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       Ryan's Hand, p.4

           Leila Meacham
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  But Ryan was unable to answer her. Clutching his stomach, he gave a cry of intense pain and slumped to the floor of the balcony.

  Cara ran for blankets and pillows and made him as comfortable as possible before going to the phone to call the number she had written beside it for just this moment. Then she went back to Ryan to await the ambulance.

  The next few days were a nightmare of despair for Cara as she sat beside Ryan’s bed, knowing that his life was ebbing away and that there was a brother in Texas who did not know it. Her one source of comfort was the soft-spoken law partner from Ryan’s firm who had arrived at the hospital shortly after his younger colleague had been admitted.

  The man, who appeared to be somewhere in his midthirties, had approached Cara with deeply distressed eyes and handed her his business card. “I am Harold St. Clair,” he told her, “a friend and colleague of Ryan’s. His doctor had instructions to call me.”

  Out of the maze of grief through which she wandered during the remaining three days of Ryan’s life, one fact emerged clearly: Ryan had his business affairs in order. The firm, Harold told her, had been named to handle Ryan’s estate. His personal effects would be sent to his brother in Texas. The firm would take care of the disposition of Ryan’s town house and furnishings. It would see to the sale of the red Ferrari, unless, of course, she wanted it. It had been a stipulation of Ryan’s that she was to have anything in the town house she desired.

  Cara was aghast. None of Ryan’s things were hers, she made it clear to the lawyer. Then she remembered the photograph on the mantel. “There is one thing,” she hurriedly amended. “A picture of Ryan and his brother. I—I’d like to have that.”

  “Of course,” the lawyer agreed, making a note in his small leather book. He cast a contemplative glance at the averted profile of the girl. She was exquisite, no doubt about that. No wonder Ryan had completely lost his head over her.

  In the three days, Ryan became lucid only once. Cara was sitting beside the bed, dozing. Harold had gone to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. Ryan opened his eyes and looked at her. “Hi,” he said, and Cara, thinking she was dreaming, lifted her blond head.

  “Ryan…” She smiled and drew her chair closer to the bed. “I’m so glad you’re awake.”

  “Thank you for not asking me how I’m feeling.” He gave her his ironic grin. “I wouldn’t want to lie to you.”

  “It’s bad, is it?”

  “Yes, very bad. I almost waited too late to ask you something.”

  Cara’s throat closed painfully. She reached for Ryan’s cold, inert fingers, careful not to disturb the tubes taped to the back of his hand. “Ask me what, Ryan?”

  “Do you trust me, Cara?”

  “With all my heart.”

  “Then would you promise to do something for me after I’m gone, even though I can’t tell you now what it is? Think before you answer, love. I know that Yankee determination of yours well enough to know that once you give your word, the devil himself couldn’t make you break it.”

  “Is it important to you that I do whatever it is you’re asking?”

  “Yes. It means that I can rest in peace.”

  “Well, then, I promise, Ryan.”

  “Thank you, Puritan. You won’t be sorry. You will be at first, and your courage will try to desert you, but don’t you let it. See your promise through to the end. You’ll be glad you did. I am confident of that.”

  “How—how will I know what it is you want me to do?”

  “Harold will give you an envelope after my death. I have left instructions in it. Remember always that I had only at heart the interests of those I…loved.”

  The words trailed off. His lids closed in quiet finality. “Ryan, dearest—” But Cara knew that Ryan had slipped forever beyond the sound of her voice. Already the beloved features had assumed an eternal stillness. Tenderly, as the tears began to come, she lifted Ryan’s hand to her cheek and cradled it there for a few private seconds before the door burst open and blurred images in white surrounded the bed. Someone in a business suit spoke gently in her ear and eased Ryan’s hand away, then led her from the room.

  “Jeth has to be told,” Cara said dazedly to the man whose arm was around her. “Someone has to tell Jeth that his brother is gone.”

  “Shh,” Harold St. Clair spoke soothingly. “Don’t concern yourself with that, Cara. The firm will inform him. It would be more appropriate for us to do so.”

  A week later on the first day of March, Cara sat in Harold St. Clair’s office. Sleet struck the windows, making the shapes of things beyond them gray and indistinct. In her lavender wool coat, the neck designed to reveal a matching dress beneath, she was like a splash of spring in the somber office, and Harold thought that he had never seen a more beautiful woman. “How have you been this past week, Cara?” he asked, observing her with his astute eyes.

  “Empty,” she answered briefly. “Quite empty.”

  “Yes, I can understand that,” the lawyer responded sympathetically, but in fact he did not understand at all. What had been the relationship of this lovely woman to Ryan? Had she been his mistress? Harold was now inclined to think not. This girl possessed an indefinable quality of sexual innocence, which made him believe that she had never warmed any man’s bed. Yet Ryan had loved her above all the women in his life, of that he was certain. Why else would he have arranged his will against Harold’s legal counsel and in direct defiance of his brother, whom Harold knew to be one of the most powerful men in Texas?

  The lawyer’s hands fidgeted with the legal document on the desk before him. Thank the saints that the two people it concerned would never meet. This fragile young thing in a clash with Jeth Langston, a man notorious for his ruthlessness, was almost obscene to contemplate. At least she would have the firm behind her as well as the courts. Together they would protect her from the vindictive rage that Jeth Langston was bound to be feeling at this moment.

  “Cara,” the lawyer began, clearing his throat, “did Ryan ever discuss with you the provisions of his will?”

  Her large eyes regarded him in surprise. “Of course not. Why should he?”

  The lawyer returned her gaze with equanimity. “Because you have been remembered very handsomely in it.”

  “What do you mean?” Cara was puzzled. Ryan would have known that she wanted nothing material from him.

  “You have inherited Ryan’s share of La Tierra Conquistada.”

  Cara sat like a stone figure in the chair, her eyes riveted on the man before her, hoping to see something in his face that would betray his words as a horrible joke. “You can’t mean that,” she said slowly in disbelief. “Ryan would never have done that to his brother.”

  “I’m afraid that he has,” Harold answered her quietly, in that moment utterly convinced of the girl’s sincerity. He would have taken bets of any amount that she had not known about the will.

  “I’ll give it back. I can do that, can’t I?” she demanded earnestly, her voice rising. “I don’t want any part of the ranch. It belongs to his brother. I can’t imagine Ryan doing such a thing!”

  “Before you make any decisions about giving up your inheritance, Cara,” Harold advised her, “I think you’d better read this. I was instructed to give this letter to you after I informed you of the will’s contents.”

  Wordlessly, her heart accelerating, Cara took the envelope. “I’ll leave you alone for a few minutes,” the lawyer said, and pressed her shoulder as he left the room.

  Her mouth dry, Cara opened the envelope and drew out a brief letter in Ryan’s handwriting. She began to read:

  Dear Cara,

  What must you be thinking now that you have learned that you’ve inherited one half of La Tierra Conquistada? No doubt, knowing you, your first scandalized reaction was to tell Harold that you want the land returned to Jeth.

  You cannot release the land to anyone, Puritan, not until you have lived for one full year, beginning the first day of spring, in the big house on La Tier
ra. At the end of that time, you may do as you wish with your inheritance.

  You are not to divulge to anyone, especially not to Jeth, that I asked this of you until after your year’s tenure in the house is fulfilled. This is the promise you made me, love, and the one that I trust you to keep.

  Vaya con Dios,


  Cara looked up from the letter at the sleet-encrusted windows, unaware that Harold St. Clair had returned to the room. “Cara?” He spoke her name close to her chair, and she jumped nervously. Conscious that the letter was exposed to his view, she folded it quickly and slipped it back in the envelope.

  “Mr. St. Clair, does Mr. Langston, Ryan’s brother, know the terms of Ryan’s will?”

  “I’m afraid so. I’ve been on the phone with his attorneys all morning. It was a great shock to him to discover that the original will had been altered in favor of someone other than himself.”

  “And he probably thinks I used—undue influence is the correct term, isn’t it?—to get Ryan to change the will?”

  “I am afraid that is his opinion.”

  “Can the will be contested?”

  “Ryan was an attorney. He would never have drawn up a will for himself that could be contested.” Seated once again at his desk, Harold assumed an expression designed to ease her misgivings. “I imagine that you wish to either sell your share of the ranch to Mr. Langston or restore it to him once the estate clears probate. The firm, of course, will take care of all the necessary transference of ownership. No need for you to concern yourself with the—er—unpleasant possibility of confronting Mr. Langston or his attorneys.”

  Cara Martin sat straighter in the chair and tried to sound braver than she felt. “I’m afraid I will not be able to avoid that confrontation, Mr. St. Clair. I’m going to Texas. I plan to live at La Tierra Conquistada.”

  Chapter Three

  The silence that hung in the senior partner’s office of the Dallas law firm representing the vast interests of La Tierra Conquistada was thick with tension. John Baines, the senior partner, along with another of the firm’s attorneys, regarded Harold St. Clair and his mystifying client with frowning, tight-lipped censure.

  Finally, the senior partner broke the silence with one last appeal. “Miss Martin, please. I beg of you to reconsider your decisions. Sign these papers. Mr. Langston wants back only what rightfully belongs to him. He is willing to pay you a more than fair price for the guarantee that once the estate is settled the land becomes his. Since the estate will take at least a year to go through probate, and since he is willing to pay you now, you must surely see how generous he is being.”

  Cara’s reply, her face pale and set, was a negative shake of her honey-blond head.

  “Miss Martin—” The frustrated attorney decided to try a different tack and left his chair to sit on the corner of his desk in cozy proximity to Cara. After all, this young woman was the same age as his youngest daughter, and from time to time, he had been able to reason with her. “Miss Martin—” He chose a soft, imploring timbre. “Surely you can imagine what Jeth Langston must think of you?”

  Hearing it stated like that, Cara could not prevent the convulsive swallow from moving down her throat. “Yes,” she nodded, lowering her eyes from the penetrating gaze. She had been trying to avoid thinking about that question ever since she had read Ryan’s letter. If she had thought about it, she could never have resigned her job, sublet her apartment, shipped to La Tierra the belongings she would need for a year, and flown with Harold St. Clair to Texas, all in less than three weeks’ time.

  “Well, then.” The smooth tone had an edge of exasperation to it. “Why can you not see that it is sheer madness even to consider taking up residence on La Tierra Conquistada? You will be like the biblical stranger in a strange land. You will have no protectors, no one to see after either your person or your interests—”

  Cara raised her gaze to his. Her eyes darkened with some strongly felt emotion that intensified their beauty. The lawyer, nonplussed, drew back from their stunning assault as Cara said, “You paint Mr. Langston as quite a savage, Mr. Baines.”

  “Mr. Langston is not a savage, Miss Martin.” The lawyer’s patience was strained to the breaking point. “He is a fair man noted for his ruthlessness toward those who would pose any threat to La Tierra Conquistada. You must admit that you are doing that. By insisting on living under his roof, you are rubbing salt in the wounds of a man who has recently and quite unexpectedly lost his dearly loved brother, the only family he had. He believes you used your, ah, relationship with Ryan to persuade him to leave to you half an empire that has belonged to the Langstons for generations.” The lawyer peered at her over his glasses, sensing the nodding agreement of his colleague. “Quite frankly, I would not wish to be in your shoes at the moment. For your own sake, I plead with you to reconsider your decisions.”

  Cara heard her even reply as if she were disembodied from it. “I understand what you are saying to me, and I appreciate both your advice and concern. However, my mind is made up. I will not consider any negotiations for the sale of my half of the ranch to Mr. Langston or to anyone else until the estate is settled. During that time, I choose to live at La Tierra. If Mr. Langston wants my cooperation, he will have to abide by that wish.”

  In the long silence that followed her little speech, Cara thought shakily that the trio of lawyers, even Harold St. Clair, was staring at her as if she were Joan of Arc just renouncing her last chance to escape the stake.

  The hush was broken when the senior partner gave a defeated sigh and straightened his tall, brittle frame from the desk. He stared down at Cara coldly. “I do not know what unseemly charade you are playing here, Miss Martin, but I must make sure you understand one thing: Jeth Langston is not a man to be trifled with. You are too young and inexperienced to engage in a contest of any sort with a man of his enormous power and prerogative. He does not merely defeat his enemies—he destroys them. And you, my dear, as lovely as you are, have given him no reason whatever to make an exception of you.”

  The hard conviction of his words held them all enthralled. While he spoke, the color completely drained from Cara’s face and her stomach began to churn. For the thousandth time she wondered what in the world had possessed Ryan to force her into such a dangerous and untenable situation.

  The sudden sound of a buzzer on the desk startled them all. Leaning around, John Baines jabbed an intercom button and barked, “Yes!”

  His secretary’s crisp voice announced, “Mr. Langston has arrived, sir.”

  The senior partner, with the resignation of Pontius Pilate having washed his hands of the whole matter, spoke into the intercom. “Kindly show Mr. Langston in, Louise.”

  Cara was grateful that her back was to the door. Her position gave her time to try to calm her racing heart, which was threatening to burst through its walls. She heard the door open, then close with a quiet, emphatic click. A force flowed into the room, drawing the men at once to their feet. She sensed from their fixed, apprehensive gazes that the man had paused just inside the door, no doubt for dramatic effect.

  John Baines did his best to smile. “Come in, Mr. Langston, come in!” he said in the hearty voice of a businessman welcoming a preferred customer. “Allow me to introduce Harold St. Clair of Boston, who was a legal partner of your late brother’s, and, uh, Miss Cara Martin, also of Boston.”

  Cara found that her legs would not permit her to rise. She could feel the man’s presence, strong and hostile. Suddenly angry and resolute, Cara stood and turned to meet the steady gaze of Jeth Langston.

  The impact took her breath away. She had expected, of course, an imposing man—similar perhaps to the legendary breed who sailed her great-grandfather’s ships and answered to none but the sea. But no knowledge of those long-ago sea lords, and certainly no male of her acquaintance, not even Ryan, could have prepared her for this man. He was easily the most awesome human being she had ever seen. Tall and powerfully built, he stood like a m
an accustomed to power—strong legs in razor-creased slacks spread imperiously apart—and took her measure from beneath the low brim of a superb fawn Stetson. His presence seemed to flow across the room, almost suffocating her with apprehension.

  Looking at him, noting the narrow black band of mourning around the soft crown of the hat, Cara was tempted to speak to him of his sorrow—of their sorrow—but the icy contempt in his eyes froze the words on her tongue. Her hammering heart pounded in her eardrums. Mute and paralyzed, she felt as helpless as a dreamer caught in an inescapable disaster. For the man had begun a slow, deliberate approach toward her, his gray eyes glacial and still. She could not find in his hard, handsome face a single similarity to the brother they both had loved.

  John Baines waded into the silence by clearing his throat and saying in a tone of accusation, “Miss Martin refuses to change her mind, Mr. Langston, in spite of our reasoning.”

  Jeth, pausing a few feet from Cara, spoke softly. “Perhaps I can change Miss Martin’s mind. Gentlemen, would you mind leaving us?”

  “Not at all, Mr. Langston,” acquiesced the attorney, who nervously shuffled a few papers on his desk before relinquishing his turf. He and his colleague filed past, but the Boston lawyer went to Cara’s side. “If you like, I’ll remain, Cara.”

  “That won’t be necessary, Mr. St. Clair.” Cara spoke for the first time and attempted a weak smile. “I’ll be all right.”

  Harold’s heart moved queerly at the sight of the brave little smile. He touched her shoulder comfortingly. “You’ve only to call. I’ll be just outside the door.” Sidestepping Jeth, he nodded to the rancher and left the two antagonists staring at each other.

  As the door closed, Jeth’s eyes left hers and went to her hair, his stony expression betraying nothing of his thoughts. It was the color of pure honey and framed a face that could stop the heart of any man. He had experienced many griefs, but he felt a new kind of sorrow as his gaze lowered in a merciless descent down her body. He had thought that he had known them all, had experienced every variety of alluring fortune hunter known to man, but this one was of a singular cast. He could see how Ryan had been taken in; certainly he would have been, too.

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