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       Ryan's Hand, p.15

           Leila Meacham
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  Pattering in slippered feet back along the hall with an armful of books, Cara came to an abrupt halt. Jeth Langston, looking every inch the wealthy Texan in an impeccable light gray Western suit and Stetson, stood at his door, one hand on the doorknob, the other holding a leather briefcase. He registered her presence without expression for an interminable length of time, it seemed to Cara, long enough for her to wonder if he were having difficulty remembering who she was. “Oh, I—” she stammered, like a car starting up without the least idea of its destination. Her knees were weak from the sudden sight of him. “You’ve been gone for over two weeks” was all she could think of to say.

  “You’ve been keeping count?” he asked dryly.

  “Yes, I…have a calendar—” She had thrown it away only yesterday when she could no longer bear to keep track of the swiftly passing days of her tenure on The Conquered Land. Jeth’s eyes had left hers and were roaming in cool calculation over her figure. Cara realized suddenly how scantily she was clad.

  “Excuse me,” she said, hurriedly moving past him. “I have forgotten my robe.”

  Jeth blocked her passage by simply stepping in front of her. “Not quite yet, Miss Martin. How are you? Over your bout with the flu, I see.”

  “Yes. I hardly remember it now.”

  “So it would seem from that glowing tan. Have you been riding Lady? If you have, it’s been with nothing on.”

  “I have not been riding Lady with nothing on, Mr. Langston!” Cara was shocked. “I—I’ve been planting a garden.”

  Dark eyebrows rose. “A garden? What kind of garden?”

  “A flower garden. I—I found a small area that wasn’t being used for anything, and I planted some flower seeds.”

  “Why did you do that, Miss Martin?”

  Cara hesitated. Why had she done that? “Why, I…thought your house should have cut flowers in the rooms. They’re so…austere. And there are no flowers for the cemetery—”

  Biting her lip, Cara bent her head in sudden embarrassment. Who was she to decide that his home and the graves of his family should be adorned with flowers? He had every right to think her presumptuous.

  “You think my house austere, Miss Martin?”

  “Well, I—it’s a very imposing house, Mr. Langston, and…immaculately maintained—”

  “But austere.”

  “Well, uh, yes, actually.” Cara felt the light touch of two cool fingertips beneath her chin. They lifted her head to meet an inspection that showed a surprising trace of humor.

  “Tomorrow morning you will show me this garden of yours.”

  “Yes, of course. Is it all right if I look these over?” In a fluster, she indicated the books. Anything to be rid of the disconcerting fingertips. “I wouldn’t have taken them if they were yours, but since they were Ryan’s—”

  The humor vanished. “These belong to me now, Miss Martin. Everything that was once Ryan’s belongs to me now—with one exception. However, take them along. Good night.”

  The rancher let her pass, and she hurried along to her room, conscious of his gaze following her. His last words lingered in her ears. She wondered which of Ryan’s possessions was the exception to which he was referring: the land or her?

  “He wants you to join him for dinner tonight,” Fiona announced to her the next morning. “Seven o’clock in the study.”

  “I was to show him the garden plot this morning,” Cara said.

  “He’s been gone since before daybreak,” Fiona answered. “I don’t know where.”

  Aimlessly, disappointment like a sharp knife inside her, Cara roamed around the kitchen. She was wearing a wraparound cover-up over a matching pair of shorts and halter top. The mornings were still cool, but even if they hadn’t been, Cara would have worn the cover-up to show Jeth the garden.

  “Where does Mr. Langston stay when he’s in Dallas?” she asked Fiona. The housekeeper was sitting at the table drinking coffee and reading the Dallas Morning News.

  “He has a town house there. Most often, though, he stays at the ranch of the Jeffers. They are longtime friends of the Langstons. El Patrón will be marrying Señorita Jeffers, the daughter, this year.” Fiona folded the paper to a section she had been reading and handed it to Cara. “This is a picture of her. Very beautiful, no?”

  Silently, her heart halted in midbeat, Cara took the newspaper. It was folded to the society page and showed a picture of Jeth with a stunning brunette who was looking up at him and smiling. They were in evening clothes, and the caption explained that they were at a charity ball. The accompanying article said wedding bells would be ringing for the handsome pair as soon as the estate of the famous La Tierra Conquistada was settled.

  “Yes, she’s very beautiful,” said Cara tonelessly, returning the paper to Fiona. “I’ll go on with my work since I don’t think Mr. Langston will be coming.”

  Chapter Ten

  The sun was shining in all its spring benevolence, but it could not penetrate the cloud of despair that descended upon Cara as she walked with bent head to the garden plot. So, she reasoned with sick bitterness, he wanted to make love to her for the sole purpose of divesting her of Ryan’s share of the land. The sooner she signed, the earlier he could marry. No wonder he had looked less than happy to see her last night. Having just come from the warm arms of his fiancée, he could not relish having hers around him so soon. And to think that she had actually hoped that their lovemaking would resolve their conflicts and lead (Cara could hardly stomach the idea now) to Jeth loving her as—as she did him!

  Jeth did not appear in the garden, and Cara worked strenuously in the sun, having long discarded the restricting wraparound. She was bursting with a bitter anguish that released itself in energy, and she pulled weeds and removed rocks on yet another section of land she now proposed planting. In her present state, she felt capable of clearing the entire desert. The garden and Lady, she had already concluded, would be her means of surviving the rest of the year.

  He came in the late afternoon, just as Cara had decided to call it a day. Her skin tingled from the sun and shone with a thin film of perspiration. Knees, shorts, and halter top were smeared with dirt. Earlier she had wrapped the long swaths of her hair on top of her head, tucking the ends under in a way that secured them without pins. Brushing at the sand that clung to her golden legs, she did not see Jeth until he straightened up from the fence by which, she realized, he had been watching her for some time. The unexpected pleasure of seeing him momentarily arrested her, and Jeth’s eyes glided over the golden swell of her full breasts to the long, shapely legs that gleamed richly in the sun.

  Cara, clamping down hard on the absurd eruption of joy within her, stomped past him without speaking. “Whoa, little hoss—” Jeth gave an uncharacteristic chuckle and caught her upper arm, stopping her in her tracks. “Am I responsible for that long face? I apologize if I am. I couldn’t come this morning. There was a problem in the Santa Cruz division.”

  Vaguely, the facts registered that El Patrón of La Tierra Conquistada had not only apologized to her but was also bestowing upon her what amounted to a smile. It affected his entire countenance, making it seem more youthful, less severe. “I wasn’t really expecting you,” she lied. “I know you’re a busy man. However, I’m finished for the day. I’ll show you some other time.”

  “Show me now,” Jeth said. He looked at her in puzzlement. “Why so cranky? Maybe a good swim would cool you off. I came out here to ask you to join me for one.”

  Cara stared up at him, unsuccessfully willing herself to hate him. He was wearing summer range clothes: cords under chaps, of course, but in addition, a light cotton shirt, cut in the Western style so suited to his broad shoulders and tapering waist. Winter’s black Stetson had been replaced with a soft gray one in lighter-weight felt. As her eyes traveled in longing over the beloved face, she realized she was memorizing its every detail to hold in her heart against the day when she was gone.

  “What’s wrong?” he asked softly, c
oncern furrowing his brow. “Why are you staring at me like that?”

  “May I take a rain check on the pool, Mr. Langston? As for the garden, here it is. Unless you know something about flowers, the names of what I’ve planted won’t mean anything to you. In August, I’ll plant cape daisies and calendulas in the area I cleared today. They’re fall flowers and should bloom even past frost. There will be flowers blooming until Christmas if the winter isn’t too severe.”

  “You plan to be here then?”

  The query came mildly and could have meant anything. In Cara’s frame of mind, she thought she heard a note of chagrin beneath the bland tone. “Yes!” she avowed belligerently. “No matter how hard you try to drive me away!”

  He read her intention before she moved, so that when Cara made to march past him, Jeth’s long arm shot out simultaneously to snare her waist and bring her back to him. She pushed at his chest and wriggled pugnaciously, toppling the topknot of hair about her shoulders. Cara heard Jeth’s quick intake of breath, saw a fire ignite in the depths of his gray eyes. “You let me go, you monster!” she demanded indignantly, but Jeth’s fingers interlaced in the platinum-streaked fall of her hair to hold her head still.

  “Miss Martin, stop struggling or I will have to kiss you. I’m going to anyway, but first tell me about this burr under your saddle. What’s got your dander up? You’re generally pretty even-tempered.”

  Cara’s heart fluttered like a covey of caged birds. In horror she felt her breasts hardening against Jeth’s warm, male chest. She could tell by the amused twist of his lips that he felt them, too. “Mr. Langston, let me go. I’m very tired. I’m also hot and sticky…”

  “You feel cool and refreshing, Miss Martin, better than a swim on a hot afternoon.”

  Offended, Cara squirmed like a puppy held too tightly. “Take your hands off me! I’m not your afternoon diversion, Mr. Langston. I’m afraid you’ve been entertaining some wild illusions about me.”

  “Shh, be quiet, Cara.” Jeth lowered his head and the shadow of the Stetson spilled over her face. His hand under her hair propelled her toward him. “You most certainly are a diversion. Morning, noon, and night, I find myself thinking about the uncommonly beautiful lady in the room only a few doors from me.”

  “Even when you’re in Dallas?” she asked contemptuously. Immediately she could have bitten her tongue. She must not let him know that she was aware of his marriage plans. He would then see through her resistance and merely increase his attention. And she would rather die than let him know she cared.

  “Especially when I’m in Dallas,” he answered, his voice deep and husky. It stole around Cara’s heart like a warm, fondling hand. “When I’m there, I find that I can’t wait to get back to the ranch and you.”

  “To check up on me?” The derisive note she was reaching for failed. Her breathing grew shallow. The sound of her pounding heart filled her ears.

  “No,” Jeth said, “to do this…”

  The kiss was like nothing Cara had ever thought to experience. Though she strained briefly against the iron embrace, her resistance capitulated to her need of him, and she let him take her lips any way he chose, first gently, then exploringly, then with a mounting urgency that sent her blood throbbing through her veins with an unleashed passion that cried for him to take her, take her. She pulled him down to her, her arms wrapped around his neck, the hat brim a shelter for the long, fiery intimacy of their kiss. She was standing on tiptoe to better reach him, yielding to the hands that now molded her tight against the hard muscular frame, exulting in the feel of his chest against her, the warmth of his chaps against her bare legs. When Jeth finally lifted his mouth, it was only for a fraction of space, of time, so that he might quiz her with his eyes. Cara’s own fluttered open, very near the intent gaze, and she saw something in it that lust could not corrupt, something like a…shock of rapture. “God, Cara,” Jeth groaned. “You are unbelievable. I must have you. I will have you. You’re like a drug I need to live.”

  He brought his mouth down again, this time with a savage hunger that sought to consume and overpower her. But Jeth’s fevered declaration had penetrated the sensual oblivion in which she was lost. Cara’s pride, the legacy of her New England forebears, surged to the fore. She went down off her tiptoes and pushed at the arms engulfing her. What had she been thinking of, melting in his arms like that? She could not let Jeth use her like a common tramp to reunite his beloved La Tierra. He thought her nothing but a fortune hunter, his brother’s whore. Once he got her into his bed, he would have the double satisfaction of kicking her out of it—as well as her signature on the papers in his desk drawer. Once he made love to her, she could not trust herself to deny him the land. And once she signed the release papers, she could not stay at La Tierra Conquistada. Her promise to Ryan would have failed.

  There was only one thing to do—she must make him not want her. The idea came to her with the resurgence of her pride. As Jeth’s lips withdrew questioningly from hers, she was already marshalling her tactics and praying for the courage and expertise to use them.

  With a slow, triumphant smile, Cara forced herself to meet the stunned query in Jeth’s eyes. Instantly the embrace tightened into a prison. “What the hell are you doing, Cara?” he asked darkly. “You didn’t open that door just to slam it in my face, did you?”

  For answer, Cara leaned languidly back in his arms. “That’s one way of putting it,” she purred, her eyes brilliant and gloating from beneath seductively lowered lashes. “I just wanted to get an idea of how much you wanted me.” She sent the pink tip of her tongue on a teasing exploration of her lips, tasting Jeth’s kiss. “Very much, I’d say. But I’ve decided that you’ll just have to wait, cowboy. I never mix business with pleasure. With Ryan I had to, of course, and you are very tempting, and it has been so long…but I think I’ll just stick to my old tried-and-true rule.”

  Jeth, his expression registering total shock, released her as if he’d been burned. “You mean that you and Ryan—? You’re saying that story you gave me in the cave was all a lie?”

  Cara gave a light, mocking laugh and slid her hands slowly up Jeth’s shirt front, feeling the hard muscles tense, recoil. “Well, now, that’s for me to know and you to find out, cowboy. But not until the estate is settled. Then if you’re still interested, why, you’ll find me more than willing—”

  The name he called her resounded in the still afternoon. She stepped back from the explosion of his rage, even her ears burning from the insult of the expletive. “I’d rather snuggle up to a female coyote!” he thundered, wrath cording the muscles in his strong neck. “I wondered when the whore in you would finally surface. Dear God, to think Ryan loved the likes of you!” He took a step toward her, clenched fists held rigidly at his sides, repugnance so distorting the features of his handsome face that Cara had to shut her eyes from the sight. “You just blew it,” Miss Martin,” Jeth said inches from her bowed head, his deadly soft voice flowing over her like a malediction. “I almost fell into the same trap that snared Ryan. Lucky me that your curiosity tripped you up. Unlucky you, lady, that it didn’t.”

  Jeth stalked away from her back to the house, and Cara, dejection coursing through her, watched him go. A cool, consoling little breeze played in her hair and along her legs, but Cara was beyond solace. She felt cheapened and debased, but her plan had worked. She was repugnant to Jeth now. Not even the return of the land—his real mistress—was worth the price of seducing her.

  But there had been that one, inexplicable moment—so brief that it had flashed like a vein of gold buried deep in a mountain, lost with the blink of an eye—that Jeth’s soul had shone in his eyes. Bewildered, desolate, she began the walk to the house, steeling herself for what was bound to come.

  The knock came on her bedroom door at nine o’clock, just as she had toweled herself dry from her bath and slipped on a floor-length robe. Hurriedly, Cara pulled on a pair of briefs as the door began to open. “Señorita!” came Fiona’s harsh whi
sper, and Cara could have fainted from relief when she saw that it was the housekeeper’s head that poked around the door.

  “Oh, Fiona, you scared the liver out of me! I thought that you were—”

  “He wants to see you immediately. He’s in the study.” The housekeeper drew into the room, her usually impassive countenance frightened and worried. “Please do not keep him waiting. I have never seen him like this. He is very angry, very dangerous.”

  “But I’m not dressed!”

  “Señorita—” the brown eyes beseeched her. “I beg you to go to him at once. You would not wish him to come here.”

  Cara stared at the grim face of the housekeeper. She would never have expected to hear such words from Fiona. A cold terror began to grip her. “Very well,” Cara said, following Fiona out. “Is he drinking?”

  “The devil’s blood from the looks of him, señorita.” At the bottom of the stairs, she regarded Cara levelly. “I will be in the kitchen.”

  “Gracias, Fiona,” Cara whispered in understanding.

  The owner of La Tierra Conquistada was standing at the mantel of the cold fireplace when she entered his study. He held a glass of bourbon, and she could smell cigar smoke. His narrowed gaze traveled the length of the long terry cloth robe before he spoke. “Did I get you out of your bath?”

  “Just nearly,” she answered, her voice cool. “I was through, though. What did you wish to see me about?”

  “I wish to see you about you, Miss Martin. No, don’t sit down. I prefer that you stand. However, I will sit down. It’s been a tiresome day.”

  Cara’s scalp tingled. Fiona had been right: danger was here. The atmosphere was fraught with it. Jeth finished his drink in a long, deliberate swallow, then reached for his cigar burning nearby. When he turned to her, his eyes were like ice. “I have been lenient with you for my brother’s sake, Miss Martin, because he cared so deeply for you. However, even he must by now be aware of what you are, so I see no further reason to show you consideration on his behalf.”

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