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       Ryan's Hand, p.3

           Leila Meacham
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  They unearthed quite a number of broken sections of oak, one piece a foot long. In addition Cara found several pieces of “bottle glass,” broken portions of bottles that the salt had imbued with delicate color and whose edges the seas had worn smooth.

  “You must have a bag of that by now,” Ryan commented when she held up the broken neck of a bottle for him to examine. “What are you going to do with it all?”

  “I don’t know yet. But I’ll think of something special—you’ll see.”

  “Maybe,” said Ryan unexpectedly, and turned away from her to walk farther up the beach, having spied something that drew his attention.

  Cara looked after him. A funny chill played round her heart. What did he mean by that? she wondered. Surely he wasn’t leaving Boston, going back to Texas after all? He had become such an integral part of her life. She had only realized how much this last week when she had been almost bereaved by his absence. The prospect of Sundays without Ryan would be unbearable. He meant everything to her. Surely he wasn’t planning on leaving?

  “What are you staring at?” Ryan asked as he returned to her. She gazed up at him, her violet eyes catching the glow of the sunset. He was so tall, and even on a day as blustery and cold as this one, he refused to wear a head covering of any kind. The wind lifted his sandy hair and played with it. The dying sun shadowed the gaunt concaves of his cheeks. Her heart contracted with a kind of fear, and she faltered, “Ryan, I—”

  “What is it, love?” His voice was gentle and very kind.

  “Ryan, I am very fond of you.”

  He drew her into his arms. “I know that. I am of you, too, Cara.” He tilted her chin and searched her disturbed eyes with tender amusement. “You look sad. Don’t be.” But the lips he pressed to her forehead for reassurance were as cold as death.

  Later, in the town house, they picnicked on the floor before the fire, and afterward, with their legs stretched out side by side and their backs against the davenport, Ryan spoke of his brother again.

  “When Jeth graduated from high school, my father presented him with a gold wristwatch. On the back of the watch he’d had inscribed, ‘To my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’ That watch and inscription meant the world to Jeth. It was Dad’s way of telling him that he approved his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer.

  “The night before I left for Harvard, Jeth and I had a last drink together in the study. I was feeling pretty low. I felt as if I were deserting my heritage, disavowing my Langston blood, not to mention leaving Jeth alone to run the ranch at a time when he really needed me. The only people left that he could count on were Fiona and Leon. They’re our housekeeper and ranch cook, who have been at La Tierra since before Jeth was born.

  “Jeth handed me a small wrapped box. ‘If Dad were here,’ he said, ‘he would have given this to you.’ I unwrapped it and removed the lid. Inside the box was Jeth’s gold watch.”

  Cara remained silent, too moved by the simple story of brotherly love to comment. She watched him stroke the face of the gold watch encircling his arm, his expression slack in the firelight.

  “It was a fine moment between us,” he continued. “Jeth couldn’t have given his blessing more eloquently—or magnanimously. He stood awfully tall to me in that moment.”

  She said softly, “You love him very much, don’t you?”

  “Yep,” Ryan said, rising to his lanky height. “He’s still the tallest man I’ll ever know. I’ll get us some more wine.”

  He had been gone for a while before her thoughtful state was penetrated by the sound of retching from the bathroom. She sat up, alarmed. “Ryan!” she exclaimed, getting up. “Ryan!” She found him doubled over the basin, holding a wet cloth to his mouth. His face was ghostly gray. “My God, Ryan, what is it?”

  “It’s nothing to worry about,” Ryan gasped between heaves. “Just this stomach virus.”

  “Let me call your doctor!”

  “No, there’s nothing he can do. I’ll be all right in a few minutes. Just get me a glass of cold water, will you?”

  She did as he asked and watched as he took a couple of pills. “Get ready for bed,” she ordered. “Right now.”

  Ryan didn’t argue. While he was in the bathroom, Cara turned down the covers and switched on the electric blanket. She filled a glass with fresh water and placed it on his nightstand. Ryan came out of the bathroom a few minutes later wearing pajamas. “These pj’s are for your benefit, I want you to know.”

  “Come on,” she said, holding the covers for him to slip under. His sick pallor frightened her.

  “You won’t get any argument from me.” He attempted a grin, and Cara tried to smile back.

  “Do I sound bossy?” she asked.

  “Yes, but I like it,” Ryan murmured as she pulled the covers up to his chin.

  “Is there anything I can do for you before I leave?”

  Ryan’s sandy lashes fluttered sleepily. The pills had been sedatives. “If you’ll just open the blinds to let the moonlight in. Thanks for a great day, Puritan.”

  “Thank you, Ryan.” She stooped to kiss his forehead. “Sleep well.”

  “No fear of that,” he mumbled drowsily as his face closed in sleep.

  Cara looked down at the ashen face and wished suddenly, inexplicably, for this man’s brother. The strange desire persisted when she went downstairs into the cold February night to her Volkswagen, parked beside the red Ferrari. “If you two aren’t a classic example of Lady and the Tramp!” she observed in wry amusement.

  She drove out of the parking lot into the evening flow of traffic toward Boston, hardly aware of the other motorists. Images of the day, scraps of remembered conversation floated like random leaves in her mind. The chill around her heart would not go away. The familiar taste of loss was in her mouth. Ryan’s response to her query about his trip came back to her. “One to last forever,” he had said—almost as if he had no plans to go again. Other phrases floated disjointedly, lazily, teasing at her memory like a haunting concerto whose name eluded her. “I’ll get all the rest I need soon…” “Let’s go before the light begins to fade…”

  Suddenly her foot slammed down on the brake pedal. The small tires squealed in protest at the suddenness of the illegal U-turn in the middle of the street. Cara barely heard them. The sound of her own cry had filled her ears.

  Under the covered parking ramp the Ferrari seemed to be waiting for her, as if it had expected her return. Cara fumbled in her purse for the key to the town house that Ryan had insisted she have. She let herself in, listening. Then she walked to the door of Ryan’s bedroom. A band of moonlight, like a mask, lay across his eyes. They were open and observed her standing in the doorway without surprise or alarm. The rest of his face was in shadow. “Hello again,” he said softly, and Cara thought he smiled in the darkness. “Why did you come back?”

  “You know why, Ryan.”

  “And why is that, love?”

  “I know how ill you are, Ryan. It’s terminal, isn’t it?” Her entire being pleaded with him to deny it, but the answering silence confirmed what she dreaded. “How much more time?” she asked, but her knees had turned to water.

  “Not much. I’m living on the borrowed end of it.”

  Incredulous, Cara walked to the bed and gaped down at the handsome, gaunt face. “It can’t be,” she whispered, but the unblinking blue eyes stared the truth back at her, and the bottom fell from her heart. “Ryan…” She knelt beside the bed, next to his pillowed head. “Tell me it isn’t true.”

  When he did not reply, tears slowly welled in her disbelieving eyes and began to slip unchecked down her cheeks. “Ah, love…” Ryan consoled her, drawing the golden head down to the thin hollow of his shoulder. In silence, his cheek against her hair, he held her until the first bitter wave of sobbing had ceased. Then she pulled back to look at him, her breathing erratic in the aftermath of grief. “I’m—not—leaving you, Ryan!”

  “That’s comforting to know. There’s a set of pj’s
in my armoire, and I think you’ll find an unused toothbrush in the medicine chest. I always keep a few on hand for…er…”

  “I know, Ryan. They must think it awfully thoughtful of you.” She rose on unsteady legs. “I won’t be a minute.”

  When Cara was ready for bed, she came once again to his doorway. “I don’t want to go to the guest room, Ryan.” She spoke obstinately, like the child she appeared in the baggy blue pajamas, her cheeks red from the salt of sea wind and tears, her long golden hair loose about her shoulders.

  Ryan studied her without expression for a long moment; then his mouth softened in a slight smile. “Come here, then, Puritan,” he said, throwing back the covers on the other side of his bed. Immediately she went and crawled in beside him, snuggling close and wrapping her arms in desperate protection around him, as if to imbue his body with the health that flowed in her own. Cradled together, Ryan drifted into a peaceful sleep but Cara lay awake and vigilant throughout the long night, listening to the distant sound of the Atlantic and the precious beat of his heart.

  The next morning she rose and dressed before Ryan was awake. When he awoke, she had hot tea ready, which she served to him in bed. “I’ve called the library to say I won’t be in today,” she informed him. “Is that all right with you?”

  “Need you ask?” He sipped his tea. “Thanks for helping me make it through the night.”

  “Like the song says,” she said simply.

  “Well, not quite, Puritan.” He laughed when he saw her blush. “This relationship of ours is really something. Who would ever believe that I slept in the arms of the most beautiful woman in Boston and nothing happened?”

  “Oh, Ryan!” Cara fussed. “Your fondness for me has affected your objectivity. I’m not in the least beautiful.”

  “You’ve just forgotten you are. You probably haven’t really looked at yourself in years.”

  “There’s no reason to. I can’t afford cosmetics and clothes, and my job doesn’t require them. Someday I’ll be in a position to let my appearance matter again.”

  “But I want your appearance to matter now, Cara. Do something for me?”

  Cara looked at him curiously, realizing he was serious. “Why, of course, anything.”

  “I would like for you to buy yourself a new wardrobe. Also a new hairstyle, cosmetics, anything that will show off that beauty of yours to its best advantage.”

  Cara tried not to show her shock. She said gently but firmly, “Ryan, you know I can’t do that.”

  “You said anything for me, remember? Surely you can shelve that Yankee pride of yours to indulge a dying man’s request. Besides, it’s all been arranged anyway. I knew you would balk at charging anything to me, so I’ve had money transferred to your account. Please don’t refuse what I ask, Cara.” Ryan’s blue eyes were imploring.

  “But, Ryan—”

  “I took the liberty of making the first purchase for you. Will you look on the top shelf of that closet?”

  Reluctantly, apprehensively, Cara went to the closet door and opened it. On the top shelf was a large silver box. Her breath stopped when she hauled it down and recognized on the cover the embossed name of a furrier her mother had once patronized. She threw Ryan an alarmed look. “What have you done?”

  “Open it, love.”

  Cara slowly removed the ribbon, lifted the lid, and pulled aside the silver tissue paper. Her mouth parted in awe as she drew out a superbly cut raincoat the color of pearls, fully lined in sable. “Oh, Ryan…it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!”

  “Try it on, love. Let’s see if I chose the right size.”

  “Ryan, I couldn’t possibly accept this.”

  “Of course you can, and you will. I’m a dying man. You must humor me. Now try it on.”

  Cara obeyed him, and in spite of the leaden pain within her, the sensuous feel of the coat stirred long-denied memories of the pleasure of lovely clothes. “It’s so light, yet so warm,” she said in fascination.

  “And far more suitable for you than that monk’s robe.” Ryan held out a hand to her, and she took it and sat beside him on the bed. “Now about the rest of the things you’ll need—”

  “That I’ll need, Ryan?”

  “When I’m no longer here to see after you,” he said reasonably. “I want you to buy clothes for every season. The cruise clothes are out now, so there should be a good choice of summer clothes. Buy lots of those.”

  “Ryan—” Cara stopped him determinedly. “We should concentrate on getting you ready to go home rather than having me gallivanting around buying clothes.”

  “I’m not going back to Texas,” Ryan said quietly.

  Cara stared at him. “What? You’re not planning to stay in Boston, surely. What about Jeth?” Then a shocking thought struck her. “He doesn’t know, does he, Ryan?”

  “No. He believed I had a stomach virus and wanted to come back to Boston to see my doctor.”

  “You can’t mean that you would keep this from Jeth! He’ll be irreparably hurt, Ryan!” Cara got up from the bed abruptly and flung off the coat.

  “All this concern for a man you don’t even like!”

  “He’s your brother, Ryan! Think how you would feel!”

  Ryan’s features tightened stubbornly. “I know what I’m doing, Cara. You have to believe that and trust me. Someday Jeth will understand why I didn’t tell him, why I didn’t stay at La Tierra. Let’s not discuss it anymore, if you don’t mind.” It was the closest they had ever come to a quarrel, and Ryan softened the atmosphere with his engaging smile. “Now get out of here and go shopping. I want to see a style show this evening.”

  Numbly, Cara spent the day doing as she had been ordered. She went to a dozen dress shops in order to make a dent in the staggering amount of money she had been told to spend, knowing that if she didn’t, Ryan would send her out tomorrow on another expedition when all she wanted was to be with him.

  By the end of the afternoon she had completed her purchases and the little Volkswagen—she had refused to drive Ryan’s Ferrari—was filled to its bug top with boxes and bags. On her way back to Marblehead, she stopped by the library to speak to the woman who had been her supervisor for three years. The iron-gray head of the librarian nodded in understanding as Cara explained that she had to take emergency leave and didn’t know how much time she would need. Should she resign now, Cara wanted to know, or could she take an indefinite leave of absence and return to her job when she was free to do so?

  “We don’t have to decide that now,” the librarian told her. “Call me at the end of the week when you have a better idea of how much time you’ll need. Then we’ll discuss your options.”

  Driving to the town house, Cara thought that she had only one option: even if she lost her job and the few remaining debts remained unpaid for a while, she was not going to leave Ryan to die alone.

  That evening Cara turned and pivoted before an admiring Ryan as she modeled the dozens of dresses, separates, and suits she had purchased that day. “Tomorrow,” Ryan told her tranquilly, “you’re to have your hair styled. Also, afterward, you have an appointment with Boston’s best makeup artist.”

  Cara sighed. There was no point in arguing. Ryan was clearly enjoying his benefactor’s role, and if it kept his mind occupied, then she would submit to anything.

  Later in the evening, Cara prepared a meal from a diet prescribed for Ryan’s condition, which she had found tucked away in a kitchen drawer. After dinner, with the brilliant flames throwing their reflections on the white marble fireplace, Cara played Ryan’s favorite classical selections while he listened from the leather chair that now seemed to swallow him.

  Eventually she saw sleep begin to take hold of the handsome features, and, trailing her fingers off the keys, called softly, “Ryan?”

  He opened heavy lids, somewhat startled that she had spoken. “Yes, love?”

  “Shall I stay again tonight?”

  “Need you ask? Actually, I was hoping you would m
ove in with me until I have to go to the hospital.”

  Without hesitation, Cara replied, “Tomorrow I’ll go get a few things from my apartment.”

  In the week that followed, Ryan grew weaker each day, but still he was quick with a laugh or a joke. The weather still held, and he sent Cara out on another shopping spree. When she returned, she dumped the armload of parcels on his bed where he sat propped up reading and declared, “Now, Ryan, I’ve gone through that money you put in my account, and I’m not spending another cent for clothes. I have enough for years!”

  “Good,” he said, eyeing her with approval from head to foot. Her hair had been cut shoulder-length and styled to emphasize the oval shape of her face. Artfully applied makeup enhanced her remarkable eyes, the exquisite beauty of her classic features. In the sable-lined coat she was a captivating mixture of sophistication and innocence, and Ryan said with satisfaction, “Now your appearance is worthy of you.”

  One afternoon while they were sitting on the balcony and Ryan was comparing the endless expanse of the Atlantic to the plains of West Texas, the phone rang. Cara answered it, and after a brief pause, a male voice, deep and unequivocal, asked to speak to Ryan Langston.

  “Who’s calling, please?” she asked, intrigued by the voice but not wishing to disturb Ryan for a casual caller.

  “His brother—Jeth Langston.”

  For some reason, a chill swept her spine. “Oh!” she exclaimed involuntarily. “Just—just a moment and I’ll get him.”

  Cara watched Ryan assume a smile before he spoke into the phone. In a jaunty voice that belied the fatigue and pain that racked his body, he chatted genially with his brother while Cara returned to the balcony. When he joined her again, she turned on him accusingly, her voice breaking. “Ryan, you still didn’t tell him, did you? For God’s sake, why not?”

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