Against the rules, p.2
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       Against the Rules, p.2

           Linda Howard
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  Shortly afterward Ward died of a massive stroke. Cathryn and Ricky were at school at the time, and Cathryn could still remember her surprise when Rule came to take her out of class. He led her outside and there told her of her father’s death, and he held her in his arms while she cried the violent tears of fresh grief, his lean callused hand smoothing back her heavy mahogany red hair. She had been slightly afraid of him, but now she clung to him, instinctively comforted by his steely strength. Her father had trusted him, so how could she do less?

  Because of that tentative trust, Cathryn felt doubly betrayed when Rule began to act as if he owned the ranch. No one could take her father’s place. How dare he even try? But more and more Rule took his meals at the ranch house. He finally moved in completely, settling himself in the corner guestroom that overlooked the stables and bunkhouse. It was particularly galling that Monica made no effort to assert herself; she let Rule have his way in anything concerning the ranch. She was a woman who automatically leaned on whatever man was handy, and certainly she was no match for Rule. Looking back, Cathryn realized now that Monica had been utterly lost when it came to ranch matters, yet she had no other home for herself and Ricky, so she had been locked into a life that was alien to her, totally unable to handle a man like Rule, who was both determined and dangerous.

  Cathryn was bitterly resentful of Rule’s takeover. Ward had literally picked him up out of the gutter and stood him on his feet, held him up until he could stand on his own, and this was how he was repaid, by Rule moving in and taking over.

  The ranch was Cathryn’s, with Monica appointed as her legal guardian, but Cathryn had no voice in the running of it. Without exception the men went to Rule for their orders, despite everything Cathryn could do. She tried to do plenty. Losing her father had shocked her out of her shyness, and she fought for her ranch with the ferocity of the uninformed young, disobeying Rule at every turn. At that stage of her life Ricky had been a willing accomplice. Ricky was always willing to break rules, any rules. But no matter what she did, Cathryn always felt that she was no more irritating to Rule than a mosquito he could casually brush aside.

  When he decided to branch out into horse breeding, Monica provided the capital over Cathryn’s vociferous opposition, dipping without argument into the funds set aside for the girls’ college educations. Whatever Rule wanted, he got. He had the Bar D under his thumb...for the time being. Cathryn lay awake at night and thought ahead with relish to the day when she would be of age, savoring in her mind the words she would say when she fired Rule Jackson.

  Rule even extended his domination to her personal life. When she was fifteen she accepted a date with an eighteen-year-old boy to attend a dance. Rule found out about it and called the boy, quietly informing him that Cathryn wasn’t old enough yet to date. When Cathryn discovered what he had done she lost her temper, goaded into action and recklessness. Without thinking, she hit him, her palm slamming across his face with a force that numbed her arm.

  He didn’t speak. His dark eyes narrowed; then, with the swiftness of a snake lashing out, he grabbed her arm and hauled her upstairs. Cathryn kicked and scratched and yelled every inch of the way, but it was a useless effort. He handled her with ease, his strength so much greater than hers that she was as helpless as an infant. Once they reached her room, he jerked her jeans down and sat on the bed, pulled her across his lap and gave her the spanking of her life. At fifteen Cathryn had just begun shaping from adolescence into the rounder form of womanhood, and the embarrassment she suffered had in some ways been worse than the pain inflicted by his callused palm. When he let her go she scrambled to her feet and repaired her clothing, her face twisted with fury.

  “You’re asking me to treat you like a woman,” he said, his voice low and even. “But you’re just a kid and I treated you like a kid. Don’t push me until you’re old enough to handle it.”

  Cathryn whirled and went flying down the stairs in search of Monica, her cheeks still wet with tears as she screamed that he should be fired, now.

  Monica laughed in her face. “Don’t be silly, Cathryn,” she said sharply. “We need Rule...I need Rule.”

  Behind her Cathryn heard Rule quietly laughing and felt his hand stroke her tumbled mahogany-red hair. “Just settle down, wildcat; you can’t get rid of me that easily.”

  Cathryn had jerked her head away from his touch, but he had been right. She hadn’t been able to get rid of him. Ten years later he was still running the ranch and it was she who had left, fleeing from her own home in panic that he would reduce her to the position of mindless supplicant, with no more will of her own than the horses he so easily mastered.

  “Are you asleep?” he asked now, drawing her back to the present, and Cathryn opened her eyes.


  “Then talk to me,” he demanded. Though she wasn’t looking, she could visualize his sensually formed mouth moving as he said the words. She had never forgotten anything about him, from the slow way he talked to the dark, slightly hoarse tone of his voice, as if his vocal cords were rusty from lack of use. He gave her a swift glance. “Tell me about your husband.”

  Cathryn was startled, her dark eyes widening. “You met him several times. What would you want to know about David?”

  “A lot of things,” he murmured easily. “Such as if he asked you why you weren’t a virgin when he married you.”

  Bitter, furious, Cathryn choked back the words that tumbled to her lips. What could she say that he wouldn’t use against her? It’s none of your business? He would only reply that it was more his business than it was any other man’s, considering that he had been the one responsible for the loss of her virginity.

  She tried not to look at him, but against her will she turned to him, her eyes wide and vulnerable. “He never asked,” she finally said in a quiet voice. Rule’s profile was etched starkly against the blueness of the sky, and her heart lurched; it brought painfully, vividly to mind that summer day when he had bent over her with the hot molten sun and brazen sky behind him, outlining him like a graven image. Her body tightened automatically in remembered response and she tore her gaze away from him before he turned and saw the rawness of her pain mirrored in her eyes.

  “I would have asked,” he rasped.

  “David was a gentleman,” she said pointedly.

  “Meaning I’m not?”

  “You know the answer to that as well as I do. No, you’re not a gentleman. You’re not gentle in any way.”

  “I was gentle with you once,” he replied, his dark eyes moving over her with slow relish, tracing the curves of her breasts and hips and thighs. Again the hot tightening of her body warned her that she wasn’t indifferent to this man, had never been, and pain bloomed in her.

  “I don’t want to talk about it!” As soon as the words left her mouth she wished they could be unsaid. The ragged panic in her tone made it evident to anyone with normal intelligence that she couldn’t treat that long-ago incident with the indifference that the years should have brought, and Rule was more intelligent and intuitive than most. His next words proved it.

  “You can’t run forever. You’re not a kid now, Cat; you’re a woman.”

  Oh, she knew that! He had made her a woman when she was seventeen, and the image of him had tormented her since, even intruded between her and her husband and cheated David out of the devotion that had been his due, though she would have died rather than let him guess that her response to him hadn’t been all it should have been. Nor could she tell Rule how deeply he had affected her life with what to him could have been only a casual coupling.

  “I didn’t run away,” she denied. “I went to college, which is entirely different.”

  “And came home on visits as seldom as you could,” he said with harsh sarcasm. “Did you think I’d attack you every time I saw you? I knew you were too young. Hell, I didn’t mean for it to happen anyway, and I was going to make damned sure the opportunity never came up again, at least until you were older and had
a better idea of what it was about.”

  “I knew what sex was!” she defied, not wanting him to guess how totally unprepared she had been for the reality of it, but her effort was useless.

  “You knew what it was, but not what it was like.” The hard, stark truth of his words silenced her, and after a minute he said grimly, “You weren’t ready for that, were you?”

  She drew a shuddering breath, wishing she had pretended to be asleep. Rule was like a blooded stallion: when he got the bit between his teeth there was no stopping him. “No,” she admitted raggedly. “Especially not with you.”

  A hard smile curved his grim mouth. “And I took it easy on you. You really would have been scared out of your dainty little pants if I’d let myself go the way I wanted to.”

  Twisting agony in her midsection made her lash out at him, hoping futilely that she could hurt him as he had hurt her. “I didn’t want you! I didn’t—”

  “You wanted it,” he interrupted harshly. “You were in a redheaded temper and fighting me just for the sake of fighting, but you wanted it. You didn’t try to get away from me. You lit into me and tried to hurt me in any way you could, and somewhere along the line all that temper turned into wanting and you were wrapped around me like a vine.”

  Cathryn winced away from the memory. “I don’t want to talk about it!”

  Without warning he erupted into fury, into that deadly temper that smart people learned how to avoid. “Well, that’s just too damned bad,” he snarled thickly, switching the controls to automatic pilot and reaching for her.

  She made an instinctive, useless effort to ward off his hands, and he brushed her fingers away with laughable ease. His fingers bit into her upper arms as he hauled her out of her seat until she was lying sprawled against him. His mouth was hard, hot, well remembered, the taste of him as familiar as if she’d never gone away. Her slim hands curled into fists and beat ineffectively at his shoulders, but despite her efforts at resistance she found that nothing had changed, nothing at all. A hot swell of sensual excitement made her heart beat faster, made her breath come in panting gasps, her entire body quiver. She wanted him. Oh, damn him, how she wanted him! Some curious chemistry in her makeup made her respond to him like a flower to sunlight, twisting, seeking, even though she knew he was no good for her.

  His tongue probed slowly into her mouth and her hands ceased their beating to suddenly clasp his shoulders, feeling the hard muscles under her palms with instant delight. Pleasure was filling her, pleasure comprised of the taste and feel and smell of him, the slightly rough slide of his cheek against hers, the intimacy of his tongue on hers that vividly recalled a hot summer day when no clothing had been between them.

  His anger was gone, turned into desire that glittered plainly in his dark eyes when he lifted his mouth just the fraction of an inch necessary to demand, “Did you ever forget what it was like?”

  Her hands slipped up to his head, trying to pull him across that delicious, intolerable tiny space to her own mouth, but he resisted and her fingers wrapped in his silky, vibrant dark hair. “Rule,” she muttered huskily.

  “Did you?” he insisted, and drew his head back when she tried to raise her own to allow her mouth to cling to his.

  It didn’t matter; he knew anyway. How could he not know? One touch and she melted against him. “No, I never forgot,” she admitted in a whisper of sound that slid away into nothing as at last his mouth came down and crushed hers and she drank again of the sweet-tart freshness of him.

  It was no surprise when she felt his long fingers close over her breast, then slide restlessly down her ribs. The thin silk of her sleeveless summer dress was no barrier to the heat of his hand, and she felt burned as his touch sleeked down her body to stop at her knee, then began a slow, stroking journey up her thigh, lifting her skirt, exposing her long legs. Then abruptly he halted, shuddering with the effort it cost him, and he removed his hand from her leg. “This is no place for making love,” he whispered hoarsely, lifting his mouth from hers and sliding his kisses to her ear. “It’s a miracle we haven’t already crashed. But I can wait until we’re home.”

  Her lashes lifted to reveal dazed, slumberous dark eyes, and he gave her another hard kiss, then shifted her back into her own seat. Still breathing hard, he checked their position, then wiped the sweat from his forehead and turned back to her. “Now we know where we stand,” he said with grim satisfaction.

  Cathryn jerked herself erect and turned her head to stare out at the sweeping ranchland below. Fool! she berated herself. Stupid fool! Now he knew just how powerful the weapon he had against her was, and she had no illusion that he would hesitate to use it. It wasn’t fair that his desire for her didn’t leave him as vulnerable as she was, but the basic fact was that his desire was simply that, desire, without any of the accompanying emotions or needs that she felt, while the mere sound of his voice submerged her into so many boiling needs and feelings that she had no hope of sorting them out and understanding them. He was so deeply associated with all the crises and milestones of her life that even while she hated and feared him, he was so much a part of her that she couldn’t fire him, couldn’t kick him out of her life. He was as addictive as a drug, using his lean, hard-muscled body and educated hands to keep his women under control.

  I won’t be one of his women! Cathryn vowed fiercely, clenching her fists. He had no morals, no sense of shame. After all her father had done for him, as soon as Ward was in the grave, Rule had taken over. Nor was that enough. He had to have the ranch and Ward’s daughter too. In that moment Cathryn decided not to stay, to return to Chicago as soon as the holiday was over. Ricky’s problems were not hers. If Rule didn’t like the way things were, he was free to seek employment elsewhere.

  Then they were circling over the sprawling, two-story frame house to signal their arrival to the ranch, and Rule banked the plane sharply to the left to line up with the small runway. She felt stunned at how little time it had taken to reach the ranch, but a glance at her watch told her that more time had elapsed than she’d thought. How long had she been wrapped in Rule’s arms? And how long had she been lost in her thoughts? When she was with him everything else seemed to fade out of her awareness.

  A dusty red pickup came bouncing across the field to meet them as Rule took the plane in for a smooth, shallow landing; they touched down so lightly that there was scarcely a bump. Cathryn found herself looking at his hands, strong and brown and competent whether they were flying a plane, mastering a fractious horse or soothing a flighty woman. She remembered those hands on her body, and tried not to.


  As Cathryn went up the three steps to the porch that ran the width of the house she was surprised that Monica didn’t come out to greet her. Ricky didn’t come out, either, but she hadn’t really expected Ricky. Monica, on the other hand, had always at least kept up appearances and made a big show of affection when David was alive and visited with her. She opened the screen door and went into the cool dimness; Rule was right behind her with her luggage. “Where’s Monica?” she asked.

  He started up the stairs. “God only knows,” he grunted, and Cathryn followed him with rising irritation. She caught him as he opened the door of the bedroom that had always been hers and went inside to drop the bags by the bed.

  “What do you mean by that?” she demanded.

  He shrugged. “Monica ranges far and wide these days. She’s never been too keen on the ranch anyway. You can’t blame her for hunting her own amusements.” He turned to leave and Cathryn followed him again.

  “Where are you going?” she asked sharply.

  He turned back to her with exaggerated patience. “I’ve got work to do. Did you have anything else in mind?” His eyes strayed to the bedroom door, then back to her, and Cathryn set her jaw.

  “I had finding Monica in mind.”

  “She’ll show up before dark. I noticed that the station wagon is gone, and she hates driving after dark, so she’ll be here by then unle
ss she has an accident.”

  “You’re so concerned!” Cathryn lashed out.

  “Should I be? I’m a rancher, not a chaperon.”

  “Correction: you’re a ranch foreman.”

  For a moment his eyes flared with temper; then he damped it down. “You’re right, and as the foreman I have work to do. Are you going to stay here and sulk, or are you going to change clothes and come with me? There’ve been a lot of changes since the last time you were here. I thought you might be interested, boss.” He stressed the last word slightly, his eyes mocking her. He was the boss, and he knew it; he had been for so many years that many of the ranch hands had been hired since Ward’s death and had no loyalty to a Donahue, only to Rule Jackson.

  She wavered for a moment, torn between her reluctance to spend any time in his company and her interest in the ranch. The years she had spent away had been an exile and she had suffered every day, longing for the vast spaces and the clean smell of the earth. She wanted to see the land, reacquaint herself with the things that had marked her earliest days. “I’ll go change,” she said quietly.

  “I’ll wait for you at the stables,” he said, then let his eyes drift down the length of her. “Unless you’d like some company while you change?”

  Her fierce “No!” was automatic, and he didn’t act as if he had expected any other answer. He shrugged and went down the stairs. Cathryn returned to her room and closed the door, then twisted her arms up behind herself to unzip the dress and take it off. For a moment she thought of Rule helping her with the zipper; then she shivered and wrenched her mind away from the treacherous idea. She had to hurry. Rule’s patience had a time limit.

  She didn’t bother to unpack. She had always left most of her jeans and shirts there at the ranch. In Chicago she wore chic designer jeans; on the ranch she wore faded, worn jeans that were limp from use. She sometimes felt that when she changed clothes, she changed personalities. The chic, polished wife of David Ashe again became Cathryn Donahue, raised with the wind in her hair. As she stamped her feet into her boots and reached for the tan hat that she had worn for years, she became aware of a sense of belonging. She pushed the thought away, but pleasurable anticipation remained with her as she ran down the stairs and made her way out to the stables, pausing in the kitchen to greet the cook, Lorna Ingram. She was friendly enough with Lorna, but was aware that the woman looked on Rule as her employer and that that precluded any closeness between them.

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