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       Ryan's Hand, p.7

           Leila Meacham
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  His words brought home to her what for a short while she had forgotten in the curiosity of her new surroundings: Jeth Langston. Sometime this day she would see him, and the thought chilled her blood. She wished that she could appreciate the beauty of the wide paved drive that was leading her closer to a man who detested her, who already had begun his vengeance upon her. Nonetheless, she noted that the drive had been lined with tree after tree of fuschia oleanders just beginning to bloom. Apparently they did not take their cue from the mesquite. She imagined, once they were in bloom, the profusion of blossoms that would greet the visitor through that exalted gate, bowing and swaying in the wind like a receiving line of plumed courtiers welcoming guests to the throne of a king.

  The drive led uncompromisingly to the broad, wide-porticoed entrance of the house. The impeccable white stucco finish and sloping red tile roof did not surprise her. She was somewhat knowledgeable about Spanish architecture and recognized the style as that of the Spanish grandees who had settled in this area. This one, however, rather than having the usual low, long lines with thick walls to preserve the maximum temperature comfort, was two-storied. A scrolled, black wrought-iron terrace ran the circumference of the top floor with French doors opening to it. Interesting, thought Cara, and very impressive, but somehow unseasoned. She recalled that Ryan’s parents had died before they had occupied the house.

  “Where is everyone?” she asked Bill, for there was no sign or sound of any human activity. The young man was struggling with her big boxes impatiently. He set them down on the limestone porch and rang the doorbell. “At the roundup of the remuda in the high country,” he told her, his tone implying that that was where he should be.

  Cara shaded her eyes to better see the low range of mountains toward the north, far beyond the oasis of the ranch.

  “By high country, I suppose you mean over there?” She pointed. Bill followed her finger with derisive amusement.

  “Yes, ma’am. You’re sure a greenhorn, ain’t ya?”

  “I’m afraid so.” She smiled, determined not to be nettled.

  Before she could inquire about the whereabouts of Bill’s employer, the wide double doors opened. A weathered, stern-faced Mexican woman of indeterminate age, smaller in stature even than Cara, stood surveying her with cold dispassion.

  “She’s here, Fiona!” Bill announced grimly, as if she were some dreaded tornado they had been watching for on the horizon. Cara stared at the little woman. So this was Fiona, the housekeeper that Ryan had spoken of with such affection.

  “So I see,” the woman said abruptly, turning her glance from Cara. “Bring her things in, Señor Bill, and take them up to the first bedroom on the left. Then you better go on up to Diablo Canyon where the trap is. He caught Devil’s Own, but that son of Satan slipped his noose and got away again. He is not in a good mood.”

  Which did not bode well for her, Cara thought, whatever it was that they were talking about. “He” must be Jeth Langston. She did not know whether to be happy or dismayed that she had been reprieved from an immediate meeting with the ruler of this isolated empire. Maybe the initial confrontation was better over as soon as possible so they could go their separate ways. The house looked big enough to allow that arrangement.

  The woman called Fiona returned her inhospitable gaze to Cara as Bill brushed by carrying her things. “You can come in,” she said.

  “Thank you,” Cara responded pleasantly, and walked into the manor house of La Tierra Conquistada.

  She was shocked immediately by its monastic severity. A tomb, Ryan had called it, and Cara felt obliged to agree with him. Immense and silent, the house had an almost menacing sterility about it, like a sanitarium. Furniture was sparse and utilitarian. No paintings or portraits enlivened the stark white walls. And everywhere, in all the rooms open to her view from the spacious entrance hall, she could see the gleaming gray terrazzo, creating an impression of cold, obsessive cleanliness.

  “Come,” said Fiona, waiting for her at the foot of the wide staircase.

  The bedroom the housekeeper led her to, however, surprised her in another way, for it was obvious that feminine considerations had gone into its decor. Gray and yellow had been used, which Cara now assumed must be the colors of La Tierra. The inevitable gray tile was on the floor, but it had been covered with a large yellow area rug. Draperies and a bedspread in a sprigged print of the ranch’s colors matched the window seats of the two small deep-set windows that flanked a slender French door. The big four-poster bed and other furniture—a dressing table, writing desk, chairs for both, armoire, and chest of drawers—were of mellow oak. Two upholstered yellow wingback chairs sat on either side of the fireplace, which had already been laid with a supply of wood—scrub oak, Cara supposed, and remembered her comment on the day she had met Ryan at the airport.

  He had known then that she would be in Texas now.

  The memory sobered her surprised pleasure in the room and made her eyes reflective. Fiona had nearly slipped away before Cara realized she was leaving. “Oh—I—thank you,” she said quickly to the unsmiling woman. “The room is quite lovely, very cozy and feminine. Is it someone’s special room?”

  Fiona’s hand was on the doorknob. “You’ve missed lunch,” she said with undisguised hostility, and was gone before Cara could reply.

  The young woman was left facing the closed door, and in the silence, like bugs scampering out in a house when the occupants leave, all of her fears crawled out from the woodwork to assail her. She looked about her at the luggage and boxes that needed unpacking but was reluctant to begin the task. Reaching inside the neck of her sweater, she fingered the small seagull. A whole year in the remote silence of this monastery? Would there be no one who would talk with her, nowhere to go for relief from loneliness, from the animosity of the man in whose cold eyes she was condemned beyond any reclamation of her innocence?

  Determinedly putting those questions from her mind, she shed her coat and took a penknife from her purse. Cutting the tape of one of the boxes, she began to search for the three items her mood dictated she unpack first.

  When Cara found the bag of sea glass, she held it up to the gentle March sunlight, which had come into her room to play. The pieces of glass glowed softly like a cache of dull gems recovered from the sea. She found another bag, this one filled with the broken pieces of the lobster traps that she and Ryan had collected on their last visit to Devereux Beach. Glancing at the fireplace, she thought how comforting the fire would be with these reminders from home added to the flames. Lastly, she found the enlarged snapshot that had belonged to Ryan. She gently touched the glass that covered his face, swallowing at the ache that filled her throat. How hard to believe that he was gone, that she would never see that boyish smile again or hear his laughter or feel his friendly arm around her shoulder. “Do you trust me, Cara?” he had asked. “Remember always that I had only at heart the interests of those I loved.”

  That’s you and me, Jeth, she said silently to the other man in the picture. I intend to carry out your brother’s wish no matter how hard you make it for me to do so.

  A strange rumble that gave her the sensation the earth was shaking brought Cara’s head up, and she held still a moment, listening. Placing the picture on the mantel, she went out on the terrace that faced the mountains, and an awesome and unforgettable sight met her eyes.

  A great herd of horses, their manes and tails flowing behind them, had come from the mountains to begin a thundering, dusty trek across the plains toward the ranch. Dozens of whooping, hollering cowboys on their own galloping mounts rode at their sides, keeping them maneuvered into a V-shaped formation by waving hats and coiled ropes. Cara looked for the objective toward which horses and men seemed to be headed, but her vantage point told her nothing. Compelled by the rough, masculine drama she was witnessing, she followed the terrace past other French doors until she had a view of the maze of corrals that had been erected beyond the grounds of the house.

  So that’s t
heir destination, she thought, feeling suddenly sorry for the animals, whose life of freedom in the mountains would soon be at an end. As the horses drew abreast of the series of lanes that would feed them into the corrals, sounds that she had never imagined filled the air along with the dust. Leather saddles and chaps popped, ropes slapped, men cursed and yelled orders, horses whinnied and screamed.

  Cara was so fascinated with the unusual scene that she was unaware of having been spotted on the terrace. First one man and then another jerked a head in her direction, but several minutes went by before she realized she was the cause of the gradual decline in activity. None of the men looking at her nodded or tipped his hat. They merely stared, and even from that distance Cara could read the stony unfriendliness on their weathered faces.

  A rider on a huge bay, whose back had been to her, turned his mount swiftly to see what had distracted the men, and Cara saw with a sharp intake of breath that the man was Jeth Langston. He sat immobile for a few seconds, staring straight at her from beneath the brim of his black hat, and Cara cursed herself for not having recognized that imperious back. Suddenly one of the horses, sensing an opportunity for freedom, reared and bolted from the orderly line. Other horses quickly followed suit, sending the men scrambling after them. Shouting an order, Jeth wheeled his horse sharply, at the same time uncoiling a rope from the saddle horn. With held breath she watched him streak after the escaping ringleader, his rope twirling above his head until he was close enough to the animal to throw a noose cleanly over its head. Jeth led the horse back to the line without looking in her direction again, and Cara saw that the men had resumed their work with even more fervor than before.

  She turned quickly and sought the sanctuary of her room, wondering if there was to be no end to the trouble she caused Jeth Langston. A strange sensation had begun to play in the pit of her stomach, one that had nothing to do with the fear that she would be blamed for the mishap. The sunlight was chilly, but she was suffused with warmth, and her cheeks felt hot. She began to unpack with furious energy, trying to keep from her mind the sight of that dominant figure on horseback whose hatred she had felt even across the distance that lay between them.

  Chapter Five

  The sun was gone, the rough voices of the cowboys were silent, and her clothes hung neatly in her closet when a sharp rap came at her door. “Yes?” Cara called.

  The door opened and Fiona stood in the doorway. She had changed from her faded jeans and flannel shirt into a neat cotton dress worn under a starched yellow apron. The unsmiling face, however, was the same. She announced with cold disdain, “El Patrón will see you now.”

  “I’ll only be a few minutes,” Cara said evenly, hoping the woman could not hear the rapid beating of her heart. El Patrón? El Patrón?

  The woman said warningly, “It would not be wise to keep him waiting, señorita,” and closed the door with a sharp click.

  He can wait long enough for me to freshen up, declared Cara to herself. She was not going to face him from the disadvantage of a pale face. In the adjoining bathroom, she brushed her teeth and applied fresh makeup. She was still wearing the suit skirt and cowl-neck sweater from her flight and saw no need to change. She brushed her hair, letting it fall into the easy, natural style that she had come to enjoy. “There,” she said aloud in satisfaction to her reflection in the mirror when she was ready, then added tremulously, “Go with me, Ryan.”

  Fiona was waiting for her at the foot of the gray-tiled stairs. The housekeeper’s face registered nothing as she watched Cara descend. “He’s in there,” she said, indicating with a stern jerk of her silver-threaded head two double doors off the living room.

  Cara pondered Fiona uncertainly. Was Fiona to announce her? When the housekeeper moved off to other regions, with only a last disapproving glance over her shoulder, Cara decided she was on her own. Approaching the heavy, forbidding doors, she knocked decisively on one of them.

  “Come in,” came the deep voice that Cara remembered, and the young woman took one last steadying breath before entering Jeth Langston’s inner sanctum.

  She did not see him at first in the darkly paneled room. Besides the light cast from the fireplace, the only other illumination in the large room came from a lamp on a massive desk to the right of the door. The leather chair behind it was empty.

  Jeth was standing at the fireplace, in the process of lighting a cigar with a glowing piece of kindling. He drew on it, and the smoke wafted across to her, its aroma recalling to Cara the memory of his arms around her and the demands of his lips. “Good evening,” she said.

  Jeth turned to her, the gray eyes beneath the dark brows steady and assessing as she stood in the center of the room with her arms calmly at her sides. He looked as formidable as she had feared. The light from the fireplace cast its shadows over the granite face, throwing in relief the high cheekbones and the cold, metallic brilliance of his eyes. He had changed from the black range wear of the afternoon to casual slacks and shirt in a deep blue. Black boots of superb leather caught the flames in their sheen and added inches to his already intimidating height.

  The rancher removed the cigar from his mouth and reached on the mantel for a glass of heavy cut crystal. “Welcome to La Tierra Conquistada,” he said, without meaning it, and lifted his glass in a mock toast. The amber liquor glowed like liquid fire.

  “Thank you,” Cara returned in a neutral tone.

  Jeth’s lip curled mirthlessly. “I see you survived Bill’s jeep ride.”

  “Yes. It was…typical of the welcome I expected.”

  “Then I’m glad we didn’t disappoint you, Miss Martin.”

  “I doubt that you could do that, Mr. Langston.”

  Their gazes struck and sparked, like the opening parry of swords in battle. Finally Jeth walked to his desk and said amiably, “Sit down, Miss Martin, sit down. This is likely to be a long conversation.”

  “I hope not,” Cara rejoined briskly. “I’m very tired.”

  “In that case a glass of wine would be in order. I’m aware that you do not drink hard liquor.” Ignoring her faint look of surprise, he pressed a button on his desk and indicated with a motion of his cigar that she was to take a leather chair opposite his desk. Cara sat down on the edge of it. Her nerve endings were beginning to quiver. The subtly patronizing tone of his voice sent unpleasant tingles down her spine. Perhaps the wine would ease the tension gripping her neck and shoulders.

  Jeth sat down and leaned indolently back in his sumptuous chair, the cigar in one hand, the fingers of his other toying with the glass on his desk. The diamonds in the black-faced ring winked derisively at her.

  “Well, Miss Martin, how do you like your room? Adequate in size, I hope?”

  “Yes, indeed. It’s a lovely room, very feminine. I—it seems to have been decorated for someone special. Was it?”

  “No one in particular, Miss Martin. It’s for female guests.”

  In any other household, the statement would have been innocuous, but Jeth’s meaning did not escape her, and he had not meant it to. He took a draw on the cigar, hooding his eyes against the smoke and observing with cold amusement the two bright spots Cara felt flare to her cheeks. Devil! she thought, acknowledging in spite of herself that many women would find his type of rugged virility and wolfish lean looks irresistible. No doubt the guest room she occupied was seldom vacant. “How kind of you to let me have it, Mr. Langston,” she returned with equanimity. “I hope I won’t be inconveniencing any of your women guests.”

  “You won’t be, Miss Martin. I’ll have no trouble finding a room to their liking when they visit.”

  Her cheeks glowed brighter at this rejoinder, and she was relieved that Fiona entered just then with a tray bearing her glass of wine. “Gracias, Fiona,” said Jeth as the housekeeper bent down to let Cara take it from the tray.

  “De nada, Patrón,” murmured Fiona and she left the room on silent feet.

  Jeth sipped his drink while he waited for Cara to try the wine. S
he knew vintages, and this one was excellent. The bouquet tingled her nostrils pleasurably, and she said, “How very nice,” in honest appreciation after she had taken a generous sip.

  “I’m glad you like it, Miss Martin. I’ve ordered a case for your enjoyment while you are here, knowing you to be quite a connoisseur of wines.”

  Cara showed her surprise. That was thoughtful of him, she granted. “But how could you possibly know that if, as you say, Ryan never mentioned me to you?”

  “Well, now, Miss Martin,” drawled Jeth, reaching for a brown folder that had been in evidence all the while on his desk, “one of the advantages of wealth is that it provides the means to find out about one’s enemies.”

  A detective! He had hired a detective!

  Cara placed the wineglass carefully on the slate portion of the desk’s gleaming surface before standing up. The fury mounting within her did not affect the crystal clarity of her next words. “How dare you, Mr. Langston! How dare you pry into my private life!”

  “I will dare anything I choose when it comes to you, Miss Martin. When I say anything, you’d better believe it, so sit down like a good girl before I prove that, too, is an open book for my enjoyment and…perusal.”

  Cara sat down, violet eyes flooded with anger and dismay. They shot daggers at him while, unperturbed, Jeth opened the folder and glanced at several pages before enlightening her of their contents. “I understand that your parents died within the same year when you were still in college, Miss Martin. Is that right?”

  Cara did not reply. She picked up the wineglass and defiantly pushed herself back into the supple comfort of the leather chair. Why should she care what he knew about her background? There was nothing in it to incriminate her further.

  “I don’t blame you for not responding, Miss Martin,” Jeth said understandingly. “I can appreciate their loss must be painful to you. Let’s push on to other areas. Your family incurred a large number of debts, which were left to you upon their deaths. Your father, it would appear, thought working for a living far too common a responsibility for the blue-blooded aesthete that he was. He preferred to live off the fortune made by his forebears, and when that ran out, to live on credit.” Here Jeth paused but did not lift his eyes from the file. Cara interpreted the lull as an opportunity to defend her family and refute what he was reading. She had been right guessing that he would hold her parents in contempt. She chose to remain silent.

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