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       Ryan's Hand, p.14

           Leila Meacham
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  Chills had begun to sweep Cara from head to foot. She had to clench her teeth to keep them from chattering. Beneath the rain slicker, she hugged her body tightly to stanch the hurt spreading within her.

  “But the cleverest move of all,” Jeth continued, “is how I’ve been made to look like the heavy in this little drama.”

  Cara spoke through her clenched teeth. “What do you mean?”

  “That bruise you wore for a while, your grazed hands—the men thought I was responsible for them.”

  “But I explained to Jim and Leon that I fell!”

  “Leon believed you. Apparently Jim didn’t. He must have intimated to the men otherwise.”

  “Oh, Mr. Langston, I am sorry! Truly I am. Jim thought—would you believe—that…you were jealous of us, and apparently that you had struck me out of—well, jealousy.” Warmth flooded her face. She huddled miserably in the raincoat.

  “I see. Well now—” He paused as if deciding whether to divulge his next thoughts. Then he resumed casually, “He was right, you know. I was jealous. I owe Ryan’s memory an apology for using it as the reason for my reaction when I saw you and my foreman together. And while I’m on the subject of apologies, Leon told me why you were with Jim. If it makes you feel any better, I was doubly sorry that I had misjudged you when I saw your bandaged hands that first night when I zipped you in your sleeping bag.”

  Cara was stunned. Jeth Langston jealous? And it had been he who had zipped up her bag that first night? “Uh, Mr. Langston—” She wet her lips. “There’s something here I don’t understand—”

  Jeth scoffed harshly. “Oh, come off it, Miss Cara. You know damn well Jim was right. I was jealous, and you knew it even before I did. I wouldn’t put it past you to have set the whole thing up, just to get a show of feeling out of me. You’re such an expert on men, you knew exactly how I would react.”

  “F-for your information”—her chattering teeth made it impossible not to stutter—“I w-would not be fool enough to risk y-your wrath by consorting with any man in y-your employ. F-furthermore, I don’t know the foggiest thing about m-men. The only man I ever really knew w-was your brother, but not in the w-way you are determined to think!”

  She was beginning to shake visibly from a gripping cold that had penetrated to her bone marrow. Giving her a stern glance, Jeth went to a dark recess in the wall of the cave where Cara could see an ancient wooden box. The lid creaked open as Jeth lifted out a blanket and something that resembled a towel. He brought them to her and explained, “That box is kept here with emergency supplies for La Tierra riders caught in a storm. Unsnap that slicker and wrap yourself in the blanket.” He shook out the towel and inspected it. “This seems clean enough. Dry your hair with it. You’ve gotten a chill. And you can stop looking at me in such wide-eyed astonishment. I’m not deceived.”

  “Maybe you’re not, but I certainly am!” Cara snapped, snatching the towel to her. “How could I possibly have known that you would be jealous of Jim and me? Why would you be?”

  Only a small distance separated them, and Cara felt the volatile tension growing between them, heightened by the crackling, hissing flames. She countered his direct gaze as bravely as she dared. Then the tension seemed to drain from the broad shoulders.

  “All right—” He turned his back to her with a sigh. “Suppose you wrap yourself in that blanket and dry your hair, then tell me about you and Ryan—and how a desirable twenty-four-year-old woman like yourself doesn’t know anything about men.”

  Cara, warm at last, her hair and body securely wrapped in the towel and blanket, wondered where to begin. Jeth looked so disturbingly male in the way he sat with his elbows on his knees, long fingers locked. The fabric of his Western shirt gripped the breadth of his shoulders and arms, and the leather chaps emphasized the power of his long legs. “Well?” Jeth’s dark brows rose. “Begin,” he ordered.

  Haltingly at first, Cara began to tell Jeth of her childhood, of how her first passion had been music. Her parents, she explained, had encouraged her to become a concert pianist. She had been educated, until Juilliard, in private girls’ schools where, she realized now, her family’s aspirations for her were not likely to encounter competition from the opposite sex. At Juilliard, she had just become aware that she was interesting to men when her world suddenly fell apart, went dark. The obligations she had assumed afterward precluded men. After several long years, there had been a light in the darkness. Ryan. He had offered her friendship, nothing else. His death had left her devastated and more alone than she had ever been. Jeth should know there had been no men in her life. They would have been named in that detective’s report.

  A silence, broken only by the crackling flames and an occasional whinny of the horses, stretched between them when Cara finished her narrative.

  “So,” reviewed Jeth, “you are telling me that you’ve never been with any man, not even Ryan.”

  Heat surged to her cheeks independent of the fever alternating with chills attacking her body. “Yes,” she whispered. “You can make what you wish of that information.”

  “What I wish is to find out if you are telling me the truth.”

  Cara was snapped out of the musing introspection into which she had wandered. “What do you mean?”

  “You know what I mean. No, maybe you don’t, not if you’re as innocent as you claim. I’m prepared to believe that you are—in that way. That doesn’t change the fact that you schemed to get La Tierra. You didn’t need experience with men to figure out that you’d be quite a prize to a man like Ryan. You held out on him until he was too sick, or too noble, to take what you promised. However, Miss Martin, I am neither.” With lithe grace, Jeth rose to his full, awesome height.

  Cara’s heart began to race as she realized his meaning. She stood up also, clutching the blanket tightly around her. She was wearing nothing beneath it. “No, Mr. Langston, you wouldn’t.”

  “Not here, I wouldn’t. This is neither the time nor the place. But I intend to find out just how innocent you are, Miss Martin, and then we’ll go from there. I’ll have at least one straight answer to this puzzle.”

  “If you didn’t insist on twisting everything I say and do, you’d have all the answers!”

  “I twist everything, do I? Do I twist the need I feel in you every time I’ve held you in my arms? Have I misread the message in those beautiful eyes, misunderstood those soft little moans—”

  Her pride made her say it. “Yes, damn you!” Cara gritted, chilled from head to foot.

  Jeth laughed down into her indignant eyes as he reached her. “You’re such a liar, Miss Cara. I’ll just take a moment to prove it to you.”

  His arms were wonderfully warm and strong. She could have basked, easily died, in them, but she had to resist. “You’re taking advantage of me!” she wailed, gripping the blanket.

  “Taking advantage of you? Never!” He trailed a series of warm kisses along her neck. “You’ll come to me willingly and gladly. You know it and I know it.”

  “I’m inexperienced. You’ll be disappointed—”

  “You could not possibly disappoint me, that I can promise you.” His lips had begun the return journey to the hollow of her throat.

  “Mr. Langston?”

  “Yes, Miss Martin?”

  “I am going to sneeze.”

  Just in time he handed her another of the white folded handkerchiefs. While she sneezed into it, he took the slicker and snapped it around her. “That cold coming on is not going to get you off the hook. It just buys you some time. Sit down by the fire until I saddle the horses. The storm is over. You can wear that blanket beneath the slicker back to camp. Tomorrow you’re going back to the ranch.”

  “But Leon can’t possibly manage the chuckwagon by himself!”

  “He won’t have to. Toby came in the plane with me. He can take over now. I’d be taking you back with me in any event. I can’t risk your splitting any more loyalties, now can I? No matter how innocently. And, Miss Cara, be
convinced that I intend to find out just how innocent you are. If that prospect frightens you, you can always sign over Ryan’s share to me and leave. The choice is up to you.”

  The next morning as they flew over the vast, pumping jack–studded acres that made up Jeth Langston’s empire, Cara saw that in her absence spring had arrived at La Tierra Conquistada. The cactus, all varieties and shapes, were flowering, and the rangeland grass shone tender and green under the spring sun. She had forgotten how huge and sprawling the house and ranch compound were. From the air, the swimming pool sparkled blue and clear, and she wondered if Jeth had been able to get in his daily swims on his visits back to the ranch.

  “Lucky for me your cold didn’t materialize,” Jeth said when he handed Cara down from the plane. The cool gray eyes held a mocking glitter. “You’ll have dinner with me tonight. You still haven’t played for me. Wear something pretty and join me in the study at seven.”

  Before she could reply, he was striding off toward the ranch headquarters. The pilot, a wizened, middle-aged man who served as a cowhand when he wasn’t flying his employer’s plane, taxied the Bonanza toward its hanger.

  Left alone, Cara began the long walk to the house. It was true she did not have the usual symptoms of a cold, but her joints ached and she had a headache.

  When Cara greeted her in the kitchen, the housekeeper instantly snapped, “What’s the matter with you? Your eyes look bleary.”

  “I—I think I’m coming down with something, Fiona. I got caught in a rainstorm yesterday.”

  Fiona went to a cupboard and took down an aspirin bottle from which she shook two tablets into Cara’s palm. “Take those with a big glass of orange juice and then go up and have a hot bath. Maybe you’re just needing the comforts of civilization.” A thin smile curved her lips. “I hear you managed fine.”

  “Who told you?”

  “El Patrón. Off with you now.”

  Cara soaked in a hot tub, but the aches in her muscles did not loosen their grip. “I’ll just crawl into bed for a little while,” she said to herself. Her last thought was to wonder what she would wear that evening.

  Cara sensed a dark presence looming over her and opened her eyes. At first she thought she was dreaming, for Jeth Langston often occupied the thoughts of her sleep, but then the dream materialized into reality and placed a tray from which steam rose on her bedside table. “You’ll do anything to delay the inevitable, won’t you?” Jeth said dryly. “Try to sit up. I’ve brought you some soup.”

  “What time is it?” Cara wanted to know. Her throat was sore and scratchy. The room spun dizzily when she tried to rise up.

  “Eight o’clock. You’ve slept nearly twelve hours.”

  “Twelve hours!” As she spoke, Jeth thrust a thermometer into her mouth and indicated that she should move over so he could sit beside her on the bed. The mattress depressed under his weight, and Cara’s hip rolled against his thigh. With a large hand that covered one side of her face, he felt her for fever, then slipped it inside her night shift to the supple curve of her neck and shoulder. When she tensed, he said, “Relax, I’m not going to take advantage of a girl in her sickbed.”

  Presently, he removed the thermometer and studied it with a frown. “You do have a fever, a respectable one. I want you to stay in bed for the next few days. A good rest and a diet of Fiona’s soups should do the trick. They’re worth getting sick for.” After he had capped the thermometer, Jeth’s eyes went back to her, moving over the clean, sun-streaked hair and flushed cheeks, the luminous eyes in the softly tanned oval of her face. “Did I say I wouldn’t take advantage of a girl in her sickbed?” he mused, positioning both hands on either side of her hips and gazing deliberately into her eyes. “I would very much like to. Right now. You look deliciously enticing, cuddly as a kitten.”

  “And sick, too,” Cara reminded him. “Probably with something highly contagious.”

  Jeth’s lips twitched in amusement. “A good point. I’ll just have to keep a tight rein on my ardor, won’t I? Get well quick, little girl.”

  But though she rested and dutifully ate the delicious soups Fiona brought her, Cara was a full week in bed. After the second day, Jeth had gone back to the roundup, and Cara had felt a sharp disappointment. Lying in bed, she thought of him every waking moment and knew that she wanted him more than she’d ever wanted anything in her life. There was an aching void in her that only he could fill. She knew she would be incapable of preventing his making love to her. Indeed, she didn’t want to. And perhaps when Jeth had positive proof that she had never been…Ryan’s whore, he would then have to look at her in a different light. He would probably even intuitively perceive why she had come to La Tierra. She could not lead him to the truth, of course. Her promise to Ryan must be kept. But Jeth had known his brother better than anyone, and once he came to know her as well…then who knew where their mutual need of each other might lead once Jeth guessed the truth?

  Finally Cara woke one morning and knew her illness was over. She threw the covers back and got out of bed. The early sun was streaming through the bay windows. She padded out to the terrace and followed it around to Jeth’s bedroom, vacant now for nearly a week. She looked out toward the mountains, and her vision fell upon a caravan of horse trailers and pickups followed by a group of men on horseback. “The roundup is over!” she said aloud to the spring sky, eager to dress so that she could meet Jeth out of bed and on her feet.

  In the kitchen, Fiona turned from her work to survey Cara with pursed lips. “You look better, but how do you feel?”

  “Healthy,” Cara answered, “and hungry.”

  “Good sign. El Patrón left word that you are to begin eating solid food.”

  “Left word?”

  “He’s gone to Dallas on business. Won’t be back for a week or more. The roundup is over; so is the cold weather. The planting has already begun.”

  Cara barely heard her. She was suddenly not hungry anymore.

  Leon greeted her with warmth and relief, and the members of the roundup crew with comradely good humor when she joined them for lunch in the Feedtrough. She ate with Bill and afterward he led her to the stable where the horses of the headquarters staff were stalled, including Jeth’s. “The boss didn’t want us to turn her loose like we did the rest of the remuda,” Bill explained when Cara, spotting Lady, ran to the mare’s stall with a joyous cry. “I figure he meant her to be yours to ride as long as you’re here.”

  “That was kind of him,” she said, her back to Bill. He didn’t see the shadow cloud her eyes.

  “Why is there no flower garden?” Cara asked Fiona that evening as they were eating their supper in the kitchen. Cara had gone exploring over the grounds of the house in the afternoon and found that, except for the oleanders bordering the formal approach to the entrance, no flowers of any kind had been included in the landscaping.

  Thin shoulders shrugged. “Nothing at La Tierra is here for beauty’s sake, señorita. Everything must have a function and be productive, be it man or horse, woman or child. The care of flowers takes up valuable time and soil and water. El Patrón has never ordered a flower garden be planted, only the vegetable fields and orchard.”

  There should be flowers at La Tierra, Cara decided, thinking of the barren graves at the cemetery. The house needed flowers to enliven its rooms with beauty and color.

  The next day she found an ideal location for a flower garden. It was a bare, unused portion of land outside the ten-foot walls, facing the desert. “Do you think you could buy this list of flower seeds for me when you go into town tomorrow?” Cara asked Fiona.

  The small brown eyes peered at the list. “You intend planting these? Without El Patrón’s permission?”

  “Yep!” Cara said emphatically, using the vernacular she had picked up from the roundup. The list contained the names of regional flowers she had read about in a book from Ryan’s room.

  The garden plot would be hard to clear. There were weeds to pull, rocks to be moved, an
d rocky, sandy soil to be improved with manure and topsoil she’d have to persuade Bill to bring her from the vegetable fields. She had never seen them, but she knew they were the source of the vegetables she’d helped to prepare for the Feedtrough’s tables. “Keep a cowboy’s stomach happy,” Leon was fond of saying, “and you keep him happy.” Apparently that was one of the strategies that Jeth Langston employed to keep his men loyal and contented. Flowers were not a big seller.

  That afternoon, Cara, wearing shorts and a halter top, began to clear the land for the planting of the flower seeds that Fiona promised to bring her. For several days she hauled out the larger rocks, which could serve, her mind ran ahead, for a natural limestone fence to protect the garden from the encroachment of grass. As she worked, the sun evened the light tan that she had already acquired on her forearms and at the V-neck openings of her shirts.

  Bill, seeing her go into the barn to shovel manure into plastic bags, grabbed a shovel and helped her. “Boss know you’re doin’ this?”

  “Nope! But what kind of guy would object to a flower garden?”

  At the end of a warm day, she would look longingly at the pool. It would be just like him, she thought, to return unexpectedly and find me in it. “Miss Martin,” she mimicked the rancher’s deep voice, “didn’t I tell you not to use the possessions of my house unless I give you permission to do so?”

  May was nearly gone. The seeds of zinnias and portulaca, achillea and bachelor buttons had been planted and waited for the miracle of germination. Cara lay in bed in a thin, short nightgown, her limbs still warm and silky from her evening bath, her scalp still tingling from a vigorous brushing. But though she was bone-tired, sleep would not come. Pushing back the covers, she decided that Ryan’s room might offer something to read until she grew sleepy.

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