cara flushed with unexpected pleasure. That was probably as close to a compliment as she’d ever get from the wizened old fellow.

  “What do you want me to do now?” she asked him.

  “Rest yore feet awhile. Eat somethin’. Then we’ll start packin’ the vans.”

  That afternoon, as she was packing the last pan into a box for loading, Jeth Langston’s big shadow fell across her. She had pulled her hair back with a string, rolled up the sleeves of her silk blouse, and was wearing an oversized pair of rubber gloves. Cara looked up quizzically, aware that her heart had begun to thump.

  “I’m going up to the big house now,” he said, “and I want you to come with me. Leon can carry on from here. One of the boys will help him serve supper.”

  Cara knew better than to argue. She pulled off the rubber gloves and walked without comment into an adjacent pantry where Leon was checking off supplies from a list he had clamped to a clipboard.

  “Mr. Langston tells me I’m to go now, Mr. Sawyer,” said Cara, watching the cook of La Tierra pause from his counting to moisten the tip of his pencil with his tongue.

  “That’s reason enough to go, child,” he informed her tranquilly. “He anywhere around?”

  “I’m right here, Leon,” Jeth said, coming up behind Cara to lean against the doorway. She had stepped just inside the pantry, and when she turned to leave, she found that Jeth had blocked her exit. Their eyes met in an impasse—his challenging, hers cold and still. Jeth did not budge. Over Cara’s head, he said to the cook, “Did you need me?”

  “Looks like I could use one more case of coffee, if it’s no trouble.”

  “No trouble,” Jeth said. “I’m going into town this evening. Is there anything else?”

  “It can wait,” said Leon, still counting his supplies, and Cara had the distinct impression that she was the matter that could wait.

  “Good night, Mr. Sawyer,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ll see you in the morning.” Pointedly she turned back to Jeth. The rancher eyed her with hard mockery for a few seconds before lowering his arm to let her pass. Cara walked outside into the cold dusk. The norther that had hit the night before still had its bite. She did not wait for Jeth but started toward the house.

  Cara was halfway there before he caught up with her. “Wait up,” Jeth ordered, clamping a hand on her upper arm.

  Cara tried to pull away. “Let go of me!” she snapped.

  Jeth looked down at her in feigned surprise. “Miss Martin, what do you think I’m going to do?”

  “Mr. Langston, I could easily learn to loathe you.”

  “I’m sure you could, Miss Martin. You’ll have plenty of reasons to.” He steered her toward a large six-car garage that held an immaculate fleet of vehicles, all the same light gray. One was the jeep in which she had ridden from the airport and another was a gleaming Lincoln Continental, i
ts Texas license plate bearing discreetly in one corner the brand of La Tierra Conquistada.

  Jeth released her arm and strode around to the driver’s side of the Continental. “Get in,” he told her.

  Cara looked puzzled. “Why?” she asked.

  “Miss Martin—” Jeth drew a weary sigh. “Haven’t you learned by now not to try my patience?”

  Cara with sullen grace got into the passenger side of the luxurious car and felt immediately enveloped by a velour cloud. Her tired, aching limbs all but sighed in appreciation of the sumptuous comfort of the contoured seat. “Where are you taking me?” she asked warily.

  “Into town to get you some work clothes,” Jeth informed her. “I doubt seriously that you have anything suitable for working around men on a roundup. What you’ll need are jeans and flannel shirts—loosely fitting ones,” he added grimly. “You need boots and socks, also a jacket that you can move around in. You didn’t just happen to bring anything like that with you, did you?”

  “Actually no. Roundups were not quite the in thing in Boston.” She turned to him contrarily. “And this is a wasted trip. I don’t have my checkbook with me.”

  “I will take care of the bill, Miss Martin.”

  “Oh no you won’t! I don’t want anything from you!”

  “Really?” The dark brows rose satirically over a long, level look.

  Enraged, Cara turned away from him to stare out across the flat plains. Dear God, let me hate him! she prayed. “I’ll write you a check when we get home,” she said, unaware of how she had referred to La Tierra.

  Cara, her cheeks flaming and awash with loneliness, walked out of the old-fashioned dry-goods store of the small prairie town to wait for Jeth while he settled the bill with the gray-haired storekeeper he called “Miss Emma.” Miss Emma had clearly not liked Cara. The woman’s eyes had sparkled with pleasure at seeing Jeth, but they had turned hostile when lighting upon Cara. “So you’re taking yourself off on a roundup, are you?” she had asked with a disapproving purse of her lips. “I must say, from what I’ve heard I’m surprised.”

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