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       Ryan's Hand, p.8

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “Since your father did not take the precaution of providing life insurance, you were left virtually penniless. You took it upon yourself,” Jeth went on, “to clear your family’s financial name rather than declare bankruptcy—very noble of you—and you worked very hard for several years as a librarian, which I understand is your second choice of vocations. Gradually the mountain of debts began to be whittled down. In that time you lived frugally, allowing yourself few luxuries—” Here Jeth glanced up at Cara and let his gaze linger pointedly on her expensive attire. “And then,” he continued smoothly, “you met my brother…” He contemplated her again, the affable manner gone, the pupils contracting into two deadly omens of danger.

  Cara stiffened in her chair. “What are you implying?”

  “I’m not implying anything, Miss Martin. I’m stating that you saw my brother as a way to pay off your debts. You were suddenly tired of living in a one-room apartment. You were tired of your old clothes and your old car and of trying to stretch each paycheck to make ends meet. You knew Ryan was dying when you met him. You learned how much he respected integrity. God knows he’d seen little of it in his lifetime, especially from women. How cunning of you to make him think that you were too highly principled to let him pay your debts while he lived, but you sure as hell made sure he would pay them after his death, didn’t you?”

  “No!” Cara denied, jumping up from the chair. “Those are terrible, unjust accusations! I didn’t know Ryan was dying! I had no—” She had begun to say that she had no knowledge about the will, but she could not defend herself too strongly. She had to be careful in the heat of these confrontations not to blurt out why she was here. Cara moistened her lips. “Mr. Langston, I know it looks like that, but—”

  “Where did you get that outfit you’re wearing, Miss Martin?”

  Cara looked askance at him. What did that have to do with anything? “I beg your pardon?”

  “Ryan bought it for you, didn’t he, as well as a”—he consulted a sheet in the dossier—“sable-lined raincoat that I believe you wore upon your arrival here. Isn’t that correct?”

  Cara stared at him, stricken speechless. How cleanly the noose slipped over her head, just like the one thrown over the head of the hapless horse this afternoon.

  “I have nothing to say to you,” she declared at last. “You may believe what you like.” How could she convince him that Ryan had insisted on buying her the clothes? That she alone would continue to pay her family’s debts with money she earned with her own hands? That she had no more intention of using La Tierra Conquistada to pay off what was her obligation than she could fly to the moon without a rocket. She would not waste her breath trying to tell this galling, overbearing, full-of-himself land baron that!

  The wine on her empty stomach had made her tipsy, she realized, as she set the wineglass down. “Good night, Mr. Langston. This interview is over.”

  “No, it isn’t, Miss Martin, and if you don’t sit down, I will come around this desk and make you sit down.”

  “You do, and I will scream bloody murder, you rude, arrogant…jerk! How somebody like you could be related to Ryan Langston should be documented as another wonder of the world. Not that anyone would be in the least interested outside Texas, which, in case you do not know, is not the end-all, be-all universe!”

  Was she reeling? She rather thought so, because the desk and the dreadful man behind it had begun to weave before her blurred vision. The big leather chair, even as she looked at it, was all at once empty, and she wondered where the awful man could have gone when suddenly there he was beside her, taking her arm rather gently and lowering her into the chair. “When did you eat last?” he demanded gruffly.

  “Last night, I think.” She pursed her soft lips in complex thought. “No, I had a bite of melon this morning. Why do you ask?” She looked up in sudden suspicion at the tall form.

  Was it her imagination, or were the gray eyes actually glinting with something related to humor? “Because you are drunk on a partial glass of wine. Finish it, Miss Martin, while we talk some more. Then you may go have your dinner. Fiona will bring a tray to your room.”

  An urgent question occurred to her. “I won’t be expected to stay in my room, will I? I will be allowed to come and go about the house?” Not to do so was a prospect even bleaker than any she had imagined about living at La Tierra.

  Jeth sat down on the edge of his desk near her. His eyes roamed over her at will, taking in the clean-lined beauty of her features, the glowing hair, the round fullness of her breasts softly outlined by the cashmere sweater. Cara was concentrating on her wine. He had said to drink it. What was there about him that commanded and others did?

  “You may come and go as you like, Miss Martin, but stay away from the working compound. That little exercise this afternoon should be proof to you that you invite disaster wherever you are.”

  “I—I’m sorry about this afternoon.” Cara bit her lip, keeping her eyes on her glass. “I had no idea that I would be the cause of those horses bolting. I was so far away.”

  “Not so far that you couldn’t take the men’s minds off their work, Miss Martin, something that I don’t intend to allow while you’re here. Cowboys suffer accidents when they’re distracted; so do animals. I don’t want you anywhere near the breaking corrals in the next few days, not even watching from the terrace.”

  “Is that what you’re going to do to those horses you brought in this afternoon—break them for riding?”

  “Yes. We need them for the roundup that will be taking place in the next few days.”

  Cara couldn’t imagine why she said aloud the thought that next popped into her head. She did not think it was the wine that provoked her impudence but rather the way Jeth Langston sat on the desk, handing out orders to her like some feudal lord. “How unfortunate for you,” she said innocently, “that you lost that horse you so had your heart set on capturing. His name says a lot about him. Devil’s Own, isn’t it?”

  The sudden stillness in him communicated itself to her, a coiling tension that had the potential to unleash like a whip. “Watch it, Miss Martin,” Jeth cautioned, his voice soft as a feather along her spine, raising goose bumps.

  “Oh, I intend to,” she assured him, deliberately ignoring his meaning. “Next time I’ll be prepared for the punch behind this marvelous wine.”

  Jeth observed the bewitchingly beautiful face she turned up to him. A muscle along his jaw twitched. With great control, he reached down and took the glass from her hand. “You’d better leave now,” he advised. “Go on up to your room. I’ll have Fiona bring your dinner up immediately.”

  “How kind of you,” said Cara demurely, giving him a smile prompted more by the alcohol than by any sincerity. He followed her to the door, but at it she thought of something and turned unexpectedly. “Mr. Langston—oh!”

  She found herself caught in his arms. He held her steady against an immense, well-remembered chest and looked down at her almost indulgently. “Yes, Miss Martin, what is it?”

  “Mr. Langston, where is Ryan buried?”

  The arms fell from her immediately, and she nearly fell against the heavy doors. “At La Tierra,” he informed her coldly, “where he should have died.”

  That night Cara slept deeply but fitfully. Her dreams seesawed between two fuzzy realms in which she heard the whinnying lament of horses mixed with the cry of seagulls. Ryan appeared often. Each time he did, she cried his name in delight and ran excitedly after him down a long sandy shore only to have him disappear in the waves that washed his footprints from the sand. “Ryan! Ryan!” she called time and time again, flailing her arms in disappointment and bereavement. Once when she cried, someone else came to her, someone whose shadowy form hovered over her and spoke her name softly. The form bent and released her from the tentacles pulling her down into deep warm water where she wept for a nameless fulfillment eluding her heart.

  The next morning Cara woke to a room bathed in sunlight. She had forgotte
n to pull the draperies the night before, which wasn’t surprising when she remembered how exhaustedly she had climbed into bed. She lay in the warm nest of covers trying to remember where she was, and the events that had brought her here. The last vestiges of her dreams faded away and left her with the feeling that she had wrestled with them more than she had actually slept. Her neck and face felt sticky, as if she had cried sometime in the night.

  Almost immediately after swinging her feet to the yellow rug she heard the sounds of horses and men. “They’re breaking the horses today,” she remembered, and recalled that Jeth Langston had forbidden her to go anywhere near the breaking pens.

  “Fine,” she said aloud to Ryan’s photograph on the bedside table. “That leaves me free to explore the rest of the ranch without running into your brother!”

  After she had dressed in slacks and tailored shirt, she wondered what to do about breakfast. Her dinner the night before had been excellent, but she had been too tired and woozy, she remembered ruefully, to eat much, so she was hungry this morning. Will I be allowed to eat outside my room? she wondered. Then a chilling discovery presented itself. She remembered with certainty leaving the photograph on the mantel just before going out to investigate the origin of that strange rumble. She had not moved it since, of that she was positive. Fiona had not even glanced at it when she came for her last night.

  Then what was it doing on her bedside table?

  Puzzled, Cara pulled on a sweater matching her blue slacks, then went out into the wide hall. Now that she did not have the disapproving Fiona at her shoulder, she could inspect her surroundings leisurely. Light streamed in through the series of arched windows in the white stucco wall facing her room, and she went to one and peered out. The layout below was as she should have expected. Indeed, La Tierra’s big house had been built in the tradition of a Spanish grandee’s hacienda, for its inner wall surrounded a tiled, verdant courtyard, enormous in size.

  An Olympic-sized swimming pool, its clear blue water and deck of colorful tiles twinkling in the fresh morning sunlight, commanded the largest area. Set back from it was a cabana with a red Spanish-tiled roof like that of the house, and nearby was an entertainment area with a stage. Across on the far side was a commodious brick pit for barbecuing, its gleaming enamel hood the same bright yellow as that of the table umbrellas dotting the deck. Other matching patio furniture and an abundance of tropical plants providing greenery and shade completed what in Cara’s mind was an opulent picture of Southwestern relaxation.

  The pool reminded Cara that Jeth had once aspired to become an Olympic champion, a dream that had forever been deferred when he’d had to assume responsibility for La Tierra and a little brother named Ryan. Ryan had told her that Jeth still swam religiously every day, no matter what the weather, which accounted for the corded, well-toned body of the man and the lack of a pale forehead due to the constant wearing of a hat in the sun.

  She followed the horseshoe corridor to the other wing, then came back to stand before heavy double doors leading to a room the width of the top floor. This has to be his room, she thought, wishing that her room was in the other wing so that she would not have to hear him pass by her door each night. She had not heard him last night, apparently having fallen asleep before he came to bed.

  Going down the stairs, Cara encountered a fresh-faced young Mexican woman who actually smiled at her. She was carrying an armload of fresh sheets and towels. “Buenos dias, señorita,” the young woman greeted her, and Cara’s face showed her pleasure at the first friendliness she had been shown.

  “Good morning to you,” she responded cheerfully, but when she would have introduced herself, the young woman hurried away up the stairs as if she had been warned about speaking to the yellow-haired intruder.

  Ignoring the sharp little pain from the rebuff, Cara went on down the stairs in the direction she guessed the kitchen to be.

  She found Fiona at the gleaming kitchen counter busily chopping peppers and onions. The tantalizing smell of coffee came to her. “Good morning, Fiona,” she offered politely. “May I help myself to coffee?”

  For answer, Fiona pointed with her knife to a large stainless pot on the stove. “Thank you,” Cara said, and then, “Fiona, could you tell me what’s expected of me concerning my meals? Do I have to eat in my room or may I eat here in the kitchen? I’m quite sure—er—El Patrón would not care for my company at mealtimes.”

  When Fiona did not answer, Cara persisted. “It would be silly for you to have to climb those stairs bringing my meals to me. As a matter of fact, I can even prepare my own—”

  That statement got the attention of the impassive-faced Fiona. The eyes she turned on Cara had fire in them. “My kitchen!” she declared, pointing the sharp knife at herself for emphasis. “Nobody cooks here but me. You may eat here, but you—you don’t cook here!”

  Cara smiled at the feisty little woman and tried what little Spanish she knew. “Gracias. Yo comprendo.”

  Without asking her, the housekeeper prepared for Cara a fluffy omelet containing a sharp Mexican cheese and topped with a spicy sauce made from onions and fresh tomatoes and peppers. With it were a small breakfast steak, so tender that Cara could cut it with a fork, and steaming, freshly made flour tortillas.

  “Oh my,” sighed Cara appreciatively when she had finished, “you cook as superbly as you keep this house, Fiona.”

  Fiona did not respond to Cara’s compliment. She had kept her back to the Bostonian all the while she had been eating, but Cara sensed the woman was aware of every bite she took.

  The housekeeper was obviously in charge of all matters pertaining to household personnel and maintenance, with the kitchen the office from which she dispensed her orders. Several Mexican workmen came into the kitchen by the back door while Cara was eating. They raised brows when they saw her, then nodded curtly and addressed Fiona in Spanish. The same was true of the maids who wandered in and out. Pointedly ignoring Cara, they discussed in their native tongue their duties for the day as well as, she was certain, their thoughts and opinions about the intruder who sat at the kitchen table.

  With a sigh, Cara took her coffee through a swinging door into a large formal dining room. Again the icy atmosphere of the white walls and gray-tiled floors oppressed her. What a remote, cold, unfriendly house, she thought. No wonder Ryan had called his home a tomb.

  The dining room let out through carved double doors into an alcove that probably had been meant for a sitting room. The furniture, though costly, appeared never used. Even the spring sun shining through a wide arched window could not dispel the pervasively Spartan atmosphere.

  Cara strolled across the entrance hall to the living room she had passed through last night to Jeth’s study. Her eyes were taking in the ample proportions of the austere room when an object in a far corner made her gasp with disbelief. A Steinway! A real, honest-to-goodness Steinway! She set her coffee down on a marble-topped table and flew to the majestic grand piano that sat augustly in a pool of sunlight.

  “Oh…” she breathed, hardly daring to believe her eyes. Reverently, she pushed the cover from the keyboard. Her fingers gently touched the ivory keys without striking them, savoring the moment when she would summon forth the quality of tone for which this aristocrat of all pianos was renowned. Cara pulled out the bench and sat down. She flexed her hands—it had been a long time since she had played—then ran her fingers up and down the keyboard in a series of chromatic scales to limber both her fingers and the tone of the piano.

  Borne away on the strains of a Chopin concerto, she had only been playing a short while when suddenly there appeared beside the bench an incensed and ferocious Fiona. Cara looked up quizzically, barely removing her hands before the housekeeper vehemently pulled the lid down over the keyboard. “What’s the matter with you?” Cara cried, beginning to get angry, too.

  “Señora Langston’s!” the housekeeper explained explosively. “No touch! Señora Langston’s! Not Ryan’s whore!”

&n
bsp; Cara was up from the bench instantly, her body shaking in rage at the presumption of this woman to call her such a name, but more importantly to deny her the exquisite release the piano would have provided from the horrors of her confinement.

  Cara faced the housekeeper levelly. “Don’t you ever do that to me again, Fiona,” she said in a quiet voice that carried conviction. “And don’t you ever refer to me by that name again—ever!” Leaving the housekeeper standing stonily at the piano, Cara marched from the room and up the stairs. Once in her room, trembling with fury, she searched in the closet for a warm jacket. She saw that her room had been tidied, the bed made. She could still hear sounds of loud activity coming from the corrals, but she had to get out of this house. Surely there was somewhere on this vast ranch where she could go without causing trouble.

  Skirting away from the house, Cara walked in the direction of a tree-shaded rise of land some distance away. Hands in pockets, face up to welcome the sun and the dry, brisk wind that blew across the plains, she tried to deal with the aching disappointment that welled inside her. How could she live in a house with a Steinway and not play it? It was a crime to regard an instrument like that more as a monument to the dead than as a source of joy to the living.

  Until now she had not realized how much she missed the piano that once graced her childhood home. On it she had learned to play the music that would later bring such solace to her life. The day the Steinway had been sold, she walked the beach for hours, mourning the loss of an old friend.

 
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