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       Ryan's Hand, p.6

           Leila Meacham
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  Without another look at her, he strode from the room and closed the door behind him with the finality of an exclamation mark. Cara stood staring at it with a strange sense of loss, raising to her lips the monogrammed handkerchief he had forgotten.

  Chapter Four

  He wouldn’t see me, you know,” said Harold St. Clair after he and Cara had been seated in the dining room of the Dallas Hilton where he had reserved rooms for them.

  “Mr. Langston considers you a traitor,” Cara said regretfully, practicing the form of his name that she’d been ordered to use. “But even so, I’d think he would want to hear about his brother from one who had been his colleague and friend.”

  “Jeth Langston is a hard man, Cara. Apparently he feels that I am partly responsible for this unpleasantness since I knew about the will and didn’t tell him in time for him to exert his influence. I plead innocent of knowing that Ryan’s illness was terminal.” He looked across at Cara with a despondent smile. She was ravishing in a red dinner dress that heightened the translucent glow of her skin. Under the flattering lights of the chandeliers, her eyes and hair were dazzling. Harold was aware that glances from other diners kept returning to their table. He only wished Cara’s admirers could have the pleasure of seeing her smile. The lovely heirloom pearls encircling her throat were nothing to the pearl perfection of her smile.

  Gently, Harold covered the small hand toying with the stem of a wineglass. “If he had agreed to see me, I could have told him that he is mistaken about you.”

  “How can you be sure of that, Harold?” The lawyer’s first name sounded unfamiliar to her still. This afternoon he had asked her to use it. “You know no more about me than he does.”

  “I know that when I first read to you the contents of the will, your face lost all color, and you immediately wanted to give—not sell—the land back to Jeth. Your specific words were ‘Ryan would never have done that to his brother.’ Remember? You only changed your mind after I left you alone with Ryan’s envelope. What was in it, Cara? What was in it that made you change your mind about the inheritance and decide to wait out the settlement of the estate at La Tierra?”

  Cara drew her hand away and clutched the napkin in her lap. She was becoming adept at hiding her thoughts, and now a curtain seemed to descend over her features. If Harold probed any further, he might guess at the promise she had made to Ryan. Warmth remained in her eyes, however, and Harold was rewarded with a faint smile. “I’ll have to tell you what I told Mr. Langston, Harold. My reasons are personal. A year will go fast and then I’ll have to impose upon you again by asking that you arrange the sale agreement.”

  “Do you…know what you’ll be asking?” Harold inquired blandly, studying her covertly over the rim of his martini glass.

  “A reasonable price,” was her evasive answer. “Now tell me, when are you going back to Boston?” The question made her heart move strangely. Harold was her last link with home, with what was familiar and safe. He had been a steady and comforting presence at her side throughout the strain of the last few weeks. To be suddenly without his counsel and support, his easy companionship, would be especially hard after the tragedy of Ryan’s death and the fear of the ordeal ahead.

  “Tomorrow morning,” Harold told her reluctantly, reading her thoughts. “Cara. I want you to consider me your friend. You have my card. If for any reason you need me, you’ve only to call. I could not bear to think of your needing help and having no one to turn to. I’m only a return flight away.” He looked at the girl as gravely as he dared. Heaven knew, she was frightened enough for all the composure she was trying to show. “And my dear—” He took her hand into his smooth, comforting one. “If I may offer some advice?”

  “Please do,” Cara invited quietly, but her heart fluttered sickeningly at his tone. Into her mind leaped the image of Jeth and the hatred and repugnance that had been in his eyes in the last few moments of their interview. She did not fear anything he could do to her if only he did not prey on the weakness he had discovered, the weakness she had not even known she possessed.

  “Then it is this, Cara. Do not love anything while you are out there. No man, woman, or child. No horse or dog—not even an armadillo—” His attempt at humor failed. The beautiful eyes darkened with anxiety, but he pressed on. “Care for nothing or no one through which he can hurt you—” Harold broke off as a waiter appeared to present them with menus.

  “You don’t have to go, you know.”

  “Yes, I do.”

  Harold sighed. “I have transferred a sum of money to your account on orders from Ryan. No, don’t protest, Cara, and don’t be foolish, either. You’re broke. I know it, and Ryan knew it. You will have no income while you’re in Texas, so don’t let that New England pride of yours prevent you from spending it for the things you need.”

  Cara opened the menu. Ryan had thought of everything. Everything but an explanation for why she was here. “I don’t think I’ll have anything but a salad. I seem to have lost my appetite,” she said.

  The next morning Cara saw Harold St. Clair off on his return trip to Boston from the huge, modern Metroplex airport that sprawled between Dallas and Fort Worth. As the aircraft lifted off, a bleak depression settled over her, and she clutched even tighter the small box she held. It contained a gold charm in the design of a seagull that Harold had given her just before boarding.

  “For luck,” he explained, looking down at the golden head bent in surprised pleasure over the trinket. “You can attach it to that thin gold chain you wear around your neck. If you have any bad moments, just reach up and touch it. I hope it reminds you that you have a friend.”

  “Harold—” Words failed her, and so she reached up and kissed his smooth-shaven cheek. Blinking at the tears that threatened, she stammered, “You’ve been so kind. I can never repay—”

  “Shh.” He stopped her gently by touching a finger to her lips. “Take care of yourself now, and let me hear from you.”

  Once he had gone, Cara found a secluded seat in a vacant passenger lounge and cried out the grief and despair that had needed release for weeks. She felt better afterward and resolutely drew a breath. That will have to do me, she thought. No way can I afford to do that once I’m on The Conquered Land!

  The next morning she was wide awake long before the desk called to awaken her. She lay in bed staring at the ceiling and tried to calm herself by mentally lining up the defenses she could call on to protect herself from Jeth Langston’s expected vengeance. There was the matter of the land, which would be hers by law within the year. She must not be squeamish when it came to holding that over his arrogant head in case he decided to get rough with her. Also, she would watch her decorum carefully and in no way give anyone reason to call her—she could hardly bear to think of it—Ryan’s whore! She would stay out of everyone’s way, but if allowed, she would certainly pitch in and help with whatever needed doing.

  But for all the practical advice she gave herself, the knot remained tied in her stomach. Not even the elegant suit she chose for her flight helped to soothe her anxieties. She had come to take pleasure and comfort in the large assortment of beautiful clothes that soon would be hanging in her closet on La Tierra. They reminded her of Ryan and brought him close to her in memory. She wore them proudly, knowing that he would have wanted her to.

  Cara preferred time to drag, but it did not. By the time she had finished packing and forced herself to eat several bites of melon for breakfast, she had to leave for the airport. She dressed warmly in the sable-lined raincoat, for spring was late arriving in Texas, and in no time at all she was deposited before the flight desk and her bags were being checked.

  A flurry of worrisome questions besieged her as the airliner winged its way over the vast reaches of Texas. Were the two big boxes containing her clothes and the belongings she had sent by air freight waiting for her in the small airport where she’d be landing? Would there be someone there to meet her? Cara cringed at the thought that it might be Jeth
Langston. She shrugged off that worry immediately, thinking it unlikely that the owner of La Tierra Conquistada performed such menial chores. How would she get to the ranch if no one was there? She could rent a car, but how could she return it? Finally, already exhausted from the burden of her anxieties and a sleepless night, she laid her head back, closed heavy lids over troubled eyes, and slept.

  The steward woke her, it seemed to Cara, just a few minutes later, and yet she felt a surge of fresh strength and well-being. The young man smiled down at her, enjoying her beauty. “I thought you’d like to be awake before we land,” he said, “especially if this is your first trip to West Texas.”

  Cara thanked him, and the steward remained at her seat to get her reaction when she looked out of her window. The sight below made her gasp. The handsome young steward smiled. “That’s something, isn’t it? Everybody has that reaction the first time they see West Texas from the air. Someone once said this part of the state can best be described as ‘miles and miles of miles and miles.’ ”

  An accurate statement, Cara agreed, as she gaped down at the vast, seemingly endless desert that surrounded two oasis-looking patches of green. Cara assumed they were the only towns of any size in the area. In between them was the airport, but beyond and around them was nothing—no trees, lakes, or highways—to break the sweeping brown panorama of the West Texas plains. A tough, rugged land, she decided—like the man who had conquered it.

  The thought of Jeth Langston brought shadows to her eyes, and the steward, who had already summed her up as some rich man’s toy, ventured curiously, “Somehow you don’t look like you belong out here. Are you just visiting?”

  “Yes,” Cara replied, giving him a brief smile before turning back to her window. The steward took the hint and moved off down the aisle, wondering about the man rich enough to afford something like that.

  A dry, stiff wind lifted Cara’s blond hair when she stepped off the departure ramp at Midland Air Terminal. There was no amenity of a covered ramp from plane to terminal, and she pulled the warm fur at her neck closer. Quickly she scanned the assembled group of relatives and friends for anyone who might be from La Tierra Conquistada. Subconsciously, Cara realized, she was looking for Jeth. No one nearly that tall or dominating was among the group who waited inside the terminal building. She looked searchingly around, but her gaze was met only by those arrested by her striking appearance.

  He hasn’t sent anyone! she thought in dismay. So this was to be her first taste of what she could expect as Ryan’s whore.

  She went into the small restaurant for a cup of coffee and to plan her next move. There was a car rental service here. Perhaps she would have to rent a car and simply hope that she could prevail upon someone from the ranch to return it. Oh, for her trusty old Volkswagen, she was thinking, just as someone tapped her on the shoulder.

  Cara looked up in surprise. A tall, rangy young man about her age, wearing low-slung jeans, scuffed boots, a sleeveless fleece-lined jacket, and a frowning expression, was regarding her uncertainly. He had a dusty cowboy hat pushed back on his curly blond head. “Yes?” she inquired.

  “You Miss Martin?”

  “Yes, I am. Are you from La Tierra?”

  “Yeah. The boss sent me to pick ya up.”

  “Well, that’s wonderful!” Cara exclaimed, a brilliant smile of relief lighting her eyes.

  The young man looked away, momentarily disconcerted. Cara suspected that the tough-guy pose did not come naturally and was being worn for her benefit. Orders from headquarters, she surmised with a flash of temper.

  “Let’s go, then,” he said gruffly.

  “There are a couple of things that I must do first—”

  The young man dug his heels into the carpet, thrust fingertips into tight jean pockets, and surveyed her with disapproval. “Like whut?”

  “Paying my check for one thing,” she said pleasantly. “And then I have to pick up my luggage. After that, I have to go to the air freight office to collect the boxes that I sent from Boston.”

  “That take long?”

  “No-o-o.” Cara’s eyes rounded innocently. “Not nearly as long as it would take to make a return trip here and back.”

  “Well…” The young cowboy thought this over. “I guess it’s all right. But I have strict orders from the boss to pick ya up and head right on back to the ranch. This is roundup time, ya know.”

  “No, I didn’t know,” Cara said congenially, fishing in her bag for money. She indicated her bags. “Would you mind getting those while I pay the check?”

  The young man picked up Cara’s weekender and cosmetic case. “My name is Cara,” she said, taking the cosmetic case from him as they were heading for the luggage pickup.

  “Mine’s Bill, but I don’t think we oughta get too friendly, miss. Let’s just get what ya got to get and quit the jawin’.”

  Stung, Cara remained silent while the luggage was collected. Bill’s only words were, “The jeep is out here.”

  “Jeep?” she cried, following him out to an immaculately painted light-gray jeep with the name of the ranch in small yellow letters on its side. The wind was beginning to pick up. Cara’s ears already felt cold, and she did not relish a ride in an open vehicle. She was glad that she’d remembered to tuck a light wool scarf into her handbag.

  All his attention on the road, Bill drove the jeep to the freight office where to her relief the two big boxes from Boston were awaiting her. Without a word, Bill loaded them into the back of the jeep with her other luggage, then looked impatiently at her standing beside the vehicle tying on her head scarf. “Let’s go, miss. We’re late enough already.”

  With Cara clutching the side of the jeep with one hand and her scarf with the other, they tore off down the road leading out of the airport. They headed west on a wide modern interstate for a few miles until Bill turned left onto a two-lane highway. The wind tore at Cara’s scarf, stung her eyes and cheeks, and carried away all attempts at conversation. Finally, receiving no response, she fell silent, trying to make as much as possible of the terrain they were passing through. Still in its wintry pall, it was indeed a bleak-looking landscape. Little vegetation grew from the hard, sandy ground, and what there was appeared stunted and sparse. She recognized the gnarled mesquite trees that Ryan had described to her. “They won’t bud until the last freeze is over,” she remembered his telling her. “Everything else out there can be fooled by Mother Nature, but not the mesquite.” Cara had no idea what mesquite looked like when in bloom, but since there was not a single speck of color on the barren landscape, she deduced that winter was not yet over.

  She was managing to hang onto her seat and the scarf until Bill turned off the highway across the open plains. “Shortcut!” he yelled, driving the jeep at full speed. Cara glanced back in alarm at the boxes jostling around on the backseat. If Bill hit a bump, they could easily be bounced over the side of the jeep onto the hard ground, and already they seemed to have had all the abuse they could stand. One look at the grim satisfaction on the young cowboy’s face, the malicious delight he was taking in her discomfort, and the whole picture became clear.

  “Stop this jeep this instant!” she shouted, and when he ignored her, she simply reached for the keys and jerked them out of the ignition. The jeep ground to a halt, and Bill turned to her in stupefaction. “Now you listen to me, you ill-mannered smart aleck!” Cara exploded. “You need reminding of a fact you seem to have forgotten. I own half of La Tierra Conquistada, and you will drive this jeep at a sane speed and get us to wherever we’re going in one piece, or I may have to exercise a prerogative of my position that I’d just as soon not. Do I make myself clear?”

  Bill looked across at her uncertainly, trying to decide if she was bluffing. The furious brilliance of the violet-blue eyes convinced him she was not. “Yes, ma’am,” he conceded gruffly, and held out his hands for the keys.

  Ultimately, out of the vast ocean of nothingness, there appeared in the far distance a white sprawling s
tructure that momentarily gave the young Bostonian an impression of the Taj Mahal planted in the middle of the Sahara. The suddenness of its appearance was relieved by the beginning of a fence, made not of wood but of white steel pipe, which suggested that civilization was not far off. The white fence contrasted peaceably with the green winter pastures it bordered. In them here and there, groups of healthy-looking russet-colored cattle grazed placidly.

  As all of this came into Cara’s awed view, the jeep reached a well-paved road that ran beside the fence, and Bill turned left, heading, Cara supposed, to a drive that had access to the shining edifice sitting in the middle of the plains.

  “Is this where the ranch begins?” she asked.

  The young cowboy shot her a disgusted glance. “You been on La Tierra since we left the airport,” he stated scornfully, but he could not conceal the note of pride Cara heard in his voice. She recalled that Ryan had spoken of the loyalty and devotion of the cowhands to the ranch. Many of them, she remembered, represented the fourth generation to work at La Tierra. Cara wondered if Bill was one. If so, she could understand the contempt that he was trying hard to show her.

  They drove for several more miles before they reached the massive wrought-iron gate flanked by equally imposing limestone posts. The gate was heavily scrolled, but the intricate metalwork did not interfere with the brand of La Tierra, which had been worked into the two joining centers of the gate. When the gate opened, the brand was divided. Bill pointed this out to her, adding meaningfully, “The boss had it designed that way on purpose. He wanted everybody to understand that half was his and half was his brother’s.”

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