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       Ryan's Hand, p.17

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “It would be a shame for all of that to go to waste,” he said politely. “Fiona is visiting relatives tonight and has left me on my own to cook. I know it’s not my company you’d hoped for tonight, but maybe you’d consider joining me for one of my steaks and a bottle of that wine you like?”

  Cara’s heart began to race at the temptation of the offer. The thought of spending the evening alone in her room, where she spent all of her nights and weekends, was abhorrent to her, especially since she had so looked forward to the evening.

  “I’m surprised you don’t have plans for the evening,” she hedged, unsure of Jeth’s motives. Was this invitation offered to give him another opportunity to hurt and humiliate her?

  “Mine fell through, too.”

  “I hope you were not especially looking forward to them.”

  “I think I can rightly say that my disappointment is less than Jim’s. How about it?”

  “You are suggesting a truce for the evening?”

  “Why not? It beats spending it alone in separate trenches.”

  Cara gave him a small consenting smile, her teeth as white and luminescent as pearls in contrast to the dark honey of her skin and the soft pink lipstick. Jeth took an audible breath.

  “That’s the first time I’ve seen that.”

  “What?”

  “Your smile.”

  “Then as usual you’re one up on me, Mr. Langston, for I’ve never seen one of yours.”

  Jeth lit the grill by the pool and prepared their drinks while Cara tossed a salad and put two potatoes into the oven to bake. There had been a tense moment in the kitchen when Jeth had returned to inquire about lighter fluid for igniting the mesquite. “Fiona keeps extra supplies of that sort up here,” Cara told him, and made to get it, automatically pulling up the kitchen stool the two women used to reach items on high shelves.

  Jeth saw her intention and said, “Don’t bother with that; I’ll get it,” and came to stand behind her, reaching over her platinum head to rummage for the new can. His body touched hers. Her whole being tensed at his proximity, and for a few insane seconds she absurdly imagined that his lips had brushed the top of her hair. It seemed an age before he moved away. “I’ve got it,” he said at last. “Come outside. I have your wine ready.”

  They sat sipping their drinks beside the pool and watched the last of the September sunsets hover near the horizon. Cara was convinced that nowhere in the world were there more dramatically beautiful sunsets than in West Texas: “To make up for the fact that we don’t have much else in the way of nature to brag about,” Leon had said to her on the roundup.

  “This is such an ideal place for parties, Mr. Langston,” she said, indicating the spacious deck and pool. “Do you ever use it for that?” There had been no guests in the house since her arrival.

  She could tell from the way Jeth toyed with his drink and did not answer immediately that her question had touched sensitive ground. Without the slightest change in tone, he replied, “I find my Dallas town house more suitable for entertaining.”

  Cara stared at him. His meaning was unmistakable. “Because of me?”

  “Yes,” he replied, meeting her eyes steadily. “Because of you.”

  “But, Mr. Langston—!” She was genuinely distressed. “I don’t mean to deprive you of the use of your home. Of course not! Why, it isn’t as though I would crash your parties. Surely you don’t think I would!” She was agitated and embarrassed. The wine had turned to vinegar on her tongue.

  “Miss Martin, let’s not ruin a salvaged evening by breaking our truce. It may surprise you, but I credit you with a great deal more propriety than that. I’m sure you’d be more than willing to stay out of sight while I’m entertaining, like some unsuitable relative confined to the attic while everyone else is having a good old time in the drawing room below. No, thanks. That’s not my style. I go to Dallas often anyway. It’s just as easy to fulfill my social obligations there.”

  He spoke with finality, and Cara’s thoughts flew to the newspaper picture of Sonya Jeffers. No doubt his fiancée knew all of his friends and business associates; she probably made a splendid hostess. She was also probably very curious about the woman living in her future home. Cara would have been.

  Jeth changed the subject by asking about Marblehead. She answered his specific questions about its history, then, without mentioning his name, found herself describing all the places that she had loved and shared with Ryan. She was oddly comforted by speaking of them to the brother who had loved him. She told Jeth about Marblehead Harbor and Devereux Beach and the waterfront with its never-ending variety of sights and sounds and smells. She had been talking for some time when she suddenly broke off, aware that she was monopolizing the conversation and that Jeth’s thoughts seemed far away. In Dallas! Cara thought in stricken dismay.

  “Forgive me,” she said quietly. “I didn’t realize I had become boring.”

  Jeth glanced at her quickly. “Nonsense. You know that you could never be boring. I was simply completely transported to Devereux Beach, that’s all—with you and Ryan.”

  So he had known, of course, of whom she was speaking. A sudden remark trembled on her lips, unspoken. She had almost said, I wish you could have been there with us.

  Jeth asked suddenly, “Do you miss Boston very much?”

  “Not as much as I thought I would,” Cara answered truthfully. In astonishment it occurred to her that she did not miss Boston at all.

  “You must find West Texas vastly different.”

  “Not all that different, Mr. Langston,” Cara replied. “Perhaps because I grew up on the edge of the Atlantic, I am accustomed to vastness and space and uncluttered horizons.”

  “Do…you like anything about this part of the country?”

  Cara laughed. The wine had made her slightly reckless. “If I said that I like everything about it, you would probably interpret that as meaning that I intend to stay and claim Ryan’s share of the land in order to live here the rest of my life!” When he looked startled, she said with gentle assurance, “I have promised to return it to you, Mr. Langston, and so I will. But to answer your question, yes, I like West Texas. I like the clear, clean air and dry, honest heat. I even like the wind, which blows endlessly like it’s searching for a home. And I like the land itself because it’s uncompromising and hard, like you, Mr. Langston. However, when I went to plant my garden, I found that, given attention to its needs, the land can be very giving, very loving…”

  “Like me?” Jeth asked cryptically, the gray eyes intent upon her face.

  “Oh, that I wouldn’t know.” Cara felt her cheeks grow hot. The wine had gone to her head and she had said too much. She should never drink. It was obvious that she couldn’t handle alcohol. “Do you suppose we might put the steaks on? I’m getting a little tipsy.”

  Later, when the evening was over, Jeth did not offer to escort her up the stairs to her room, and she thought she should be grateful for this unexpected consideration. How awkward to be taken to her bedroom door when he knew full well that she felt the physical vibrations between them—sexual tensions that had increased as they began to play chess. Chess, she decided as the game wore on, was not a game to be played between a man and woman physically drawn to the other. Every move became fraught with a double meaning, and Cara grew more and more uncomfortable as Jeth’s aggressive moves began to place her queen in hopeless jeopardy.

  “Leaving before the game is through?” he asked with cool mockery when she remarked at the lateness of the hour and asked to be excused. He could not have known how close his remark came to the truth or how deeply it pierced. Her year at La Tierra was now half over. She had not needed the carefully marked calendar she had discarded long ago to remind her of the rapidly passing days. Yes, she would be leaving before the game was through.

  “Perhaps another time,” she said, giving him a polite smile and searching with her toes for the high-heeled sandals she had slipped off beneath the game table. The su
mptuous fur rug had been too tempting for her stockinged feet to resist. Unhurriedly, Jeth placed his cigar in the ashtray and stood up, his fit, powerful body emanating a physical magnetism that stopped her heart. As she watched him wide-eyed, the rancher came around the table and gently drew her by the wrists to her stockinged feet. Conscious of the disparity in their heights, Cara tried not to tense as she felt Jeth’s smooth, dry fingertips, his thumbs still in control of her wrists, slide sensuously to nestle in her palms. She was too inexperienced to know if the action was deliberately provocative. All she knew was that his touch sent fire through her and that she could hardly breathe as he lifted her hands for his examination.

  “I am glad to see that you managed to salvage these. Now they look as they always should.”

  “Well—yes—” Cara was flustered and could not meet his eyes. She wondered if she should mention the box of gloves—she had sent a brusque thank-you by way of Fiona—but her pride and the shallow capacity of her lungs kept her silent.

  “Do you think these hands can learn to hold and shoot a rifle?”

  The question was so unexpected that Cara’s glance shot up, and her lips parted in surprise. Jeth’s eyes dropped to their moist softness, and Cara instinctively pulled at her hands. The rancher’s thumbs pressed deeper, and she allowed them to remain in his. “Tomorrow morning after breakfast I’m taking you out on the range for some target practice. If you’re going to ride Lady the far distances you do, you should take a rifle along and know how to use it. It’s a practice of the ranch that I rigidly enforce so don’t argue about it. You never know what you can run into out there, especially with winter coming and the coyotes hungry.” He released her hands and with easy grace reached down the other side of the chair where he had been sitting. When he straightened up, the slim blue sandals dangled from his fingers. “Were you looking for these?” he asked with a wry lift of his brows.

  Cara reached for them, and a little shock passed through her as he held them a fraction of a moment longer than necessary before yielding them to her. “Good night, Mr. Langston,” she said in a voice less firm than she would have liked. Then she fled the room before she could be compelled to stay.

  The next day Jeth drove Cara in the jeep out to a remote section of the ranch to give her brusque lessons in aiming and firing a .30-30 rifle. Every nerve in her was alert to the nearness of his body as he positioned the stock of the gun into the small of her shoulder and held her steady while she fired. He seemed unaffected by the closeness of her head or of his arm unavoidably pressing her breast during the demonstration. Cara was so intensely aware of him that she had difficulty concentrating.

  During the drive back to the house, Jeth flicked a glance over the silk blouse and tailored slacks that she had chosen for the outing and remarked, “If you plan to be here during the winter, you’ll need some new ranch clothes. Tomorrow take the Continental and go see Miss Emma again.”

  “You’ll probably think me a coward, Mr. Langston, but I’d rather wear the rags I have than have another encounter with Miss Emma. Besides, I don’t have any money.”

  The Texan looked at her in surprise. “What about Ryan’s money?”

  “That’s just it—it’s Ryan’s money.”

  “Don’t feel guilty about spending it now. You’ve earned it. If you’re disinclined to spend it, consider it payment for your work while you’ve been at La Tierra. You’ve certainly earned more than your room and board. Marfa isn’t the only place around here to buy clothes. You can go a few miles farther the other way to Alpine and shop. No one will know who you are if I’m not with you.”

  “Who will clean the stables?” she asked, more for his reaction than anything. A warm little glow had begun in the center of her heart.

  “No one as well as you,” he answered, surprising her still further, even though his mouth remained stern and his eyes on the road straight ahead. “However, I told you that you’d keep that job until I needed you more somewhere else. I need you in the study.”

  Instantly on guard, she faced him. “Doing what?”

  Jeth laughed shortly. “Why, Miss Martin, what a suspicious mind you have! I want to take advantage of your skills as a librarian, not you. My library is in chaos. It’s time the books and papers were put in some kind of order. Will you please see to it for the next few weeks?”

  It was a command couched in a request, Cara knew, but how much nicer to tell her like that than in the high-handed fashion he usually used with her. “What about the fields? Am I still to work out there?”

  “Pepe will be putting them to bed for the winter. He won’t need you for that. Your talents will be put to better use in the study. You’ll begin Tuesday. Take tomorrow off and take your time looking around Alpine. There’s a museum there that might interest you and a fairly good restaurant where you can get a decent lunch. Write me a check for the amount you think you’ll need, and I’ll leave you cash for it on the hall table. Also a map of the town and my keys to the car.”

  He thinks of everything, Cara thought, happy for the opportunity to have a change in her routine. She had only been off the ranch one time with Jeth, and tomorrow would be an especially nice time to get away: it was her birthday.

  The fall roundup was in progress and Jeth Langston had been gone from the ranch over three weeks. Cara thought about him constantly as she indexed and catalogued the valuable collection of books in his study. Her suggestion that Ryan’s books from upstairs also be included had earned her a silent look of gratitude from the rancher that had warmed her heart for days. “How ridiculous!” she chided herself. “After all, I’m doing him a favor, not the other way around!” But she spent hours lost in the scrapbooks and photograph albums depicting the Langston family and the history of the ranch. By the time she had indexed them with the other memorabilia and documents, she felt intimately knowledgeable about every Langston who had ever been, including Jeth. He was impossible to imagine as an infant, but Cara found that indeed he had been one, and, from the photographs, held lovingly and often on his beautiful mother’s lap.

  Touching Jeth through the photographs, learning about him in the articles and clippings she read, made her miss him terribly, with a craving that gnawed at her heart and violated her sleep. She longed for him to return to the ranch, if only briefly, as he had during the spring roundup, leaving Jim in charge. Just a glimpse of his tall figure striding toward the house from the landing strip would be enough. She could content herself with that.

  Cara was puzzled that she had not seen Jim since their broken date. The foreman had been in the mountains with the roundup for the remuda when she returned from her shopping trip to Alpine, but she thought it strange that he hadn’t sought her out to offer an explanation before he left for the October cattle drive.

  She was sitting in the living room playing the Steinway when she sensed Jeth’s presence. Her fingers stilled over the keys, her shoulders tensed in anticipation of her joy before she turned on the bench to find him watching her, the black Stetson, now returned for the winter, pushed back on his dark head. Quietly she pulled the cover down over the keyboard. “Hello,” she said, turning back to him. The interrupted notes of “Clair de Lune” hung in the air as they stared at each other.

  Slowly Jeth said, “I haven’t heard Debussy played like that since…well, in a long time,” he amended. “How have you been?”

  Lonely, Cara wanted to say, but she spoke calmly, giving him a slight smile. “Busy. The library is finished.”

  “I’ll go up and change and then you can show it to me. We’ll have a drink together.” He did not wait for her to answer but left the room, the welcome sound of his black boots striking the tiled floor.

  While Jeth changed, Cara decided to run out to the Feed-trough to see Leon. She had missed the dear old fellow. Like Jim, she had not seen him since her return to the ranch from her day’s outing, not having wanted to interfere with his preparations to ready the chuckwagon for the roundup.

  A half h
our after speaking with Leon, she stormed across the ranch yard into the house to Jeth Langston’s study. A small balled fist rapped sharply on the door, and when Jeth called, “Come in,” Cara opened the door, not bothering to close it after her, and marched up to the rancher with blazing eyes and heaving chest. “You are insufferable!” she announced to the startled Texan. “How could you fire Jim Foster just because he asked me out!”

  Jeth regarded her without speaking, all expression in the gray eyes slowly fading. Then he calmly returned to the task of pouring their drinks. “Here,” he said, handing her a glass of wine. “Maybe that will settle you down.” His eyes fell to the low opening of her blouse, then traveled back to her face. “You still have a tan,” he observed, “and your hair is still sun streaked. What have you been doing to get so much sun?”

  Struggling to gain control of her temper, Cara set the glass of wine down untasted. “I’ve been helping Pepe,” she answered. “With so many men gone on the roundup, he needed help. This Indian summer has kept everything out there growing and productive. Now, Mr. Langston—”

  “I didn’t tell you to work out there,” he interrupted. “You take too much on yourself, Miss Martin.”

  “Mr. Langston, don’t change the subject. How could you fire Jim because of me? He’d been with you for years and was an excellent foreman. No wonder you didn’t get away from the roundup like you did in the spring…” Cara bit her lip. She hadn’t meant to say that.

  Jeth’s brows raised. “So you noticed?” He took a sip of his drink, considering her over its rim. “Jim meant to weave his way into your affections, Miss Martin. I don’t mean to shatter any illusions you might have concerning his feelings for you, but you could have been as plain as a fence post, and he would have done the same. He had in mind to convince you not to sell your share of La Tierra to me; then he meant to put himself in charge of running one-half of my ranch.”

 
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