Against the rules, p.17
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       Against the Rules, p.17

           Linda Howard
 
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  Of all the voices calling her every day, Rule’s sounded by far the most often. She ran up and down the stairs countless times every day to answer his demands. It wasn’t that he was a difficult patient, simply that he wanted her—and only her—to take care of him.

  She had bought an air-conditioner the day after bringing him home from the hospital, and he rested better when the room was a more comfortable temperature. The quiet hum of the motor also masked the noises that might have disturbed him otherwise. He slept a great deal, but when he was awake he wasn’t very patient if Cathryn didn’t come immediately.

  She couldn’t get angry with him, not when she could see for herself how pale he became if he tried to move very much at all. His leg still hurt him, and was beginning to itch under the cast, as well, and he couldn’t do anything to ease either condition. She wasn’t surprised that he was short-tempered; anyone would have been under the circumstances. For a man of his temperament, he was doing much better than she had expected.

  However, understanding didn’t stop her legs from aching after a hundred trips up the stairs. She wasn’t getting enough sleep, or enough to eat, and the only time she was sitting down was when she was either on a horse or feeding Rule. After only two days she was ready to drop in her tracks.

  That night she actually did fall asleep beside Rule. She could remember feeding him, and when he was finished she had set the plate back on the tray and leaned down for a moment to rest her head on his shoulder. The next thing she knew it was morning, and Rule was groaning from the cramp in his arm. He had held her all night long and spent the night propped up on his pillows, his right arm wrapped around her. He kissed her and smiled, but discomfort shadowed his face and she knew that he had slept badly, if at all.

  The entire morning was hectic, with one problem after another cropping up. She had just ridden into the stables, having returned to feed Rule his lunch, when a pickup truck rolled into the yard and a familiar figure emerged.

  “Mr. Vernon,” Cathryn called warmly, going up to greet her old friend. Another man got out of the vehicle and she glanced at him curiously before she recognized him. He was the man who had been with Paul Vernon the day she had met him in front of the drugstore, but she couldn’t recall his name.

  Paul Vernon solved that problem by indicating the man with a sweep of his big hand and saying, “You remember Ira Morris, don’t you? Met him a week or so back.”

  “Yes, of course,” said Cathryn, extending her hand to the man.

  He shook hands, but he wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were sliding over the stables and barns, resting finally on the horses that were grazing peacefully in the pastures.

  “I’ve heard a lot about this place,” he said, “and none of it was bad. Good, solid, well-mannered horses, the best quarter horses to be found in the state. But you’re breeding for speed now, too, I hear. Branching out into Thoroughbreds, aren’t you? They doing well?”

  A few days before Cathryn wouldn’t have known if they were or not, but she had absorbed a lot of the business by necessity. “We sold a colt last year who’s been winning big in California this season.”

  “I’ve heard of him,” said Ira Morris. “Irish Venture, by Irish Gale, out of Wanderer. Word is out that the mare’s dropped another foal by Irish Gale; I’d like to get in ahead of the sale.”

  “None of the horses listed in the catalog will be sold until the day of the sale,” said Cathryn firmly.

  “All right, I can understand that,” he readily agreed. “Would it be all right if I saw the colt?”

  She shrugged and smiled. “I don’t mind, but the foal is a filly, not a colt. Her name is Little Irish, but Rule calls her Hooligan.”

  “She’s headstrong?” Paul Vernon asked.

  Cathryn’s smile grew broader and she lifted her hand to point out a dainty filly prancing around in the pasture. “Hooligan is just different,” she said. They watched the graceful movements in silence as the young horse danced lightly over the green grass. It was only when the filly came alongside another horse that you could get an idea of her size. Because she was so graceful, it wasn’t at first apparent that she was a tall, strong horse. Her sleek hide effectively masked the strength of her muscles; an observer first noticed her burnished beauty, the spirited arch of her neck and the delicacy with which she placed each hoof as she ran. Later, like a slow dawn, would come the realization that the filly had speed to burn, that those slender legs were as strong as steel.

  “She’s not for sale,” said Cathryn. “At least not this year. Rule wants to keep her.”

  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to speak to him.”

  “I’m sorry,” said Cathryn, stretching the truth a bit. She didn’t quite like Ira Morris. He seemed to be a cold, calculating man. “Rule had an accident earlier this week and he’s restricted to bed; he can’t be disturbed.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that,” Mr. Vernon said instantly. “What happened?”

  “His horse stumbled and went down with him, then rolled on Rule’s leg.”

  “Broken?”

  “I’m afraid so. He also has a concussion, and we have to keep him quiet.”

  “That’s a damned shame, with this sale coming up.”

  “Oh, he won’t miss the sale,” Cathryn assured him. “If I know Rule Jackson, he’ll be hobbling around before then. I just hope I’ll be able to keep him down for the rest of this week.”

  “Headstrong, ain’t he?” Mr. Vernon laughed.

  “As a mule,” agreed Cathryn fervently.

  Ira Morris shifted impatiently and she realized that he wasn’t interested in Rule’s health. He was interested only in the horses, and as far as she was concerned they had no horses to sell until the day of the sale. Rule would know instantly which horses he had listed in the catalog, but as the catalogs hadn’t arrived yet from the printers, Cathryn had no way of knowing without running to ask him, which she refused to do.

  Mr. Morris cast another look over the ranch. “Just one thing, Mrs. Ashe,” he said brusquely. “I came here to talk business, but now I’m not sure who I should be talking to. Who runs this outfit, you or Jackson?”

  Cathryn paused, considering that. “I own the ranch,” she finally said in a neutral tone. “But Mr. Jackson runs it for me, and he knows more about the horses than I do.”

  “So his decisions are final?”

  She was beginning to feel annoyed. “Just what are you asking, Mr. Morris? If you want to buy horses now, then my answer is, I’m sorry, but not until the sale. Or is there something else on your mind?”

  He smiled a hard, wintry smile, his cold eyes flashing at her. “What if I want to buy it all? Everything—horses, land, buildings.”

  That shook her. Pushing a wayward strand of hair away from her eyes, she looked around. Sell the Bar D? That old house was where she had been born. She knew every inch of this land, every rise and dip, every scent and sound of it. This was where she had first begun to love Rule, where she had come to know herself as a woman. It would be impossible to sell it.... She opened her mouth to tell him so, but then came the unbidden thought that if she didn’t own the Bar D she wouldn’t have to worry whether Rule wanted her land more than he wanted her. She would know for certain....

  If she wanted to know. A sharp pain went through her at the thought that the answer might be more painful than the question. Rule would never forgive her if she sold the ranch.

  To Mr. Morris, she gave a forced smile. “That’s a big ‘if,’” she said. “And it’s one that I haven’t considered before. I couldn’t make a snap decision on that.”

  “But you will think about it?” he pressed.

  “Oh, yes,” she assured him wryly. “I’ll think about it.” It would be hard for her to think about anything else. In a twisted way Mr. Morris had just reversed the roles for her and Rule. Which did she want more, the ranch or Rule Jackson? If she kept the ranch she might never know how he really felt about her; on the other hand, if she sold it she
might lose him forever, but she would know exactly where she stood.

  It was an offer that she knew would have to be discussed with Rule, though she also knew in advance what his reaction would be. He would be violently opposed to selling the ranch. But he was the manager and he was entitled to know what was going on, even though she dreaded the idea of upsetting him.

  She was later than usual in taking his lunch up. First she had been detained by Paul Vernon and Ira Morris; then she was so dusty that she took a quick shower before she did anything else. While Lorna prepared Rule’s lunch tray, Cathryn leaned against the cabinets and wolfed down a sandwich, wondering why Rule wasn’t already calling her. Perhaps he was napping....

  He wasn’t asleep. When she opened the door he carefully turned his head to look at her and she was struck by the flinty expression in his eyes. His gaze went slowly over her, taking in her freshly scrubbed appearance from the top of her head, where she had subdued her hair into one long braid, down over her cool sleeveless cotton blouse, faded jeans, and finally her bare feet. Carefully placing the tray on the nightstand, she asked, “What’s wrong? Is your head hurting—”

  “I hear you’re considering selling the ranch,” he said harshly, trying to lever himself up on his elbow. The abrupt movement dislodged his broken leg from the cushions where it was propped and he fell back against his pillows with a sharp cry, followed by some lurid cursing. Cathryn leaped around the end of the bed and gently lifted his leg back onto the pillows, bracing it more securely. Her mind was racing. How had he heard about that so fast? Who had told him? The yard and stables had been busy. Any one of twenty men could have overheard the offer to buy the ranch, but she didn’t think that any of them had made a special trip to the house to tell Rule about it. Lewis was in the house a lot, but she knew that at the moment he was in the far south pastures.

  “Ricky told me,” Rule snapped, accurately reading her thoughts.

  “She made the trip for nothing,” Cathryn replied evenly, sitting down beside him and reaching for the tray. “I was going to tell you myself.”

  “When? After the papers were signed?”

  “No, I was going to tell you about it while you were eating.”

  He angrily waved away the spoon that she lifted to his mouth. “Damn it, don’t try to poke that in my mouth like I’m a baby. This would solve all your problems, wouldn’t it? Get rid of the ranch, get rid of me, make a lot of money to live it up on in Chicago.”

  With difficulty Cathryn restrained her impulse to lash back at him. She set her jaw and replaced the tray on the nightstand. “Evidently Ricky also took it upon herself to add a few little details to the original conversation. First, I didn’t agree to sell the ranch. Second, you will be involved in any decision I make concerning the ranch. And third, I’m damned tired of you jumping down my throat, and as far as I’m concerned you can feed yourself!” She got up and stomped out, closing the door sharply on his furious order that she come back.

  Ricky stood at the head of the stairs, an openly delighted smile on her face, and Cathryn realized that the other woman had been listening to every word. Her eyes narrowing, she stopped in front of her stepsister and said from between clenched teeth, “If I see you in Rule’s room again, or hear of you being in there, I’ll throw you off this ranch so fast you’ll have windburn.”

  Ricky arched a mocking brow. “You will, little sister? You and who else?”

  “I think I can handle it, but if I can’t, there are a lot of ranch hands to help me.”

  “And what makes you think they’ll side with you? You’re a stranger to them. I’ve ridden beside them, worked with them, been close...friends...with some of them.”

  “I’m sure you have,” said Cathryn cuttingly. “Fidelity has never been one of your characteristics.”

  “And has it been yours? Do you think it’s such a well-kept secret that you’ve been Rule’s little plaything since you were only a kid?”

  Horrified, Cathryn realized that Ricky had probably been spreading her malicious gossip for years. The Lord only knew what the woman had said about her. Then she straightened her shoulders and even smiled, thinking that she wasn’t ashamed of loving Rule. He wasn’t the easiest man in the world to love, but he was hers, and she didn’t care if the whole world knew it.

  “That’s right, I have been,” she admitted freely. “I love him, and I’ll keep on loving him.”

  “You loved him so much that you ran away and married another man?”

  “Yes, that’s right. I don’t have to explain myself to you, Ricky. Just make certain you stay away from Rule, because that was your last chance.”

  “Well, Ricky, you can’t say you weren’t warned,” Monica drawled from behind them, her voice amused. “And unless you’re prepared to find a job and start supporting yourself, I suggest that you listen to her.”

  Ricky tossed her head. “I’ve helped the ranch hands for years, but I’ve never seen you do anything more than make your own bed. What about you? You live off of this ranch, too.”

  “Not for long,” said Monica breezily. “I’ll never find another husband while I’m stuck out here in the sticks.”

  Oddly, Ricky turned pale. “You’re leaving the Bar D?” she whispered.

  “Well, surely you knew that I wouldn’t stay here forever,” said Monica, mildly puzzled. “The ranch belongs to Cathryn, and it looks as if she’s come home to stay. It’s time I made a home for myself, and I’ve never wanted it to be on a ranch. I tolerated ranch life, but only for Ward Donahue.” She gave a graceful shrug. “Men like him don’t come along too often. I’d have lived in an igloo if that was what he wanted.”

  “But...Mother...what about me?” Ricky sounded so distressed that suddenly Cathryn felt sorry for her, even if she was a spiteful witch.

  Monica smiled. “Why, darling, you can find your own husband. You’re a little too old to be living with Mommy, anyway, aren’t you? Cathryn has offered me the use of her apartment in Chicago and I just might take her up on it. Who knows? I may find a Yankee who just loves my accent.”

  Magnificently unconcerned, Monica continued down the stairs, then stopped and turned back to look at her daughter. “My suggestion to you, Ricky, is to stop playing games with that cowboy you’ve been teasing. You could do a lot worse than to take him up on what he’d like to offer you.” She continued on her way, leaving a thick silence behind her.

  Cathryn looked at Ricky, who was slumped against the railing as if she had been hit over the head. Perhaps she had, because Monica could never be accused of subtlety. “What was she talking about?” Cathryn asked. “Which cowboy?”

  “Nobody important,” Ricky mumbled, and walked slowly down the hall to her room.

  Feeling both battered and confused, Cathryn sought refuge in the kitchen with Lorna. She collapsed into a chair and propped her elbows on the table.

  “Ricky told Rule that I was going to sell the ranch,” she said baldly. “Rule jumped to the conclusion that the tale was true. We had an argument and I told him to feed himself; he’s probably thrown the tray against the wall. Then I had an argument with Ricky over Rule, and right in the middle of it all Monica told Ricky that she’s planning to leave the Bar D, and Ricky looked like someone had slapped her. I don’t know what’s going on anymore!” she wailed.

  Lorna laughed. “Mostly what’s going on is that you’re so tired you’re functioning on willpower alone and nothing’s making a lot of sense to you right now. Monica and Ricky have argued all their lives; it’s nothing unusual. And Monica has always said that if you came back she was leaving. Ricky...well, what Ricky needs is a good, strong man who loves her and makes her feel like she’s worth something.”

  “I feel sorry for her,” said Cathryn slowly. “Even when I want to choke her, I feel sorry for her.”

  “Sorry enough for her to let her have Rule?” Lorna put in slyly.

  “No!” Cathryn’s response was immediate and explosive, and Lorna laughed.

&n
bsp; “I didn’t think so.” She wiped her hands on her apron. “I suppose I’d better go upstairs and see to Rule, though if he hasn’t thrown the tray at the wall he’ll be sure to throw it at me when he sees I’m not you. Are you going to see him at all?”

  “I suppose I’ll have to,” Cathryn sighed. “But not right now. Let him cool down, and maybe then we can talk without yelling at each other.”

  After Lorna had gone upstairs, Cathryn sat at the table for a long while, staring at the homey, comfortable kitchen. It wasn’t only Rule who needed to cool down; her temper was at least as hot as his, and if she were being truthful with herself, she had to admit that he usually controlled his far better than she did hers.

  The back door opened and Lewis Stovall leaned his tall frame against the doorway. “Come on, Cathryn,” he cajoled. He’d dropped the “Mrs. Ashe” during the last few days and started calling her by her given name, which was only the logical thing to do considering how closely they had been working together. “There’s work to be done.”

  “Did Rule tell you to keep me so busy that I wouldn’t have the energy to do anything but work and sleep and look after him?” she asked suspiciously.

  His hard eyes crinkled at the corners as a tiny smile touched his face. “Tired, aren’t you?”

  “Punch-drunk,” she agreed.

  “It won’t be for much longer. Rule should be up and around next week, and he’ll probably be back in the saddle the week after that. I’ve seen him do it before.”

 
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