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       Ryan's Hand, p.19

           Leila Meacham
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  Slowly, a coldness crawling like a snake through her body, Cara asked numbly, “You…opened my mail…intercepted my calls? You had no right to do that, Mr. Langston.”

  “I had every right. You should know that I take any rights I choose on La Tierra.”

  “I could have escaped the day I went to Alpine!”

  “Oh, Miss Martin, in my car? I would have reported it stolen, and you wouldn’t have gotten out of the county.”

  “You—you led me to believe you let me use your car because it was my birthday…”

  “And so I did. I was tired of seeing you in those butchered rags. However, that’s not to say that I trusted you to come back. You were monitored the entire day.”

  “Are you saying that I—that I’m a prisoner at La Tierra?”

  “Yes, Miss Martin. You have been since the day you set foot on it.”

  Cara contemplated opening the car door and running across the plains—anywhere to escape that smooth voice that masked such an iron ruthlessness. “I hate you,” she spoke in a childish whisper through the choking disappointment that welled in her throat. “I hate you so much.”

  “I have always suspected it, Miss Martin, even in your friendliest and nicest moments.”

  Cara turned violently away from him, burrowing her head in the upturned fur collar of her coat. A wave of desolation washed over her. She had thought they could at least part friends, that her last month on the ranch would be as wonderful as the past three weeks had been, providing her with memories that she could hold in her heart and return to, time and time again, like seashells that recapture the sound of the sea. Now she knew that Jeth Langston had never begun to care for her, not even a little. His suspicions had not been allayed. They had simply been set aside while he made use of her as a nurse and cook and housemaid. He spoke of ruses. What kind of ruse had he used these past weeks in order to enlist her aid in helping him run the ranch, paying her off with the pleasure of his company, and worst of all, allowing her to enjoy a side of him she never dreamed existed. Weren’t they ruses? Weren’t they the cruelest ruses of all?

  Her head came out of its collar burrow. Cara regarded the lean, wolflike profile disdainfully. Because she had been cruelly dealt with, she would be cruel. “You have names for all of us, Mr. Langston,” she began, feeling her lip curl. “All of us who are self-serving. What do you call a man who tries to seduce one woman while being engaged to another?”

  Cara had the satisfaction of seeing the muscle tighten along his jawline, but she was little comforted. “I would call that man a fool, Miss Martin, who, fortunately, saw his mistake before it was too late.”

  She had no answer for that. Indeed, she had no answers for anything, and probably never would again.

  They met on the stairs early the next morning as Jeth was returning to his room before leaving the house. “Oh, Miss Martin,” he hailed her in a voice that had returned to its former dispassion, “a temporary housekeeper will be here this morning. No need for you to concern yourself with Fiona’s activities. And I have a new man out at the Feedtrough to take over for Leon. You’re relieved of those duties, too.”

  Cara gave him a long, level look. “You are saying, then, that my services are not wanted.”

  “Not needed, Miss Martin. Enjoy your leisure. That’s what you came here for.”

  From the cool measure they took of each other, Cara was thinking that those intimate, friendly evenings before the fire might never have been. The memory of them would be an exquisite torture, far more effective than his unabashed hostility would have been.

  “And one other thing, Miss Martin,” Jeth concluded formally. “I am afraid I will have to forego the pleasure of your company in the coming evenings. With the roundup coming, I’ll be working late.” He nodded dismissively and went on up the stairs. Cara’s eyes followed him. She wanted to shout, “Who says the pleasure of my company would have been offered?”

  For Cara, who had so much time on her hands, February passed surprisingly quickly. March brought a succession of unprecedented mild days, deceptive in their gentleness, with clouds scampering across the blue skies like fluffy lambs at play. Cara covered her garden with hay to prevent a sudden thaw, which would render her lilies and irises vulnerable to the inevitable spring freezes still to come. “Better to stay in deep freeze,” she muttered grimly to the frozen ground, remembering how she had suffered under the thawing warmth of Jeth’s attention.

  The daffodils were up, and she collected golden masses of them for the house and cemetery. One afternoon as she laid an arrangement of them on Ryan’s grave, she fell to her knees and began to cry uncontrollably, her shoulders heaving from the fury of her grief. “Why, Ryan, why? Why did I have to come here? Was it to fall in love with him? You knew he would despise me. Why did you make me come, Ryan?”

  A sudden noise made her lift her head and listen, and she heard the clop-clop of a horse’s hooves cantering away. Horror-stricken, she stood up to observe Jeth Langston astride his bay, heading toward the ranch. The implacable back, the indomitable shoulders, the hard set of the black Stetson told her nothing. Had her words carried on the clear, dry air? Had he overheard her crying, or had he, seeing Lady tethered below, decided to bypass the cemetery for another day? Her shoulders slumped in despair. Would March twentieth never come?

  She began to plan her escape. She would have to elude Fiona, whom she was sure now, in spite of the woman’s growing affection for her, had been Jeth’s watchdog. Cara would have to find a way to get out of the house and off the ranch without arousing suspicion. An idea, simple and foolproof, presented itself to her. She wrote for air and bus schedules, which, when they arrived, she was able to intercept without either Fiona’s or Jeth’s knowledge.

  Like one who knows her days are numbered, she observed the world of La Tierra with a sharper awareness, committing to memory all of the sights and sounds that she would never know again. Leon caught her staring at him on a morning when spring was still pretending to have arrived. “What ya lookin’ at me like that for?” he snorted affectionately. “Ya got a funny look on yore face, like yore sad about somethin’. Pretty girl like you shouldn’t ever be sad, leastways not ’cause of an ol’ geezer like me. Stop worryin’ that I ain’t well, ’cause I am!”

  She haunted Fiona in the kitchen until the housekeeper accused her of being underfoot. “Go for a walk!” she finally advised in despair. “You’re as jumpy as a rabbit in a gunnysack!”

  With one day remaining, Cara could not resist playing the Steinway once more. She chose “MacArthur Park.” Her heart sang the lyrics while her fingers played the melody. After all the loves of my life…after all the loves of my life…you’ll still be the one…

  “Very well done,” Jeth said gravely from the doorway of his study when she had finished. “You played that with great feeling.” Cara froze on the bench. She hadn’t known he was in his study at this hour of the day. She’d thought he would be at the roundup of the remuda. It was time for the spring cattle drive again.

  She turned to him with a face as smooth and cold as marble. “Thank you,” she said tonelessly, and walked from the room.

  Once outside, she ran to the stable to saddle Lady. Her heart was beating frenziedly. Don’t love anything out there, Harold St. Clair had warned her—no man, woman, or child; no horse or dog—not even an armadillo. How she wished she had taken his advice! Cara kept the gun Jeth had taught her how to use in the tack room, and with hurried, frantic motions, she sheathed it in the saddle scabbard. Once mounted, she urged Lady into a fast sprint even before the gentle mare was out of the corral. Cara thought she heard someone call to her, but it was only the wind that blew in her ears, she decided, only the homeless wind that knew her and called her by name.

  Sometime later, Cara reined Lady to a halt, her attention caught by a flock of buzzards, the prairie’s precursors of death, circling lazily in the distance. Some hapless animal is down, thought Cara, and kneed Lady into a lope. She had never
had to put an animal out of its misery on the range, but she knew that it was a law among cattlemen to do so rather than let the sharp-beaked buzzards tear at the soft undersides and eyes of their still-living prey.

  She found the object of the buzzards’ interest a few minutes later. It wore the brand of La Tierra on its flank and lay in golden ruin at the bottom of a ravine, a blond-maned palomino whose attempted leap across the wide chasm had resulted in a fall that had snapped both forelegs. Cara saw at once there was nothing to be done. The legs lay at a crazy angle, and the weak rise and fall of the exposed side suggested that the end was very near.

  She dismounted and removed the gun from its scabbard. As she descended the rocky incline, a shocking thought struck like a serpent inside her brain. She told herself not to be ridiculous, that there were dozens of palomino stallions roaming the range at La Tierra, and that the horse in the ravine was not the broken magnificence that had once been Texas Star.

  The palomino’s glazed eyes were open and watched her approach with a flicker of welcome in the brown depths. Cara’s resolve faltered, and she knelt down and stroked the rough, dry coat. “I’m sorry, boy,” she spoke softly. “I’m sorry it has to be like this.” She had only to back away now, aim the rifle, pull the trigger, and be gone. It had to be done and delaying accomplished nothing for either of them. But the palomino gave a soft whinny and tried to nuzzle her hand, and a spasm of pity moved within her chest. “Don’t—don’t make it harder. It will all be over in a second. You won’t feel a thing.” And then, because she had to know, Cara brushed back the hair at the base of the mane. There, pigmented into the hide, was a perfectly formed, five-pronged white star.

  The cry she hurled toward the heavens startled the predators flying overhead, but only momentarily. The rush of their wings came nearer Cara’s head. She roused herself with an effort and hurled a rock at the assemblage. Then, stepping back from the horse, she released the lever, sliding the bullet into the rifle’s chamber. The palomino’s ears perked at the loud click, as if he remembered the sound from the days when he had carried his master across the plains. Cara raised the .30-30 to her shoulder, and quickly, before tears could distort her aim, centered the sights on the white forehead and fired.

  The report carried across the prairie and sent the scavengers flapping skyward in raucous number. The recoil slammed into Cara’s shoulder and stunned her cheek, but she was beyond the impact of pain. Only Bill’s words from the roundup found their way into the void of her mind: “I figure the boss thinks that as long as Texas roams La Tierra, a part of Ryan does, too.”

  Deep in shock, Cara was barely aware of the gun slipping from her fingers, of the black-vested figure stepping in front of her frozen vision. From far away came the sound of her toneless voice. “I shot Texas Star, Mr. Langston. I shot Ryan’s horse.”

  “It’s all right, querida, Cara. You did what you had to do. You have always done what you had to do.”

  Like a robot she let herself be led out of the ravine and made to sit on the ground beside the big bay waiting for his master. Later, she did not remember being lifted onto the roomy saddle of Dancer, nor recall Jeth mounting behind her, cradling her in the safety of his arms. She only remembered, coming from somewhere, an acrid stench of mesquite smoke. It brought a sudden, quite total darkness, and she fainted.

  When Cara awoke, she thought at first she had been asleep in the undulating cabin of a ship. She lay still and blinked. The soft, lapping waves receded, and her surroundings came into focus. She was in her room at La Tierra. Moonlight, cold and pale, filtered through the open blinds and across the blanket in which she was cocooned. A fire was crackling in the fireplace, throwing dancing shadows on the wall, mocking the fierce wind that whipped around the corners of the balcony.

  For a merciful moment, Cara’s mind was empty of all thought. Then, like the return of sensation after a stunning blow, memory of the afternoon flooded back to her.

  “No!” Her denial was strangled as she fought to sit up and free her arms and legs from the entangling blanket. She must meet the returning tide on her feet—she could drown lying here like this.

  Instantly a tall figure rose catlike from one of the fireside chairs and was at the bed as she sat up. “Easy, Cara, easy,” Jeth Langston spoke soothingly. “The first few minutes will be the hardest.”

  With a total and utter sense of loss, a privation so great that she thought she would rather die than be denied this man for whom her soul craved, the realization came to her that this was to be her last night at La Tierra. After tomorrow she would never see him again. After him there would be no more lovers, no more deaths—only hers. After all the loves of my life…

  Cara tried to say his name, but a yearning, so intense that she feared it would rupture her chest, made it impossible to speak. Instead, she lay back down, turned away from him, and began to sob.

  When the tears were spent, the bed beneath her face was soaked and she had another of Jeth Langston’s large handkerchiefs clutched in her hand. “That must have been coming for some time,” he remarked, when Cara turned in surprise to find him still in the room.

  Conscious of how puffy her eyes must look, how red her nose, she swung her legs to the floor. The bedside clock read nine o’clock. “You’ve been very kind to bother with me, Mr. Langston. I’m all right. Really. This is roundup time. You’ve plenty to do without having to bother about me.”

  Jeth had pulled one of the wingback chairs up so that he could prop his booted feet on the bed. Without removing them, he said, “So Ryan told you about Texas Star, did he?” When Cara wearily nodded, he said simply, “He was in love with you, Cara. Don’t you know that by now?”

  She raised her head, comprehension breaking over her face like a quiet sunrise. She regarded the rancher sadly. Yes, Ryan had loved her, not as the friend she had thought, but as deeply, as passionately, as she loved his brother. How naive she had been not to have known. Then why had he sent her here to be abused by the brother he also had loved?

  “Are you hungry?” he asked unexpectedly. “I had Fiona keep you something warm in the oven. I can bring it up to you.”

  “No, I couldn’t eat anything,” Cara answered. “I’d rather just have a bath.”

  “Have one, then. I’ll see you in about thirty minutes with something that will make you sleep. My mother used to make it for Ryan and me when we had a bad night coming up.”

  Cara watched him walk to the door. As he opened it, she said softly, “You’ve had lots of those, haven’t you, Mr. Langston? Bad nights, I mean.”

  The rancher paused, hand on the doorknob. His expression was oddly tender. “No more than you, little girl. Thirty minutes.”

  When Jeth returned, Cara was sitting listlessly before the fire in a white, long-sleeved granny gown that covered her from neck to ankles. A shawl of pink flannel was over her shoulders, and fluffy white house shoes peeped from beneath the hem of her gown. The light from the fire played on her blond hair and in the dusky violet depths of her eyes.

  “You look like a little girl,” Jeth commented, handing her a hot mug of dark liquid. “All you need is a teddy bear to complete the picture of scrubbed innocence.”

  “But we both know how misleading that would be, don’t we?” Cara said cynically as she took the mug.

  “Do we?” he said, with the still expression she could never read. Then he changed the subject abruptly. “There’s a freeze expected by morning. Will your garden be all right?”

  “Yes. I knew a freeze would come, so I covered it with hay. Weather is like people, always vacillating between hot and cold. Tell Fiona—” She stopped and caught her lip between her teeth. She had almost said, Tell Fiona to remove the hay when the weather warms so that the iris bulbs can feel the sun.

  Jeth asked, “Tell Fiona what, Cara?”

  “Nothing. I don’t know what I was about to say. I’m feeling rather groggy. This cocoa has alcohol in it.”

  “Brandy. Drink it up. It’s better
than a sedative.”

  Jeth had brought for himself a glass of bourbon, and they drank in silence, Cara thinking of tomorrow and Jeth’s reaction when his lawyers called to inform him that Ryan’s share of La Tierra had been restored to him free and clear. She had never intended to sell the land back to Jeth. Harold’s letter, which she had received yesterday, had assured her that the appropriate papers would be in the hands of Jeth’s attorneys tomorrow, the first day of spring.

  “This is very good,” Cara said. “It goes down like warm fingers soothing away the hurt. Your mother must have been a wonderful woman.”

  “I’ve only known one other like her.”

  “The woman you’re going to marry, of course.”

  “Yes, the woman I’m going to marry. She is the most courageous person I think I’ve ever known, and I admire and love her with all of my heart.”

  “Lucky her,” said Cara flatly, setting her finished drink down and getting up suddenly. “I think I’ll say good night now, Mr. Langston—” The room began to spin like a kaleidoscope, and she thrust out her hands to steady herself. Her last fully conscious thought was of Jeth rising to catch them. After that she descended into a blissful oblivion in which she was buoyed up by something strong and swift that bore her away to a place of softness and warmth. In the dreamy depths in which she floated, she could feel Jeth’s mouth, as soft as a whisper, against her lips. Over and over his lips found hers, and once she thought she felt the wetness of tears upon her cheeks, but they could only have been hers.

  Chapter Thirteen

  Cara awoke the next morning instantly alert. Rigidly she forced from her mind the events of yesterday, which she recalled quite clearly, telling herself that she had to concentrate on the day at hand. She was fuzzy only about what had happened when she tried to stand up last night. Jeth had been talking about his fiancée, she remembered. Obviously she had fainted again, and he’d been obliged to put her to bed. The man would probably heave an enormous sigh of relief when she was gone!

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