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       Ryan's Hand, p.5

           Leila Meacham
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  Cara drew a sharp breath and resisted the urge to cover herself from Jeth’s disturbing eyes. He said slowly, “Yes…now I understand. Who would ever take a girl like you to be what you are?”

  Cara could endure no more. “Jeth, I—”

  “Mister Langston to you, lady!” The words were rapped out like gunshots. “We’re going to keep this conversation on a strictly formal footing, do you understand?”

  “Very clearly,” Cara said with rigid dignity, determined not to give any ground during this initial, crucial interview.

  Jeth regarded her in silence for a few seconds, and Cara thought she saw a flicker of surprise beneath the chilly stillness of the gray eyes. “Well, now that that’s settled, let’s talk, you and me.” He tossed his hat to a couch and chose for himself a deep armchair to accommodate his tall frame. He had thick, dark hair, Cara noted, the kind with a tendency to curl.

  Cara, following his lead, sat down in her original chair and remained waiting for him to speak, outwardly calm. “So you want to live at La Tierra, do you?” he asked conversationally, lifting brows as dark as his hair.

  “Yes,” she answered with as much force as her taut throat would allow. It was very difficult to meet his eyes. In all fairness, she could not blame him for thinking of her as he did. What in the world had Ryan been thinking to extract such a promise from her?

  “Why?” Jeth asked bluntly, watching her face carefully as if he did not trust her words to reveal the truth.

  “My reasons are personal.”

  “Ah” was Jeth’s only reaction before reaching inside the inner pocket of his Western-cut leather jacket for a slim cigar case. Cara could see the same discreet insignia in gold on it that Ryan’s wallet had borne, but now she knew it was the brand of La Tierra Conquistada, a T crossed with a C. Jeth selected a long, slender cigar and returned the case to his pocket.

  “Ordinarily,” he said, biting off the tip of the cigar with strong white teeth, “I ask a lady’s permission before smoking in her presence. However…” The implication hung in the air along with the tendrils of smoke that fanned from his narrow nostrils. Cara felt a surge of heat on her cheeks. Let him insinuate anything he wished! she thought angrily. Knowing she had no cause to feel ashamed gave her inestimable strength. He could blow as much smoke as he liked!

  “You’ve made your point, Mr. Langston,” Cara stated with a trace of hauteur. “And as a matter of fact, you’re not the first…”

  “You’d better get used to it, Miss Martin. The kindest name I’ve heard in reference to you lately is Ryan’s whore.”

  He had hurt her there, Jeth thought without pleasure, watching the blood drain quickly from her delicate face. She had to look away from him, her eyes apparently seeking refuge in a painting on a far wall. It was a seascape of sand and seagulls and ocean. Home, he surmised, wondering if she missed Boston, if she regretted this course upon which she was embarked. Her expression when she turned to him again was completely composed, revealing nothing. Like him, she too had learned the value of concealing her vulnerabilities.

  “Now,” he continued in the tone of a father who has just satisfactorily reprimanded a child, “back to my original question. Why do you want to come to La Tierra?”

  Suddenly, quite thoroughly, Cara hated him. She fought to keep her body from quivering in cold anger at his overbearing manner. “Back to my original answer, Mr. Langston,” she replied icily. “My reasons are my own.”

  “Shall I take a stab at what those reasons may be, Miss Martin?” Jeth suggested amicably, his mouth quirking in a slight smile that held no humor whatever.

  You may take a straddling leap at a high fence, Cara silently suggested, but refrained from voicing her thought. “Why ask, Mr. Langston, since you intend to tell me anyway?” She squared her shoulders and raised her chin, exposing the smooth, vulnerable line of her throat. Waiting for him to continue, she willed herself not to be affected by his words, however harsh they were. You’re no stranger to pain, she reminded herself. You can bear whatever he says!

  Jeth drew on his cigar, regarding her narrowly through the smoke. For the first time she noticed the handsome, masculine ring he wore on the ring finger of his left hand. It had been designed with a black face on which was engraved the brand of La Tierra Conquistada, set in pavé diamonds. There seemed to be nothing about the man, she grudgingly admitted, that did not declare his wealth and position. The boots, which matched the tan leather of his jacket, were obviously hand sewn. The sharply creased slacks were of fine wool, the complementing beige tie of the finest silk.

  “I can think of three possible reasons for wanting to ensconce yourself at the ranch,” Jeth began, settling comfortably in the chair. “One, you feel that by living there for a year you will better be able to determine the true value of what you’ve inherited to set your price once the estate is settled. Second, I understand that you’ve quit your job. Without an income, you need free room and board for a year, so what better place to nip into than La Tierra? A year without having to work for a living will prepare you for the kind of life to which you anticipate becoming accustomed. How am I doing so far?”

  Cara could only stare at him, too appalled to answer. She was forced at last to appreciate fully how she must appear in his eyes, in the eyes of all of those who had loved and respected Ryan. They thought her lazy and opportunistic, a fortune hunter who now had the gall to demand living accommodations under the very roof of the man it appeared she had swindled.

  Why would Ryan have demanded something from her that would place her in such a light? He knew she loathed freeloading. He had often become exasperated with her because she would accept nothing from him that she could not return in kind. And she was nothing if not a hard worker. She had not wanted to give up her job, leaving unpaid for yet another year the final debts that clouded her family’s name. Ryan, whom she had trusted, whom she had loved—why had he extracted a promise that would compromise her very soul in the eyes of others?

  Inwardly she sighed. Now there would be another name to add to her list of debtors. She would pay Jeth Langston back for the cost of her room and board if it was the last thing she ever did!

  “You mentioned a third reason,” she reminded him.

  “Yes,” Jeth said slowly. Without hurry, he pulled toward him a bronze ashtray on the desk. The sensuous leather of his coat sleeve defined the hard, virile line of his arm. Cara sensed a sudden and dangerous change in him that made her look at him warily. When Jeth gave her his attention once again, her skin tingled with an ominous chill.

  “I think that somewhere in that scheming little head of yours, you actually entertained the idea that I may be induced to pick up where Ryan left off—two halves are better than one, so to speak—”

  Cara was horrified. “No!” she gasped. “What an insane idea!”

  “Is it, Miss Martin?” Jeth returned with icy calm. “Unlike my brother, who preferred tall, statuesque women, I have always had an inclination toward the Dresden type, the kind who are all cool fragility without but fire and passion within—like the kind of woman I suspect you are, Miss Martin. But then you were aware of that. You probably pumped Ryan plenty before he died.”

  At the mention of Ryan’s death, a sudden shadow flitted across Jeth’s sun-browned face. For a brief moment Cara saw naked pain etched there and remembered what she had forgotten in their bitter interview—that Jeth was suffering, too. Nonetheless, she jumped to her feet, small fists clenched, instinctively knowing that she must make clear her position on this vital point or lose a foothold that she could never regain. “I knew nothing of the sort about you! I couldn’t care less about your preferences in women! You are reading far too much into why I want to come to La Tierra. I can understand how you must feel about my living in—in your home, and I don’t blame you, but I promise you that I will sell back to you my share—”

  “Ryan’s share,” the man across from her corrected softly, the gray eyes very still.

Ryan’s share,” Cara allowed. “And for a fair price.”

  “And what do you consider fair?”

  “That will have to be discussed when the estate is settled. You have my word, though—however little it means to you—that the sum will be reasonable. In exchange—” She faltered and bit at the soft flesh of her lip, feeling herself blush.

  “Yes?” Jeth pressed, with unnerving patience.

  Cara drew a deep breath. “In exchange for the guarantee that I will sell to no one but you, I must have your guarantee that no harm will come to me while I am living at La Tierra.”

  There was a short silence, broken when Jeth instructed, “Do sit down, Miss Martin. Your height is inadequate to provide you much advantage. Besides, you look tired enough to drop.” She did, too. He had just noticed the delicate blue tinges of fatigue beneath the startling eyes. “Now tell me, why do you think you’ll need my protection?”

  “Mr. Langston!” Cara regarded him coldly as she sat down. “I may look a fool, but I assure you I’m not! Neither do I think I am addressing one. You know perfectly well why I would want such a guarantee. I could be—I could be—” Desperately she searched for a word that was less graphic than the one that sprang to mind.

  “Molested in some way?” he suggested politely, a small smile playing about his strong mouth.

  “Yes!” she said in angry embarrassment. “That, or—or beaten and starved—”

  “My dear Miss Martin!” Jeth could not suppress his laughter. It had a nice, hearty ring to it, and had he not been laughing at her, she might have enjoyed it. She seethed while, still amused, he blew a final stream of smoke and tamped out the cigar in the ashtray. “You’ve been seeing too many Italian Westerns,” he chuckled.

  “I see no Italian Westerns, Mr. Langston. I do not care for them. I am merely stating the obvious vindictive approach you and the people who work for you might take toward me for what you suppose I did to Ryan—”

  “Suppose? Did you say suppose, Miss Martin?” He was out of his chair before she could blink, all humor vanished, the arctic coldness back in his eyes. “Let’s get a few facts straight,” he said very clearly, bending down to imprison her in the chair by clasping each of its arms. “I don’t like dealing in suppositions.”

  Cara shrank back from him, the closeness of the granite features and the unaccustomed male scents of cologne and leather and tobacco sending her senses spinning. “Now these are the facts as I see them. I am sure you will correct me if I’m wrong.”

  “Given the opportunity,” Cara managed, pressing back against the chair.

  “You prevented my brother from coming home to die. Oh, he came back for a last token visit, but he never mentioned he was dying. If I had known his illness was terminal, I would have kept him there, and that would have meant curtains for you. I would have found out about the altered will.”

  “That’s not true!”

  “Isn’t it, Miss Martin? Then why didn’t he tell me about you, the woman he loved? Why didn’t he tell me about the change in the will? Ryan would have known that I would have accepted any decision he made concerning his half of La Tierra. It was his to do with as he chose.”

  “Mr. Langston, I honestly don’t know the answers to those questions—” He was so close. If she moved, they would touch.

  “Then try this one. Why didn’t you tell me he was dying? You had to have known that I didn’t know. You were the woman who answered the phone a few weeks ago when I called, weren’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

  Cara could not answer. Helplessly, she stared into the suddenly bleak eyes. No wonder Jeth Langston despised her. It was not the loss of the land that sharpened the edge of his hate against her, but the belief that she had denied him the last days of his brother’s life.

  “What power you had over him, Cara!” Jeth said in soft anguish. “A man doesn’t need much imagination to know how you made sure he returned to Boston. I’m sure you had your ways of convincing him that your arms were better for holding him in his final days than mine would have been.”

  A stab of pity for him brought the shine of tears to her eyes. She would not, could not, add to this man’s grief by telling him that Ryan himself had refused to return home to die. Without meaning to, she looked longingly at the broad set of shoulders encased in the buttery soft leather. She was so desperately tired. How pleasant it would be to slip her arms around that strong neck and rest her cheek against the leather’s yielding softness. Instead, she closed her eyes and lowered her head wearily, feeling a strand of hair brush Jeth’s chin.

  “I—I can well understand how all this must look to you, but—but—”

  “But I’m wrong, is that it?” Jeth finished for her, his tone almost gentle.

  She shook her head.

  “Oh, Miss Martin—” He straightened up, an impotent rage filling his soul. Long ago he had dispensed with dreams, especially those about women. But occasionally, when he felt especially lonely and the long evening hours in the study stretched out before him, he wondered what it would be like to know, like his father, the love of a devoted woman. Sometimes his thoughts wandered further, and he envisioned what she would look like, this woman of his dreams. A small, shapely figure, eyes that could melt the needles from a cactus, honey-gold hair, and a mouth so sweet and passionate that it was like drinking ambrosia to kiss her—that was the description of the woman he yearned to give his heart and soul. A woman who looked like Cara Martin.

  “Let’s see if I’m wrong about this, too, Miss Martin,” Jeth said, his voice dangerously soft. He reached down and slipped an arm around her waist. Cara was in the leather enclosure of his embrace before she could close her astonished mouth.

  “Let me go!” she demanded, aware of the sudden intimate pressure of his chest against hers. His move had been so sudden, he was pressing her so close that her arms dangled uselessly. They had nowhere to go but to his shoulders, and she must not put them there.

  “This is your chance to prove me wrong about you, Miss Martin, that you are not what I think you are, that you were never Ryan’s—”

  “Don’t say it!” Cara said desperately. “I can’t bear to hear you say it.”

  “Then prove to me how wrong I am.”

  “Don’t—” The word was just forming when Jeth’s lips closed over her mouth.

  Cara stiffened against him, tightened her lips in rigid protest against such a violation of her privacy. Small fists pummeled his shoulders with powerless blows that drained her remaining strength. Jeth, his hand a gentle vise under the silken fall of her hair, felt the tension suddenly leave and released her mouth. Cara’s lids fluttered open, the depths of her eyes starry and deeply violet. Jeth stared down into them, and she was conscious of a strange, frightening desire asserting itself deep within her. “Please let me go,” she pleaded, her mouth so close to him that her lips stroked his when she spoke.

  “No,” he murmured and kissed her eyes. She whimpered—to Jeth’s ears like a kitten lost in a storm—but he could not afford to be merciful. He pressed her closer and she gasped and tensed as his lips closed over hers again. He might have let her go then, but she did not pull away. Against her mouth Jeth groaned in gratitude, for he could not have borne the sudden release of her from his arms, the denial of her lips, the feel of her body. The fragrance of her filled his nostrils and drifted down into the hollow of his heart where he had conceived the image of her likeness. Exultantly, hungrily, tasting and devouring her, he led her deeper into a world of sexuality where he could not have known that she had never been before.

  And Cara, the sudden, unexpected need of him destroying her defenses, could not prevent the ardor with which her flesh responded.

  Long after her body had helped Jeth to prove his point, she stayed within his embrace. Finally, he pushed her from him. Shame would not let her meet his eyes. To finish her humiliation, tears began to run down her cheeks.

  “Believe it or not,” he said quietly, “I wish I’d been wrong.
It would be comforting to know that Ryan had loved a woman who could have remained faithful until his body was cold.”

  Jeth brought out a folded white lawn handkerchief and tossed it to her. “Now let’s do a little reconsidering, shall we? I’m sure that you realize that it’s out of the question for you to live on the ranch.”

  Cara dabbed at her eyes. “I have to come, Jeth,” she said. “I have to. I don’t expect you to understand, but be assured I won’t ask a thing from you. I won’t be in your way. What happened just now will not happen again—”

  Jeth asked in astonishment, “You mean you still intend to go through with this? What the hell for? What can you possibly hope to gain? I’ll pay you now for Ryan’s share of the ranch!”

  “It—it’s not for sale until the estate is settled, which will take approximately a year, or so I’m told. I’d like to arrive March twentieth, two days from now. Probably by this time next year, the paperwork will have already been drawn up to restore Ryan’s portion to you. You have my word that I will ask no more than a fair price for it. And you have to promise—”

  “Yes, I know,” Jeth grated. “My protection from physical abuse. Okay, lady, you have a deal, but I hope your psychological health is in good shape. You’ll need it where you’re going.” He turned to pick up the Stetson. “By the way,” he asked, “just how do you expect to get to the ranch?”

  “I intend flying to Midland Air Terminal. I’d like for you to have someone pick me up when I arrive. I’d rent a car, but I would have no way to return it.”

  “Suppose I say no.”

  Cara had to moisten dry lips, but she stood her ground. “Jeth, you have to cooperate with my inconsequential requests if you want that land back.”

  He came back to all but gape at her, his strong brown fingers curved around the brim of the Stetson. Cara found herself gazing at them in fascination. “I won’t bore you with the results of the last attempt to coerce me, Miss Martin, but let it suffice to say that the individual regretted his impulse. You will hand over that land no later than next March twentieth with or without my cooperation to your inconsequential requests, do you understand? And another thing: you have lapsed twice and called me Jeth. Don’t do so again.”

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