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       Ryan's Hand, p.20

           Leila Meacham
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  Fiona looked at her sharply when she entered the kitchen but made no comment about Texas Star. The fact that she prepared Cara’s favorite omelet, heaping it high with fresh tomatoes and peppers and the special picante sauce she loved, spoke more than words of her concern about Cara’s ordeal.

  When she had eaten, Cara said casually, “The bookmobile will be here in about an hour. May I have a paper sack to carry my books in? After it leaves, I think I’ll go for a ride on Lady. She got shortchanged yesterday.”

  Fiona nodded and went to the cupboard to get a brown paper sack. “You should rest today, señorita. You look too pale.”

  Cara thanked her and went upstairs to pack what little she planned to take with her to Boston. The paper sack, of course, was for her few essentials. She would leave all the clothes Ryan had bought her, including the sable-lined raincoat. They had been meant, she knew now, to impress his brother, and had failed miserably. She touched the twin charms at her throat. The gift from Jeth she would keep; she could not have parted with it. She opened the bureau drawer that contained the three clean handkerchiefs of Jeth’s she’d never returned. The one from last night she had washed and dried in the bathroom. It was ready to be folded with the others. After she had packed the paper sack, placing on top of her things the library books she meant to return when she escaped in the bookmobile, she went along to Jeth’s room with the handkerchiefs. Without glancing around his quarters, she placed them on his bureau and hurriedly left.

  Cara left the sack of “books” on the hall table, then went out to the stable to see Lady. The mare, too, was part of the plan. She intended to turn Lady loose without being saddled. If Jeth came looking for Cara, finding Lady gone, he would assume she was out on a ride. He wouldn’t become suspicious until nightfall. By that time she would already be in Boston, having taken a bus from Alpine to Midland Air Terminal where she would catch a plane.

  As Cara made her way to the stable, she noticed a number of ranch hands ringing one of the large corrals used to pen the remuda. There was no one to see her hide the saddle or turn Lady loose in the pasture adjoining the stable. Her heart was heavy as she started back across the ranch yard to wait for the bookmobile, which would soon be arriving. Homer Pritchard saw her and called, “Come see what the boss caught yesterday, Miss Martin! If he ain’t a sight to behold!”

  The group of men parted respectfully as she approached, and Cara gasped at what she saw. Inside the corral, bucking and snorting in derision of his captors, was the last unconquered challenger on La Tierra Conquistada.

  “Devil’s Own!” she cried with such familiarity that the men turned in surprise and looked at her. The horse heard her and stood still. He gazed in her direction, ears pointed alertly.

  “You two know each other?” Homer queried in surprise.

  “Indeed we do.” She turned angrily and addressed the men draped along the corral fence. “Don’t you men have something better to do than to stand around gaping at that animal? Get off the fence!” she snapped. “Stop staring at him!”

  “Cara, what are you doing?”

  Recognizing the familiar voice, Cara wheeled to face the owner of La Tierra Conquistada, her eyes dilating in their fury.

  “What do you intend to do with that horse?” she demanded tightly, vaguely conscious that every eye was on them and that the great black stallion was standing motionless in the center of the corral.

  “Why do you want to know? What business is it of yours, little girl?”

  “Don’t call me little girl! I’m not a little girl! And I’m making that horse my business. What do you intend to do with him? Break him? For what purpose? You have hundreds of horses at your beck and call. Why do you need him?”

  Jeth studied her closely. “Why is that horse so special to you, Cara? Why do you care so much what happens to him?”

  “Listen to me, Jeth. Once that horse feels your saddle on his back, your bit under his tongue, he’ll never be the same again. You’ll brand his flank, but a horse like that…you’ll be branding his heart. You may turn him loose when the roundup is over, but he would never be free again. If you can’t love him, don’t tame him. Isn’t that what you once said to Ryan? And you could never love that horse. He’s been too much of a thorn in your side.”

  Jeth smiled slightly. “You don’t think I could love something that has been…a thorn in my side?”

  Cara shook her head.

  “Well.” Jeth’s voice was tender. Unexpectedly, he reached out and brushed a silken strand of hair out of her eyes. “We’ll talk about it tonight. Go back to the house now.”

  “It will be too late then.”

  “No. I won’t let it be too late.” An employee had come up from the headquarters building. “Boss, there’s a call for you from Dallas. Sounds pretty urgent.”

  Jeth gave the girl a soft glance. “We’ll talk tonight.”

  With a hollow ache Cara watched him walk away from her and disappear inside the headquarters building. The men began to disperse, and Cara turned back to the corral. Calmly, without hurry, she lifted the wire hoop that secured the gate, swung it wide, and stood waiting for Devil’s Own to register her invitation. In less than a minute the ears flattened, the tail arched, and the startled shouts of the men were too late to deter the thundering hooves. With tail high and mane flowing, Devil’s Own streaked through the open gate, past her to freedom, deflecting with ease the hastily thrown ropes of the few men who had gotten them into the air.

  Cara had a glimpse of Homer’s ashen face before she tore off across the yard to the house. Fiona was in the kitchen, unaware of what had transpired. “I hear the bookmobile coming, señorita,” she said.

  Her escape was easier than she had ever imagined. She had simply asked Honoria for a ride into Alpine, and the young woman, glad of Cara’s company, had eagerly granted her request. By early evening, Cara was landing at Logan International Airport in Boston where Harold St. Clair met her.

  “My God!” was all he could say at first when she disembarked carrying her paper sack. She was almost unrecognizable in the blue jeans and flannel-lined jean jacket, her short hair the color of platinum.

  “Hello, Harold.” She smiled and convinced him that she was really Cara. “Thank you for meeting me and for everything else you’ve done. My apartment really is available to stay in tonight?”

  “Yes. The tenants left last week. Uh, is that your only luggage?”

  “I’m afraid so. I left everything else at La Tierra.”

  “So it would seem. That’s why we’ve all been awfully worried about you.”

  “Who is we?”

  “Why, myself of course, and Jeth Langston, not to mention the whole ranch staff. When it was discovered that you were missing, Jeth Langston checked your room. None of your clothes were gone, and he thought something had happened to you. Apparently he must have turned the ranch and the whole county upside down looking for you, then something made him think that you’d taken a powder.”

  He found the handkerchiefs, Cara thought.

  “He checked the bus company and found out that you bought a ticket to the airport. In the meantime, his lawyers called me to find out if I knew your whereabouts. I told them I was expecting you late this afternoon.”

  “Had they spoken already to Mr. Langston? Did he know La Tierra is his again?”

  “He knew, all right. They got in touch with him this morning.”

  Cara remembered the phone call that had interrupted her final conversation with the rancher. She suddenly felt drained. She was sorry to have worried Fiona or Leon unduly. “Could you get in touch with him tonight, Harold, and tell him I’m here? I made some friends at La Tierra I wouldn’t want to be worried about me.”

  “I’d be happy to, except that Jeth Langston seems to have disappeared, too. His lawyers can’t find him, and his housekeeper has no idea where he’s gone.”

  “Disappeared?” Cara was aghast. “With the spring roundup at hand? He probably went to Dallas to be
with his fiancée.” To tell her the good news, Cara could have added. Now they can begin planning their wedding.

  Harold’s face appeared troubled as he bit his lip nervously. “Cara…there’s something I must tell you—”

  Cara’s heart felt an apprehensive chill. “What is it?”

  “A few days ago, as instructed, I mailed to Jeth Langston a registered letter that Ryan wrote shortly after he altered his will. It was to arrive on the twentieth of March.”

  “Did it?”

  “I don’t know. I mentioned this to the Langston attorneys, who said, according to the housekeeper, the mail had arrived while Jeth was in the house. Whether the letter was among the correspondence, she didn’t know. She had no idea whether he had signed for it. But he left shortly thereafter. As for his being in Dallas, he’s not. His attorneys have checked. I just finished speaking with them before I picked you up. They thought perhaps he might come here.”

  “To Boston? What on earth for? Jeth Langston didn’t come to Boston when Ryan was alive. There would certainly be no reason for him to come here now. The letter probably upset him. He’s gone off somewhere to be alone.”

  At her apartment, Harold insisted on taking her out to dinner, at least a hamburger, he suggested, marking the clothes she was wearing and doubting whether the paper bag contained anything suitable for something more lavish. He thought of the red dinner dress with regret. Cara was not to try and put him off. She should eat, and in a couple of hours he would be back to take her out for a bite. In the meantime, while she rested, he would go back to the office and put in a call to La Tierra. As he was leaving, Cara said warmly, “Thank you for everything, Harold, especially for advancing the money I needed. You know I’ll pay back every cent.”

  “Cara, you don’t owe me or the firm one nickel. Ryan took care of any and all expenses that you could possibly have incurred this year, which weren’t many.” The lawyer gave her a diffident smile. “If I may say so, Cara, I am so glad you’re back. I’ve been counting the days until you were. See you in a little while.”

  When he had gone, Cara took her curling iron from the paper sack. She really should try to do something to look less like a waif, she decided, looking at her straight hair and unenhanced face in the mirror. How far away and long ago was that curly-haired, golden-skinned young woman who had once been reflected in her mirror. She had been so striking in her blue party dress and high-heeled shoes. Quite possibly, Cara would never see the likes of her again.

  As she bathed, she wondered about the letter Ryan had written to be delivered on March twentieth. Very probably it explained to Jeth why she had come to live for a year on La Tierra Conquistada. It would have been like Ryan to clear her name with his brother, to end that chapter without a question mark remaining. But as for her, she would never be able to understand why Ryan had sent her there in the first place. There was a remote possibility that somehow Ryan had thought Jeth would come to care for her—though why, when he had known his brother had a perfectly suitable fiancée waiting in the wings? Surely Ryan would have known that Jeth would have found someone like her, a believed whore…intolerable. Perhaps the letter explained his reason for sending her there. Cara would never know.

  She was ready by the time Harold’s knock came at the door. She had put on makeup and her hair had been washed and softly curled about her face. Too bad about the flannel shirt and jeans, she thought, not really caring. Tomorrow she would get out of storage the dull, meager collection of clothes she had left behind a year ago. It was a good thing that she’d not discarded the old, brown “monk’s cassock.” Her jean jacket was not suitable for the rigors of a New England spring.

  Cara did not even make the effort to smile as she went to the door. Her heart was too full of Jeth, of the yawning emptiness of a future without him. She threw the door open wide as a recompense.

  “Hello, Cara,” said Jeth Langston grimly from the doorway. Over his arm was draped the sable-lined raincoat.

  For a paralyzed few seconds, Cara thought she was hallucinating. Jeth Langston could not possibly be standing at her door. But then the man in the fleece-lined jacket moved, stepped forward over the threshold, the gray eyes beneath the fawn Stetson never leaving her face, and the small, shabby room was all at once filled with the man’s very real and dangerous presence.

  Cara backed away, her mouth and eyes round Os of amazement. “Mr. Langston, what are you doing here? Surely you didn’t come to—to get even with me for setting Devil’s Own free?” In her alarm, it was the only reason she could think of.

  “He’s part of the reason I’m here, yes,” Jeth answered, kicking the door softly shut and advancing toward her.

  “You—you monster! Can’t you bear to lose anything you set your sights on!”

  “No, Miss Martin, I can’t bear to lose anything I set my sights on.”

  “Well, content yourself with the knowledge that there’s always another roundup. There will always be another opportunity to get your rope around that poor animal’s neck!” She had retreated as far as she could go, furious with herself for letting him frighten her so. This was her apartment, her town, her land! How dare he come here and try to intimidate her!

  “That’s as may be, but there won’t ever be another Cara Martin.”

  “What is that supposed to mean?” And why had he brought that coat? she wondered irrelevantly, looking up at the unforgettable face. He stood very near to her, and she saw that he didn’t look nearly as ferocious as she had first thought. Jeth tossed the coat on a nearby chair.

  “You’ll need that,” he said, pushing back his Stetson. As she waited for him to explain, he very calmly slipped his arm around her waist and drew her to him to kiss her.

  “Mr. Langston, why are you here?” Cara sighed in resignation after the long, deep kiss. Naturally she had responded in spite of herself, as he had known she would, from the small, self-satisfied smile playing about his lips. She had been too surprised to struggle, and after a while she hadn’t wanted to. “If you have any ideas about making hay with me, you’d best forget it. Harold St. Clair will be here any minute.”

  “No, he won’t. I spoke to him a short while ago. Fortunately for me, he was working late. I managed to convince him that we wouldn’t need his company tonight. He’s a nice fellow. I’m afraid I’ve misjudged him, as I misjudged you, Cara.”

  “So that’s why you came all this way,” Cara said, the light dawning. “To tell me you had misjudged me.” And maybe to get in a little dallying to boot, she thought scornfully, noting that the lean, wolflike face showed not the slightest trace of remorse. “Harold told me he had sent you a letter written by Ryan shortly after his will was altered. I am assuming you got it. It must have explained everything.”

  Jeth’s brows rose innocently. “You mean this?” He reached inside his jacket pocket for a long envelope. An arm still around her, he yielded enough space for her to examine the envelope. She recognized Ryan’s handwriting, then with a little catch of breath saw that the envelope was still sealed.

  “But you haven’t read it!” she exclaimed, looking up at him in puzzlement.

  “I didn’t have to. I know what it says. In a little while we’ll read it together. I have an idea it’s to both of us.”

  “Jeth, what are you saying?” Cara asked in confusion.

  Jeth led her to the couch in front of the fireplace and sat her down. “We need a fire in here,” he said, laying wood in the grate. When a crackling blaze was going, he took off his jacket and hat and joined her on the couch. Resting an arm on the back of it behind her, he searched Cara’s face with a baffling scrutiny. “You still haven’t figured it all out, have you? You still don’t know why Ryan sent you to live on La Tierra?”

  Cara stared at him. “How do you know he sent me? You haven’t read the letter.”

  “Didn’t he, Cara?”

  Cara hesitated, then nodded slowly. The year was over now. Her promise had been kept. There was no reason now for Jeth no
t to know the truth.

  The rancher reached for her hand. “He asked you to go, didn’t he? Probably as he was dying, he got you to promise that you would live there for a year after his death, from the first day of spring to the next. Don’t you know why?”

  “Well…I have thought that maybe…he wanted us to—to care for each other. That’s insane, of course. He knew you could never care for a woman you thought to be a—a whore, and especially since you were engaged—”

  “Cara—” Jeth pressed a kiss on a soft wave at her temple. “He knew us both so well. Even though he knew he was sending you into a year of hell, he knew us well enough to know that we’d come through intact.”

  “Speak for yourself, Jeth Langston,” Cara said bitterly.

  “You aren’t intact?” With a sharp glance, Cara saw Jeth’s brows raise in irony, his lips twist in amusement. “Why not?”

  To hell with my pride! Cara thought stormily. What comfort is it to me now, anyway? She looked Jeth full in the face, obstinately. “Because I did come to care for you, Mr. Langston. Lord knows why. You are the most overbearing, arrogant, intimidating—man I’ll ever know, but as you say, Ryan knew us both better than we knew ourselves. The caring became—well, here is a collector’s item for your vanity! The caring became love. I am now, Mr. Langston, in love with you—and that should be punishment enough for all the trouble I’ve caused. Don’t think, however, that’s the reason I restored the land to you. I planned to, anyway, from the very beginning. It wasn’t mine. Ryan should never have left it to me. I can’t imagine why he did.”

  “Because it was the only way he could set us up to fall in love. If he hadn’t left you the land, how could he have gotten you on La Tierra? When would our paths have ever crossed?”

  Cara blinked at him, trying to keep a tight lid on the hope that was trying to bubble up inside her. “But you’re not saying that you—love me?” she whispered.

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