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       Ryan's Hand, p.9

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Cara was sickened, too, by the encounter with Fiona. She had hoped she could come to care for the irascible little woman whose industry and devotion to La Tierra impressed her. She doubted now whether the housekeeper could ever be induced to like the outsider from Boston, the woman she thought of contemptuously as Ryan’s whore.

  Cara reached the foot of the small hill and was intrigued by its number of trees and lush carpet of young grass when the surrounding land stretched bare and treeless. Staring up at its top, she glimpsed between the green, feathery branches of the mesquite trees something that looked like a wrought-iron fence, and her breath caught. Jeth’s answer came back to her from the night before when she had asked where Ryan was buried: “At La Tierra—where he should have died.”

  Cara, certain of what she would find, climbed the hill to the black iron enclosure of a small, private cemetery. New spring grass grew tenderly between the stones to the dead, and Cara gave a sudden, startled cry when she saw the fresh earth that indicated a new grave. A monument, yet unbleached by wind and storms and time, rested at its head. Cara stumbled forward calling, “Ryan! I’ve come, Ryan. I’ve come.”

  Chapter Six

  She did not know how long she had sat on the ground with knees drawn to her chest, forehead resting on folded arms, before she became aware of a pair of black boots and silver spurs planted apart on the other side of Ryan’s grave.

  “Oh!” Cara exclaimed, caught by surprise, and blinked up at the dark countenance of Jeth Langston. He frowned at her from beneath the firm set of his black Stetson, and for the first few seconds she did not know who or what he was. With the sun behind him, he looked menacing in black leather chaps and vest, and she thought at first that he was some angry god come to wreak his vengeance.

  Cara got to her feet without his offering to help and braced herself for what was to come. When neither spoke after several seconds, she offered lightly, “You go first.”

  “Miss Martin, you cannot seem to stay out of trouble.”

  “Well, so it seems. I’m sure you’re referring to my run-in with Fiona over the Steinway a while ago. She must have gone immediately to tell on me, although I will say that surprises me. I would have bet that she was one to fight her own battles.”

  “You would have won that bet, Miss Martin. Fiona did not tattle on you. I overheard the two of you when I came to see who was playing my mother’s piano.”

  Cara brushed at the sand adhering to the seat of her slacks. “So which am I to be strung up for—playing your mother’s piano or insulting Fiona’s sense of propriety?”

  “Neither, Miss Martin,” Jeth answered in cold rebuke. “But for an intelligent girl, your willful ignorance of the shaky position you’re in at La Tierra is astounding.”

  “I understand clearly the shaky position I’m in—I saw only that it was a Steinway,” Cara defended soberly. “It didn’t occur to me that it might have been your mother’s.”

  “In that case, don’t take liberties with the possessions of my house, Miss Martin, not unless I give you permission. Is that clear?”

  “Quite,” said Cara, finding it hard to look at him against the light. Her eyes stung miserably. She wanted to believe the sun or the dry, cold air responsible, but her honesty would not permit it. There was something about Jeth that transcended her growing fear of him, that forced her to admit that he was a man who stirred strange and bewildering emotions within her that she did not understand. “Is that all?” she asked him.

  “No, Miss Martin, it is not.” The words were exactly delivered. “Since this game is being played with a deck stacked in favor of the house—and since you can’t seem to figure out the obvious for yourself—I am going to give you a little advice. You need Fiona. Don’t antagonize her. You can avoid it if you understand that she reveres the Langstons, especially the memory of my mother. She is enraged that an outsider like you should try to usurp what belongs to the family. When you sat down at that piano this morning, when you began to play her patrona’s most loved possession, you committed what to her amounted to a sacrilege—”

  “I get the picture!” Cara broke in, unable to bear any more. She turned her head away so that he could not see the dejection sweeping through her. Hands in pockets, jacket billowing open, slight form buffeted by the wind, Cara presented a vulnerable picture to the tall, powerful man looking down at her. He saw how the sun played in the waves of her tossed hair, exposed the clear purity of her skin and the tender curve of her throat. He saw her blink at the sting of tears she was too proud to shed.

  Jeth said in a less steely tone, “Miss Martin, sell Ryan’s share to me and leave La Tierra. We’ll call it a draw, and you will have heard the last of me. You would have no need to ever fear me again.”

  Cara shook her head obstinately. “No.”

  “Then you’re asking to be broken, you know,” he warned her gently, “just like all the other enemies of La Tierra have been.”

  “Rather like those poor creatures you brought down from the mountains will be, I suppose,” Cara remarked with distaste, thinking of the proud, spirited horses who right now were feeling the grip of saddles, the dig of spurs.

  “Not at all. Here at La Tierra we’re rough with horses, but never punishing. With you, I would be both. Once our horses have earned their yearly keep during the roundup, they’re set free to roam until the next one. But you, Miss Martin, I would never free to enjoy the spoils of your relationship to Ryan. I would make sure you carried the brand of La Tierra all of your life.”

  Cara, who had kept her head averted, faced him defiantly, her blood running cold. “You would never get the land back.”

  “Oh, yes, I would, Miss Martin. Have no delusions about that.” He turned to go.

  “There is one horse that got away from you, that doesn’t wear your brand—one that you won’t be breaking for the roundup!” The words were out before she could stop them. Shocked at her outburst, she watched in dismay as the rancher paused, then turned slowly. His eyes gleamed with surprise and the thrill of challenge.

  “You, Cara Martin, will not be so fortunate. Am I to take that as your final answer to my request that you leave La Tierra?”

  “Yes,” she said quickly. She would give anything to take back her taunt. What a fool she had been to ruffle his king-of-the-walk feathers. What could she gain from it?

  “Then I’m looking forward to the pleasure of your company under my roof, Miss Martin. This evening you will have dinner with me. Wear something red, a most appropriate color for you in more ways than one. I’m sure that among all those dresses Ryan bought you there is something suitable.”

  “No,” Cara said firmly.

  “You will if you want to eat. Afterward you will play for me. Come to my study at seven and we’ll have a drink. Now if you’ll excuse me—” He touched his hat brim in mock respect. “I’ve wasted enough time for one day.” Once again he turned to go.

  “Mr. Langston?”

  With a sigh of impatience the rancher paused, keeping the broad back to her. “Yes, Miss Martin?”

  “Is…this place off-limits too?”

  Without turning he answered, “No, Miss Martin, not unless I’m here.”

  Cara watched him descend the hill with supple ease to the untethered bay waiting patiently below. The man was so sure of himself, so sure of her. She was sure of neither.

  Cara spent the rest of the day in her room. She wrote a letter to Harold St. Clair assuring him that she was still in one piece, infusing her comments with a humor she did not feel. Afterward she thumbed through a book she had brought with her on conversational Spanish, thinking that if nothing else was gained from the year, she could at least learn a new language. But her attention persisted in wandering, and after trying to read a few pages she put the book down and went outside to sit on the terrace in the sun. Her thoughts drifted to Ryan. “Do you trust me?” he had asked as he lay dying. Even now, with all of her heart, she did. But why had he left her his share of La Tierra?
Why had he made her promise to come here, where he knew she would be at the mercy of his brother’s vengeance? Had Ryan hoped to play matchmaker? But that was preposterous under the circumstances. He had known how she felt about men like his brother, and he would certainly have foreseen how his brother would regard and react toward her. The situation was impossible.

  The lunch hour came and passed, and Cara’s hunger pains reminded her of the evening ahead. Her pride rebelled that in order to eat she had to join Jeth Langston for dinner, but she knew that the rancher was perfectly capable of letting her go hungry. Cara flipped through the dresses hanging in her closet and found the red dinner dress she had worn in Dallas. Angry at her cowardice, she admitted she did not have the courage not to wear it.

  Late in the afternoon when she was tired of her room, she took a stroll down the horseshoe hall to the other wing. A door was open to one of the bedrooms, and since she knew that no one occupied this floor but herself and Jeth, she peered in.

  “Ryan’s room!” she exclaimed to the lofty silence, for even though it was a cavernous room, it wasn’t totally devoid of the warm, vital presence of the man who had once lived here. At one end was a small library she knew Jeth had ordered built for his brother when Ryan became interested in law. The shelves still contained some of his books.

  The room echoed a loneliness that struck an unhealed wound, and she left quickly, closing the door behind her. She felt closer to Ryan at the cemetery where the wind blew freely across the wide Texas plains.

  A splash in the swimming pool brought her to one of the arched windows overlooking the courtyard. Looking down on the pool, she saw a long, tanned figure swimming underwater. A dark head surfaced, wet and sleek as a seal’s. She watched him begin a routine of laps, cutting the water effortlessly with long, powerful arms, until suddenly she had to back away from the window, unable to bear watching him any longer. Her heart had begun a fierce beat. A strange longing throbbed in her stomach, forcing her to lean against the cool surface of the stucco wall to steady her breath. A sense of helpless anger flooded her. Was not even her own body to be an ally in this alien house against the enemy below? Would it, too, seek to destroy her?

  At precisely one minute until seven, Cara descended the stairs. She had not heard Jeth come up to his room from the pool, but she did hear him go down. He had passed her door as she was finishing dressing, and her heartbeat stilled when she heard the firm tread of his boots striking the tiled corridor.

  Not even the knowledge that she looked her best in the red dress that Harold had admired could inspire Cara with confidence. She drew in deeply as she knocked on one of the double doors, and pressed to her breast the framed photograph that she had brought with her from Boston.

  Jeth himself opened the door. He was dressed in black tonight, the Western cut of his attire emphasizing the broad shoulders and trim waist and hips. With the lamplight behind him, he filled the doorway with a sinister presence. “Well, good evening, Miss Martin,” he drawled mockingly, the cool gray eyes marking the red dress, then sliding down her from head to foot. “How nice of you to come.”

  “Did I have a choice?”

  “No,” he said dryly, “but let us observe the amenities as if you did.” He moved aside just enough to allow her room to pass. “I suggest you sit by the fire. A norther is coming out of the Panhandle and will be here before we sit down to dinner.”

  Cara was happy to do so. She was chilled through and through, and her knees felt trembly. Taking a seat in one of the two tall-backed chairs flanking the fireplace, she asked, “When does spring actually arrive in Texas?”

  Jeth had gone to the bar where a silver wine cooler waited with the exposed neck of what Cara assumed was a bottle of the wine she had been served the night before. She watched as he withdrew a crystal goblet from a bed of ice, then uncorked the napkin-wrapped bottle. “That depends on what part of Texas you’re asking about,” he informed her, pouring a clear, sparkling stream of wine into the glass. He refilled his own with bourbon and brought both to the fire.

  “Thank you,” she said, taking care not to touch his fingers when he handed her the glass. “You were saying?”

  “Texas is a big state, Miss Martin. In our coastal areas, spring has already arrived. In the Panhandle it won’t come until the last of May. Here we’ll be lucky to see our last frost by Easter.”

  “Texas can be quite overwhelming.” She smiled politely, hoping she didn’t sound critical. The state had begun to fascinate her, and she wanted to know more about it.

  “Like its people?” Jeth asked with a trace of mockery, settling in the chair opposite her.

  “I never found Ryan overwhelming,” she said. “That reminds me. I brought this for you. It meant a great deal to Ryan. He kept it on the mantel of his town house.” She handed Jeth the photograph.

  Jeth reached for it, the firelight flashing on the diamond brand in his ring. “Yes,” he mused, studying it. “I saw this last night.”

  Cara straightened in her chair. “You were the one who moved it! Then—then you were the shadow in my dream…You were the one who…rescued me.”

  “Did I?” Jeth raised a cynical eyebrow. “We fight such awesome demons in our dreams, don’t we? You were crying out in your sleep. I was on my way to my room and heard you. You sounded desperate, so I went in. You were wound in the covers, so I loosened them. That’s when I saw this picture.”

  Cara couldn’t resist saying in surprise, “I’m amazed that you bothered.”

  Immersed in the study of the picture, Jeth said, “I might not have except that you were crying Ryan’s name over and over. I’ve had a few of those nights lately myself.”

  “Of course you have,” Cara said quietly, feeling sympathy for him. She knew how lonely it was to be facing a future with no family whatever. Ryan had been right about Jeth. This man needed a loving wife who would give him children to make this austere house a home.

  Jeth placed the picture on the wide stone hearth, then stunned her by saying, “You have beautiful breasts. You are well-endowed for someone of your small frame, aren’t you?”

  Remembering the flimsy nightgown she had pulled on last night in her exhausted haste to get to bed, Cara choked on the wine, almost spilling some of it on the red dress. “How dare you!” she sputtered, holding the dripping glass over the hearth. Jeth produced another of the white lawn handkerchiefs like the one he had given her in Dallas, which she had not yet returned. Taking it, she said indignantly, “You had no right to—to look me over while I slept!”

  “Why not?” he asked calmly. “And Miss Martin, don’t use the phrase ‘how dare you’ again. You are in my state, on my land, in my house, and I will dare anything I damn well please. Thank you for the picture. Tell me about Ryan. Were you with him when he died?”

  Cara’s head swam, and not from the wine. This man had the power to provoke the most quixotic feelings within her. In the space of a few moments, he had roused her fear, hatred, sympathy, anger, and now she found herself wanting desperately to comfort him, to tell him how much he had been loved by Ryan—that, like him, she did not understand why his brother had not told him about his illness, why he had left to her what rightfully belonged to him. But she could not share those thoughts with this skeptical man, and so she carefully took a sip of her wine and answered simply, “Yes, I was with him, Mr. Langston. He was in some pain, and had to be sedated the last few days of his life. But at the end he was very lucid. He spoke of you often, and I—I know he loved you very much.”

  Jeth tossed off his drink in one swallow. A smile, cold as an Atlantic swell, curved the well-shaped mouth. “He loved you more, Cara Martin, or he would never have stayed in Boston to die—or left half of La Tierra to you.”

  Cara had no reply to this. She sat in uneasy silence, fingering the small seagull charm on the gold chain she wore with her single strand of pearls. When she offered no response, Jeth asked abruptly, “Is that the red dress you wore with Harold St. Clair the other
night?”

  “Why—why, yes. How did you know?”

  “There’s little about you that I don’t know, Miss Martin—or can’t accurately guess. I’m sure he thought you looked ravishing in it.”

  “He liked it, yes,” Cara replied evenly, becoming apprehensive about the direction of this conversation.

  “And that seagull you keep reaching for—he gave that to you, too, didn’t he?”

  “It was a token of friendship, Mr. Langston—something to remind me of home.”

  “I’m sure. And the pearls? Did he give those to you or were they from Ryan?”

  “Neither. These pearls came from the Orient on one of the first clipper ships over a century ago. They’ve been in my family ever since. They were given to me on my sixteenth birthday.”

  “Ah.” Jeth sipped his drink. “You’ve come a long way since sweet sixteen, not in years perhaps, but for sure in kisses and…other skills. Did you sleep with Ryan?”

  Now that was a hell of a question! he reproached himself. Why had he asked her that? Of course she had slept with Ryan. There was no way his brother wouldn’t have had her in his bed. Yet part of him wanted to hear her deny it, while the other—the part of him that tolerated no threat to his empire—knew that such a denial would continue to seal her doom.

  Cara began hesitantly, wondering how honestly to answer him without compromising her further in his eyes. “I—yes, we did sleep together, Mr. Langston, but not in the way you imagine. Ryan was very ill. We shared the same bed, but not to—to make love. It was just a matter of comforting each other, of being near each other through the long nights. We used to joke about how no one—certainly not you—would believe that we could do that and not—and not—”

  Cara fell silent as she sensed the dangerous stillness that had possessed Jeth. In the richly black clothes, his eyes upon her steady and penetrating, the powerful body tensed in deep attention, he reminded her of a jungle cat watching his prey. “I’m telling you the truth!” she declared, the prolonged silence snapping at her nerve endings.

 
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