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       Ryan's Hand, p.2

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “So what happened?” Cara urged as Ryan paused.

  “Jeth walked over to the corral gate and opened it. Then he slapped Texas’s flank, and my horse took off for the mountains where I’d found him.”

  “But that was cruel!” she gasped.

  “It was kind, Cara! Don’t you see? Texas could never belong to anyone else, and he didn’t belong to me anymore, so he had to be set free. I can still see that horse. He was a three-year-old palomino and at the base of his mane was a perfectly formed white star. He raced off for a distance, then he stopped and looked back. I started to go after him, but Jeth stopped me by saying something I’ve never forgotten…”

  Wide-eyed, Cara prompted on held breath, “What was it?”

  “He said that I should never tame anything I wasn’t prepared to love.”

  Ryan’s eyes closed tiredly, and there was silence in the room except for the faraway cries of the seagulls and the opulent sound of a fine antique clock ticking on the mantel. The sunlight filtering through the French doors did little to dispel the sudden chill that had crept into the room.

  “I understood what he was telling me.” Ryan spoke again, laying his head back. “The name of our ranch, you know, is La Tierra Conquistada. Translated, that means The Conquered Land. I suppose that after four generations, the land can be considered conquered, but it wouldn’t stay that way long without care and dedication. Jeth was saying I had to let it go. I couldn’t divide my loyalties.”

  “And so you left to study law,” Cara stated quietly.

  “Yes. I went away to Harvard that fall, and I never went back to stay. We both knew that I was never cut out to be a rancher. Jeth was. I had the blood of my music-loving, aesthetic mother in me; Jeth had our father’s. My brother has always insisted that the ranch was as much mine as his, but also that it couldn’t be run from a distance. He’s made all the decisions concerning La Tierra, scrupulously dividing the profits. He’s made me a very rich man.”

  “You could have done that for yourself even without your brother,” Cara said warmly. “You’re a brilliant lawyer!”

  Ryan opened his eyes to stare down at her in amusement. “What is there about Jeth that nettles you so, Puritan?”

  Cara reddened in embarrassment and withdrew her hand. “Forgive me again, Ryan. It’s just that your brother sounds so…so high-handed. I’ve always been a little prickly about arrogance of that kind.”

  “Arrogance is often the unavoidable twin of power, Cara, and Jeth never had a chance to be anything but what he became: a very powerful man. When our parents were killed, I was eleven and Jeth eighteen. He had a very different kind of dream then; he wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. That ended when he had to take over the reins of La Tierra. There was no one to help him. The very men he thought he could trust—lawyers, bankers, other ranchers—proved to be the most unscrupulous. They saw a chance to get their hands on La Tierra and they tried every conceivable chicanery to do it. But they didn’t figure on Jeth’s brains and guts. He proved too smart for them and too tough. He wasn’t a compassionate winner, either. Every one of those men lived to regret the day he ever crossed Jeth Langston.” Ryan paused to give Cara his crooked grin. “I guess I do make the guy sound high-handed and hard-nosed, don’t I?”

  “I think you’re worrying about him unnecessarily,” she said. “He sounds like a completely self-sufficient man who will marry when he feels ready to. Besides, he’s young yet, only thirty-four. I’m surprised he doesn’t have to fight the women off. He has a…certain virility that’s very attractive to most women.”

  “But not to you?” Ryan queried, and laughed when her eyes dropped in discomfort. “Don’t be embarrassed, Puritan. You’re right in thinking that the two of you would lock horns—at least at first.” He sat up suddenly and shook his head as if tired of his thoughts. “Come on,” he said, hoisting Cara to her feet. “Let’s go down to the beach before the light begins to fade.”

  Devereux Beach, a thin neck of land separating Marblehead Harbor from the Atlantic Ocean, was a favorite Sunday spot for Cara and Ryan. On the first Sunday after they met, Cara had taken the handsome Texan beachcombing there. It had been a blustery day in February almost a year before. They had arrived to find the beach deserted except for the seabirds that scurried about on the wet sand and cawed their plaintive cries overhead. Cara had explained to a curious Ryan that the salt-logged oak burned in spectacular colors. “I’ll show you this evening,” she promised.

  They had made quite a haul and finished the day at Cara’s modest one-room flat, which was perched atop a three-story house. The room featured a widow’s walk, a narrow balcony facing the Atlantic where seamen’s wives of old would go to watch for their husbands’ ships returning from the sea. While a casserole bubbled deliciously in the oven and she opened a bottle of wine, Ryan had stretched his legs out on the floor before the old stone fireplace, fascinated by the brilliant colors in the leaping flames. “You’ve made a believer out of me,” he remarked as he accepted a goblet of chilled wine.

  “You must take home half of what we collected today,” Cara said, sipping her wine comfortably beside him. “These colors will be dramatic in your white marble fireplace.”

  “Only if you promise to come to my town house next Sunday and share the fire with me. I won’t promise to cook, but I know an excellent caterer.”

  Cara had been surprised that Ryan would extend an invitation to her so soon. He was in great demand by Boston society hostesses, and she was also aware of his reputation as a ladies’ man. She was definitely not in his social circle, nor was she like the glamorous, leisured women he was accustomed to seeing. They had met when Ryan came into the library to research a legal matter.

  She had recognized him immediately as the popular young attorney the society columns linked with the names of some of her former school friends. She supposed it was a form of self-torture, but she could not resist reading the social news that not so long ago had occasionally featured the names of her own family members.

  When Ryan Langston asked at the reference desk for help in finding a certain volume, Cara had been impressed by his manners, his soft Texas drawl, and his clean-cut, boyish good looks. She went off duty at five o’clock, and, as she came out of the library, the sleek red Ferrari parked next to her secondhand Volkswagen told her that Ryan Langston was still inside working on his research.

  Cara did not notice that her right front tire was flat until she attempted to drive out of the parking space. There was no mistaking the significance of the peculiar list on the right side, so she reparked to assess the damage.

  By the time she had cut the motor, Ryan was standing beside his Ferrari. “You have a little problem there, I see,” he said, indicating the tire. “Do you have a jack?”

  Cara not only did not have a jack, she did not have a spare tire.

  It had been one of those days when everything had conspired to remind her of the losses she had suffered in her short twenty-four years. She longed to put an end to the day, to get to her apartment and build a fire, have a light supper, and maybe play the piano until she was too sleepy to lie awake with her memories.

  Now, sitting behind the wheel of her shabby car, hearing the voice of a man who had easy access to the world that had turned its back on her, she felt the sudden horrifying urge to burst into tears. She controlled her emotions by rigidly gripping the wheel and staring straight ahead, but the handsome dark-blond head of the man had bent down to peer at her through a closed window. “Are you all right?” he asked, and she could hear the sincere concern in his voice.

  She had swallowed hard and given him a polite smile while praying that she wouldn’t cry in front of a stranger, especially not this stranger.

  “I’m fine,” she assured him, opening her door. The night had folded about the neighborhood very thick and cold, and she drew her brown coat closer. “I thank you for your concern,” she said to Ryan, “but you needn’t bother. I’ll go back inside and call a garage
.” Not for the world would she have him know that she did not have a spare tire or money to buy one. She would figure out what to do when she got rid of him.

  “That won’t be necessary,” he insisted, looking very affluent in his tailored overcoat. “I can have the tire changed in a jiffy. If you’ll just open the trunk—”

  “No, please—” she protested, raising delicate hands in a gesture of panic.

  “Look, young lady,” Ryan said, brushing aside her protests. “I’m not about to let you wait alone in this parking lot when I can change that tire for you in a few minutes!”

  There was nothing to do but yield as gracefully as possible. “Well, but you see, I…don’t have a spare tire—” She could feel the heat flooding her face.

  “I see…” He spoke softly, and she could tell from the almost imperceptible flick of the blue eyes over her worn coat that he understood the nature of her embarrassment. “Well, in that case, you must let me take you home.”

  “Oh, no, I couldn’t!”

  “My name is Ryan Langston,” the tall young man said calmly. “I am an attorney practicing here in Boston, and I assure you you’re far safer with me than waiting for a bus or a taxi on a street corner.” He reached inside a breast pocket for a narrow, tan wallet. Cara saw some kind of gold insignia discreetly embossed on one corner. He extracted a card and handed it to her. “I think there’s enough light for you to read that I am who I say I am. You must let me take you home.”

  Cara glanced at the card. It wasn’t necessary since she knew who he was. “Yes, I see that. You are kind to trouble with me. I’ll get my bag.”

  The next day Cara had shared a ride to the library with a colleague. As she arrived at the parking lot, her mouth had dropped open when she saw that the flat tire on her Volkswagen had been replaced with a new one. Opening the trunk, she found that the old tire had been mended and beside it lay a new jack.

  “Mr. Langston, you were kind to bother with my car,” Cara said when she got a line through to him at the law firm. “I will mail you a check first thing in the morning for the items you purchased.” She spoke confidently, thinking of several pieces of sterling still to sell.

  Ryan did not reply immediately. Presently he asked, “Miss Martin, you’re a native Bostonian, aren’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Would you be willing to trade your time as a tour guide for the money you feel you owe me?”

  “I beg your pardon, Mr. Langston?”

  “I would like to see Boston through the eyes of a proper Bostonian, Miss Martin.” Cara wondered if he were laughing at her. Proper Bostonian, indeed! But he continued, “I’ve been here a number of years now, but I’ve yet to see the city the way I want to see it. From the short time I spoke with you last night, I could tell that you have a thorough knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the area, the kind of thing you don’t read about in tour books.”

  Cara hesitated. He wanted to see her. The tour-guide business was a line, fed to her with subtle good humor, if she had been any judge of the young Texan. And suddenly she wanted to see him. It had been so long since she had enjoyed the company of someone like Ryan Langston.

  “It seems to me, Mr. Langston,” Cara replied, “that you are making a poor trade. However, I would enjoy showing Boston to you, and I dislike debts. When shall we begin?”

  He had surprised her by saying, “This evening, Miss Martin, if you have no objection. I’ll pick you up at your apartment at six o’clock.”

  Ryan had allowed her a brief moment to refuse, then wished her good morning and hung up. That evening at six, the Ferrari swung into the drive before her private entrance. Still in business suit and overcoat, Ryan looked at her casual slacks and sweater and remarked that he’d like to go home first so that he might change. “Tell me where we’re going,” he said, “so that I can dress for it.”

  They were going for an evening of chowder and cards with an old sea captain friend of her late grandfather’s. “He’s a widower,” Cara enlightened Ryan in the living room of his town house. “You’ll like him. He can remember when the people of Boston depended upon the sea for a living.” While Ryan dressed, she wandered admiringly around the beautiful room, resisting the urge to try the baby grand piano that filled a corner of it.

  At the end of the evening when Ryan brought her to her door, they shook hands and agreed to meet again on Sunday. This time, Cara told him, he must allow her to prepare a meal for him as a small token of gratitude for the car.

  After their next meeting they fell into the habit of seeing each other regularly on Sundays, and a surprising relationship evolved that satisfied them both. Ryan referred to her as his “Sunday girl” and called her “Puritan” after her New England ancestors, or so he said. But Cara suspected that in his experienced, man-of-the-world way, Ryan knew that she was still a virgin. She was relieved that he preferred and needed her only as a friend. She could not become involved with anyone until her family’s debts were paid. There were other women in his life, she knew—beautiful women he squired around to the expensive, public haunts he never suggested taking her. Cara feared he might be ashamed of her. Her clothes were abysmally old, her hair unfashionably long. But in time she realized that Ryan would never be ashamed of a friend. For her sake their Sundays were confined to picnics or walks on the beach, to country drives and out-of-the-way, nose-poking places. With typical compassion, Ryan had known that she did not want to be seen by her former crowd, to once again become the subject discussed over teacups or martini glasses.

  Cara found it a release to be able at last to confide in someone of Ryan’s sensitivity the series of events that led to her living a solitary existence in near poverty. As she came to trust Ryan, she revealed that she was a direct descendant of one of the first ship-building magnates to settle in Boston. He had built the fine mansion where she had spent carefree years growing up as an only child. Through succeeding generations, the fortune had dwindled, but there had been enough money to sustain the family in the highest echelons of Boston society, and for Cara’s father to pursue his literary career without the need to work for a living. His written histories of the Boston area achieved for him a modest fame but little remuneration. There had been enough money for Cara to attend the Juilliard School of Music in New York with hopes of becoming a concert pianist. And then, in the second year of her studies, her mother’s heart stopped one day in the garden as she bent to welcome the first crocus peeping through the snow.

  Cara flew home often that year, and each visit she found her father looking more feeble, more lost and bewildered. Because he seemed to be rapidly losing his grip on reality, she took it upon herself to sort through the family’s financial records, and made a shocking discovery. There was no money and had not been for some time. The mansion had been mortgaged to subsidize her father’s latest literary effort and to provide money for her Juilliard education. Insurance premiums had been allowed to lapse. Even her mother’s funeral expenses had not been paid.

  “What are we going to do?” she asked her family’s lifelong attorney after he had read the long list of outstanding debts.

  “Declare bankruptcy, of course,” he advised smoothly. “You’ve no other choice.”

  Cara had left her father sleeping in a deck chair on the porch that caught the sea breezes from the Atlantic. “Dad.” She shook him gently, determined that he would not be evicted from his home. His thin, blue-veined hand fell lifelessly from his lap, and with a cry Cara knew that he had been spared.

  After seeing her father buried beside her mother, Cara had gone away to analyze the numbing realities of her situation. Her family was gone. The world she had once known was closed to her—she refused to live in it on credit—and a mountain of debts remained to be paid.

  She would pay them. That decision made, Cara withdrew from Juilliard, then went to each creditor and pleaded for time. She could not declare bankruptcy, she explained. She considered it immoral not to pay back what had been loaned her fa
ther in good faith. Could they extend her time to earn a degree in library science—at a cheaper, state-supported university—which would then give her greater financial opportunity to settle the debts?

  The creditors, themselves of the same Puritan stock as she, recognized her plea for what it was: the cry of her Yankee pride to clear her family’s name and salvage her self-respect. They agreed. Cara sold the house and auctioned its furniture, including the treasured Steinway that had been the joy of her life. Except for a strand of pearls that had been her mother’s and a gold chain her parents gave her the day she had been accepted at Juilliard, all of Cara’s personal possessions went on the block. By the time Ryan came into her life, she had been out of college three years, subsisting on a shoestring budget that had allowed for only the two luxuries of a small piano for her one-room apartment and a good pair of fleece-lined boots for walking the beaches. She had totally withdrawn from her former world, knowing that she was regarded, if remembered, as an object of pity and condescension.

  Chapter Two

  Oh, look, Ryan!” Cara exclaimed as they drove into the sandy parking area that led to the beach. “We have the place to ourselves.”

  “Let’s get cracking, then,” Ryan said. “The light will be gone in no time.”

  His skin still had an unhealthy pallor, and Cara had some misgivings about her suggestion to come here today. She reached for his gloved hand, and his fingers curled tightly around hers. Ryan looked down at her and smiled, and she smiled back. Then they began to walk toward the beach, Cara swinging the canvas bag she always brought along for what Ryan called her loot.

 
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