DIANA PALMER Trilby
There was a yellow dust cloud on the horizon. Trilby stared at it with subdued excitement. In the months she’d spent on the ranch, in this vast territory of Arizona, even a dust cloud had the potential to lift her boredom. Compared to the social whirl of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, this country was uncivilized. October was almost over, but the heat hadn’t lifted. If anything, it was worse. To a genteel young woman of impeccable Eastern breeding, the living conditions were trying. It was a long way from the family mansion in Louisiana to this isolated wooden frame house near Douglas, Arizona. And the men who inhabited this wasteland were as near to barbarians as a red Indian. There were plenty of those around, too. An old Apache and a young Yaqui worked for her father. They never spoke, but they stared. So did the dusty, unbathed cowboys.
Trilby spent a great deal of time inside, except on wash days. One day a week, she had to go outside, where she and her mother dealt with a big black cast-iron pot in which white things—like her father’s shirts—were boiled, and two Number Two tin washtubs in which the remainder of the clothes were, respectively, washed by hand against a scrub board and rinsed.
“Is it going to be dust or rain?” her little brother Teddy asked from behind, scattering her thoughts.
She glanced at him over her thin shoulder and smiled gently. “Dust, I expect. What they call the monsoon season has passed and it is dry again. What else could it be?” she asked.
“Well, it could be Colonel Blanco and some of the insurrectos, the Mexican rebels fighting Díaz’s government,” he suggested. “Gosh, remember the day that cavalry patrol rode onto the ranch and asked for water and I got them a bucket?”
Ted was only twelve, and the memory was the high point of his young life. Their family’s ranch was near the Mexican border, and on October 10, Porfirio Díaz had been reelected president of Mexico. But the strongman was under attack from Francisco Madero, who had campaigned against him and lost. Now Mexico was in a state of violent unrest. Sometimes the rebels—who might or might not belong to a band of insurrectos—raided local ranches. The cavalry watched over the border. The situation in Mexico was becoming even more explosive than it usually was.
It had already been an interesting year up until that point, too, with Halley’s Comet terrorizing the world in May and the sad event of King Edward’s death on its heels. In the months that followed, there had been a volcanic eruption in Alaska and a devastating earthquake in Costa Rica. Now there was this border trouble, which made life interesting for Teddy, but deeply upset ranchers and private citizens. Everyone knew people who were connected with mining down in Sonora, because six Sonoran mining companies had their headquarters in Douglas. And plenty of local ranchers also owned land over in Mexico; foreign ownership of Mexican land to exploit mining interests and ranching was one of the root causes of the growing unrest over the border.
A detachment of khaki-clad U.S. Cavalry soldiers from the encampment at Fort Huachuca had come riding through only today, their officers in a snappy touring car with mounted troops behind them, scouting for trouble and looking so attractive that Trilby had to choke down a wildly uncharacteristic impulse to smile and wave at them. Teddy had no such inhibitions. He almost fell off the porch waving as they filed by. This column didn’t stop to ask for water, which had disappointed her young brother.
Teddy was so unlike her. She had blond hair and gray eyes; he had red hair and blue eyes. She smiled as she remembered the grandfather for whom he was a dead ringer.
“Two of our Mexican cowboys admire Mr. Madero very much. They say Díaz is a dictator and that he should be thrown out,” he told her.
“I do hope the matter is settled before it ends in a total war,” she said worriedly, “so that we don’t get caught in the middle of any fighting. It worries Mama, too, so don’t talk about it much, will you?”
“All right,” he said reluctantly. Airplanes, baseball, Mexican unrest, and the often related memories of his elderly friend, Mosby Torrance, were his biggest thrill at the moment, but he didn’t want to worry Trilby with just how serious the situation down in Mexico was becoming. She had no idea what the cowboys talked about. Teddy wasn’t supposed to know, either, but he’d overheard a good deal. It was frightening to him; it would be more frightening to his sheltered older sister.
Trilby had always been protected from rough language and rough people. Being in Arizona, around Westerners who had to cope with the desert and livestock and the weather—and the threat of rustling to stay alive—had changed her. She didn’t smile as often as she had back in Louisiana, and there was less mischief about her. Teddy missed the Trilby of years past. This new older sister was so reserved and quiet that sometimes he wasn’t sure she was even in the house.
Even now she was staring out over the barren landscape, into the distance, with that faraway look in her eyes. “I expect Richard is back from Europe by now,” she murmured. “I wish he could have come out to see us. Perhaps in a month or so, when he’s settled at home, he can. It will be pleasant to be in the company of a gentleman again.”
Richard Bates had been Trilby’s big love interest back home, but Teddy had never liked the man. He might be a gentleman, but compared to these Arizonamen, he seemed pretty anemic and silly.
He didn’t say so, though. Even at his age, he was learning diplomacy. It wouldn’t do to antagonize poor Trilby. She was having a hard enough time adjusting to Arizona as it was.
“I love the desert,” Teddy said. “Don’t you like it, just the least bit?”
“Well, I suppose I’m getting used to it,” she said quietly. “But I haven’t yet developed a taste for this horrible yellow dust. It gets into everything I cook,” she said, “as well as into our clothes.”
“It’s better to do girl stuff than brand cattle, I tell you,” he said, sounding just like their father. “All that blood and dust and noise. The cowboys curse, too.”
Trilby smiled at him. “I expect they do; Papa, too. But never around us. Only when it’s an accident.”
“There’s lots of accidents when you’re branding cattle, Trilby,” he drawled dryly, imitating his hero Mosby Torrance. He was a retired Texas Ranger and the ranch’s oldest hand. Teddy looked at her, frowning. “Trilby, are you ever going to marry? You’re old.”
“I’m only twenty-four,” she said self-consciously. Most of her girlfriends back home in Louisiana were married and had babies. Trilby had been waiting patiently for five years for Richard to propose. So far, he was no more than a friend, and her heart was heavy.
She might have been swayed if other young men had come courting, but Trilby wasn’t beautiful on the outside, even if she did have a warm, gentle heart and a sweet nature. She didn’t have the kind of face that set male hearts quivering, even back home. Here on a cattle ranch there weren’t many eligible men who were marriage worthy. Not that she wanted to marry anyone she’d met in Arizona. She thought of cowboys as a lazy lot, and many of them drank, and used tobacco and alcohol, and never bathed.
Her heart ached as she thought about how fastidious Richard always was. She wished they’d never left Louisiana. Her father had inherited the ranch from his late brother. He and her mother had sunk every dime they had into the place, and it took all the family, plus the hired help, to run it. It had been a dry year, despite the floods, and ranchers were losing cattle across the border. All this trouble, Trilby thought, when Arizona was on its way to becoming a state. So uncivilized.
The desert was a drastic change for people more used to swamps and bayous and humidity. Trilby and her mother and father, too, had come from money, which was the only reason Jack Lang had enough to stock the ranch. But their finances had suffered over the past few months, and things were no better now than they had been. But they’d all adapted amazingly well— even Trilby, who’d hated it on sight and swore she’d never be happy on a ranch in the middle of a desert with only two lone paloverde trees for shade.
“Look, isn’t that Mr. Vance?” Ted asked, shading his eyes as he spotted a solitary rider on a big buckskin horse.
Trilby ground her perfect teeth at the sight of him. Yes, it was Thornton Vance, all right. Nobody else around Blackwater Springs rode a horse with that kind of lithe, superior arrogance, or tilted his Stetson at just that slant across his tanned brow.
“I do wish his saddle would fall out from under him,” she muttered wickedly.
“I don’t know why you don’t like him, Trilby,” Ted said sadly. “He’s very nice to me.”
“I suppose he is, Teddy.” But he and Trilby were enemies. Mr. Vance had seemed to take an instant dislike to Trilby the day they were introduced.
The Langs had lived in Blackwater Springs for almost three weeks by the time they made Thornton Vance’s acquaintance. Trilby remembered his delicate, faintly haughty wife holding carelessly to his arm as the introductions were made at a church social. Thornton Vance’s cold, dark eyes had narrowed with unexpected antagonism the minute they’d spotted Trilby.
She’d never understood that animosity. His wife had been faintly condescending when they were introduced. Mrs. Vance was beautiful and knew it. Her dress was ready-made and expensive, like her purse and lace-up shoes. She had blond hair and blue eyes— and her well-bred contempt for Trilby’s inexpensive clothing had been infuriating. Her little girl looked subdued. No wonder.
Back in Louisiana, Trilby had worn good clothes herself. But now there was no money for frivolities, and she had to make do with what she had. The implied insult in Mrs. Vance’s cold eyes had gone straight to her heart. Perhaps unconsciously she’d extended her hostility toward the woman to include Thornton Vance himself.
Thornton Vance had frightened Trilby from the beginning. He was a tall, rough, fiery sort of man who said exactly what he thought and didn’t have any of the usual social graces. He was an outlaw in a land of outlaws, for all his wealth, and Trilby had no use for him. He was as different from her Richard as night was from day. Not exactly her Richard, she had to admit, not yet. But if she’d been able to stay in Louisiana for just a little longer, if she’d been a little older…She groaned inwardly as she tried to understand why fate had cast her into Thornton Vance’s path.
Vance’s cousin Curt had been totally different from Thorn, and Trilby had warmed to him at once. She liked Curt Vance because he was cultured and gentlemanly, and he somehow reminded her of Richard. She didn’t see him often, but she was fond of him.
Curt had seemed fond of Mr. Vance’s wife, too. Sally Vance had managed to interfere every time Trilby had spoken to Curt, holding his arm with a faintly proprietorial air. Her antagonism for Trilby had been more evident every time they met, so that finally Trilby managed not to attend any function where she was likely to see the other woman.
Sally had died in a very suspicious accident just two months after the Langs arrived in Blackwater Springs. Mr. Vance had accepted the routine condolences from her family, but when Trilby offered hers, he actually turned on his booted heel and walked away in what was a visible and very public snub, motioning his little girl along with him.
Trilby had never had the nerve to ask how she’d managed to offend a man she’d only just met. She hadn’t even looked at him properly. He’d avoided her like the plague, even when they met socially and he had his little girl with him. The little girl had seemed to like Trilby, but she couldn’t get near her because of the icy Mr. Vance. She seemed uncomfortable in her father’s company, and Trilby could understand that. He intimidated people.
He’d mellowed in the past two months, though, because he often came to the ranch to see her father. He always talked about water rights and how the drought was affecting his great herds of cattle. Mr. Vance owned an enormous tract of land, thousands of acres of it, with part in the United States and part in Mexico, in the state of Sonora. Apparently Blackwater Springs Ranch sat smack-dab in the middle of the only reliable water source nearby, and Mr. Vance wanted it. Her father wouldn’t discuss selling any land. That was like him. He wouldn’t give up those water rights, either.
Trilby’s busy mind coasted when Thornton Vance reined in just in front of the steps and crossed his tanned wrists over the pommel. Though a wealthy man, he dressed like one of his cowboys. He wore old denim jeans with worn leather bat-wing chaps. His shirt was checked and old, too, with scratched leather wristbands over the cuffs. A huge red bandanna drooped around his strong neck. It was stained and dusty now, and wrinkled. His tan hat wasn’t in much better shape, looking as if it had been twisted, rained on, and stomped a few times. His boots were disreputable, like Teddy’s after he’d been working cattle, the toes curled up from too much dampness and the heels worn down on either side in back. Mr. Vance didn’t look very elegant, she decided, and her distaste for him showed in her face.
“Good morning, Mr. Vance,” Trilby said quietly, remembering her manners, belatedly and reluctantly.
He stared at her without speaking. “Is your father at home?”
She shook her head. He had the kind of voice that was soft as velvet and deep as night, but it could cut like a whip when he wanted it to. He did now.
“Your mother?” he tried again.
“They’re off with Mr. Torrance at the store,” Teddy volunteered. “He drove them in on the buckboard. Dad says Mr. Torrance is used up, but it isn’t true, Mr. Vance. He isn’t at all used up. He was once a Texas Ranger, did you know?”
“Yes, I knew, Ted.” Mr. Vance let his dark eyes slide back to Trilby. They were set in a keen, sharply defined face with a straight nose and darkly tanned skin, black eyebrows matching the equally thick, straight black hair under his hat.
Trilby felt inadequately covered for some reason, even though her neat calico dress was very demure. She wiped her hands unnecessarily on her apron. “I should get back to the kitchen before I burn my apple pie,” she began, hoping he might take the hint and go.
“Am I being offered a slice of it?” he drawled instead.
She almost panicked. Teddy answered for her, his young voice excited. “Surely!” he said enthusiastically. “Trilby bakes the best pie, Mr. Vance! I like it with cream, but our cow’s gone dry just lately and we’ve had to do without.”
“Your father didn’t mention the cow,” Vance said as he swung lithely out of the saddle and tied the reins to the porch post. He came up onto the porch with a bound, his long, lithe body as graceful out of the saddle as in it. He towered over Teddy and Trilby, too tall and forceful.
She turned quickly and went back into the house. At least her blond hair was up in its neat braid, not loose and uninhibited as she usually wore it around the house. She looked much more cool and collected than she felt. She wished she had some red cayenne pepper; she’d fill Mr. Vance’s pie full of it. He probably thrived on hot peppers and arsenic, she thought wickedly.
“We got another cow yesterday, from Mr. Barnes down the road,” Teddy volunteered. “But sis got busy baking and hasn’t milked her. I’ll go and do it for you, Trilby, while you check the pie. It will only take a little while.”
She tried to protest, but Teddy had grabbed the tin milking pail and rushed out the back door before she could stop him. She was left alone, and frightened, with the hostile Mr. Vance.
He wasn’t bothering to camouflage his hostility now, either, with Teddy out of the way. He pulled a Bull Durham pouch out of his pocket, along with a small folder of tissue papers, and proceeded to roll a cigarette with quick, deft movements of his long-fingered hands.
Trilby busied herself checking inside the wood stove to see if her pie was finished. Back home, there had been a gas stove. Trilby had been secretly afraid of it, but she sometimes missed it now that she had to cook on the wood-burning one, the best they could afford. Stocking the ranch had been expensive. Keeping it going was getting harder by the day. Teddy should never have mentioned the cow going dry.
She saw the brown crust even as she smelled the mingled cinnamon and sugar and butter smell of baking apples. Just right. She took her cloths and got it quickly out of the oven and onto the long cooking table that ran almost from wall to wall. Her hands shook, but thank heaven, she didn’t drop the pie.
“Do I make you nervous, Miss Lang?” he asked, pulling up a chair. He straddled it, his powerful body coiled like a snake’s as he folded it down onto the chair and rested his forearms over its back. He looked very masculine, and the very set of his muscular body, with the chaps and jeans drawn tight over long, powerful legs, made Trilby feel awkward and shy. She’d never noticed Richard’s legs at all. Her sudden interest in Thorn’s unsettled her, made her defensive.
“Oh, no, Mr. Lang,” she replied, with a vacant smile. “I find hostility so invigorating.”
His eyebrows lifted and he had to stifle a smile. “Do you? Yet, your hands shake.”
“I have little experience of men…except for my father and brother. Perhaps I’m ill at ease.”
He watched her push back a wisp of blond hair with eyes that held nothing but contempt. “I thought you found my cousin quite irresistible at that social gathering last month.”
“Curt?” She nodded, missing the look that flared in his dark eyes. “I like him very much. He has a pleasant manner and a nice smile. He gave Teddy a peppermint stick.” She smiled at the memory. “My brother never forgets a kindness.” She glanced at him warily. “Your cousin reminds me of someone back home. He’s a kind man. And a gentleman,” she added pointedly, her eyes making her opinion of his garb, and himself, perfectly plain without a word being spoken.
He wanted to laugh out loud. Sally had told him about seeing Curt and Miss Lang here in a passionate embrace. She wasn’t the first to mention the relationship, either. A lady from the church—a notorious gossip—had mentioned seeing Curt and a blond woman in an embrace at a gathering. He’d taken the gossip home to Sally, who’d told him about Trilby. She’d done it quickly, but almost reluctantly, too. Thorn remembered that she’d gone quite pale at the time.
The revelation had left him with a fine contempt for Trilby. His cousin Curt was a married man, but Miss Lang didn’t seem to mind shattering convention. Funny, a woman who acted as ladylike as she did, behaving like that. But then, he knew too well what deceivers women were. Sally had pretended to love him, when she’d only wanted a life of wealth and comfort.
“Curt’s wife also admires him,” he said pointedly.
When she didn’t react, he sighed roughly and took a long draw from the cigarette, his eyes never leaving hers. “The wrong type of woman can ruin a good man and his life.”
“I have found very few good men out here,” she said flatly. She busied herself slicing the pie. Her hands shook and she hated the fact that he watched them, his smile mocking and unkind.
“You don’t seem to find the desert too hot, Miss Lang. Most Easterners detest it.”
“I’m a Southerner, Mr. Vance,” she reminded him. “Louisiana is hot in the summer.”
“Arizona is hot year-round. But you won’t find an overabundance of mosquitoes. We don’t have swamps here.”
She glared at him. “The yellow dust makes up for it.”
“Does it, truly?” he asked, mocking that very correct Southern accent that brought to mind cotillions and masked balls and mansions.
She wiped her hands and put the knife aside. She wouldn’t throw it at him, she wouldn’t!
“I suppose so.” She went to get the dishes for the pie from the china cabinet, praying silently that she wouldn’t drop any of them. “Do you care for iced tea, Mr. Vance?” And if I only had some hemlock…
“Yes, thank you.”
She opened the small icebox and with an ice pick chipped off several pieces of ice to go in the tall plain glasses. She covered the small block of ice with its cloth again and closed the door. “Ice is wonderful in this heat. I wish I had a houseful of it.”
He didn’t reply. She took the ceramic jug of tea she’d made for dinner and poured some of the sweetened amber liquid into the glasses. She’d fixed three, because surely Teddy would be back soon. She’d skin him if he wasn’t! Her nerves were strung like barbed wire.
She put a perfect slice of pie on a saucer and placed it before him at the table with one of the old silver forks her grandmother had given them before they’d left Baton Rouge. She placed a linen napkin with it and put the glass of tea on it. The ice shook and made a noise like tiny bells against the glass.
His lean hand shot out as she withdrew hers and caught her small wrist in a hot, strong grasp. She caught her breath audibly and stared at him with wide, wary eyes.
He scowled faintly at her reaction. His gaze went to her hand as he turned it in his and rubbed the soft palm gently with his big callused thumb. “Red and worn, but a lady’s hand, just the same. Why did you come out here with your family, Trilby?”
The unfamiliar sound of her name on his lips, in that deep, soft tone, made her knees weak. She stared at his work-toughened hand, at the darkness of his skin against the paleness of her fingers. His touch excited her.
“I had nowhere else to go. Besides, Mama needed me. She isn’t that well.”
“A fragile woman, your mother. A real Southern lady. Just like you,” he added contemptuously.
She lifted her eyes to his. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t you know?” he replied coldly, and the dark eyes that met hers were full of distaste. “You won’t find much polite society out West, my girl. It’s a hard life, and we’re hard people. When you live on the fringe of the desert, you get tough or you get dead. A little bit of fluff like you won’t last long. If the political situation here gets much worse, you’ll wish you’d never left Louisiana.”
“I’m hardly a bit of fluff,” she said angrily, thinking that his late wife fit that description far more than she did, although she was too polite to say it. “Why do you dislike me so?”
He grew more somber as he looked at her. He wanted to throw his contempt in her face, but he didn’t speak. A minute later, Teddy came in the back door with half a pail of milk, and Thornton Vance slowly released Trilby’s hand. She rubbed it instinctively, thinking that she’d surely have a bruise on the back of it by morning. She had delicate, thin skin, and his grip hadn’t been gentle.
“Here’s the milk. Did you cut me a slice of that pie, Trilby?”
“Yes, Teddy. Sit down and I’ll get it.”
Teddy pretended not to notice Trilby’s unease, putting it down to the presence of Mr. Vance….
“There, wasn’t that good?” Teddy asked the visitor when they’d finished the delicious pie. Thorn had wolfed his down with delight.
“Not bad,” Thorn agreed. His dark eyes narrowed on Trilby’s pale face. “I think your sister finds me hard going, Ted.”
“Not at all,” Trilby said, denying it. “One learns to take headaches in one’s stride.” She got up abruptly and gathered the dishes, taking them quickly to the sink with the iron pump attached. She pumped it to get water into a pan and then poured water into the kettle and set it on the wood stove to boil.
“The stove sure does make it uncomfortable in the summer, doesn’t it, Mr. Vance?” Teddy asked.
Thorn had smothered a grin at Trilby’s last riposte. “You get used to things when you have to, Ted,” Thorn said.
Trilby felt a twinge of sympathy for him. He’d lost his wife, and he had probably cared about her a great deal. He couldn’t help being rough and uncivilized. He hadn’t had the advantages of an Eastern man.
“That was good pie,” Thorn said directly, and sounded surprised.
“Thank you,” she said. “Grandmother taught me how to cook when I was just a little girl.”
“You’re not a little girl now, are you?” Vance asked curtly.
“That’s right,” Teddy agreed, not realizing that the question was more mockery than query. “Trilby’s old. She’s twenty-four.”
Trilby could have gone right through the floor. “Ted!”
Thorn stared at her for a long moment. “I thought you were much younger.”
She flushed. “How you do go on, Mr. Vance,” she said stiffly. “Speaking of going on…”
Vance smiled at her. It changed his face, made it less formidable, charming as his black eyes sparkled. “Yes?” he prodded.
“How old are you, Mr. Vance?” Teddy interrupted.
“I’m thirty-two,” he told the boy. “I suppose that puts me in the class with your grandparents?”
Teddy laughed. “Right into the rocking chair.”
Vance laughed, too. He got up from the table and pulled his pocket watch out of the slit above the pocket of his jeans. He opened it and grimaced. “I’ve got an Eastern visitor arriving on the train this afternoon. I must go.”
“Come again,” Teddy invited.
“I will, when your father’s home.” He glanced at Trilby speculatively. “I’m having a party Friday evening, a get-together for my Eastern visitor. He was a relation of my wife’s, and he’s somewhat famous in academic circles. He’s an anthropologist. I’d like you all to come.”
“Me, too?” Teddy asked excitedly.
Vance nodded. “There’ll be other youngsters around. And Curt will be there, with his wife,” he added, with a pointed glance at Trilby.
Trilby didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t attended an evening party since they’d been in Arizona, although they’d been invited to several. Her mother didn’t like social gatherings. She might agree to this one, because it wouldn’t do to offend someone as wealthy and powerful as Thornton Vance, even if he did look and act like some sort of desperado.
“I’ll mention it to Mama and Papa,” she told him.
“You do that.” He took his hat in hand and walked with easy strides to the front door with Trilby and Teddy behind him.
It was tilted at the usual rakish angle when he swung lazily into the saddle. “Thanks for the pie,” he told Trilby.
She tilted her chin at just the right angle and smiled at him coldly. “Oh, it was no trouble at all. I’m sorry I couldn’t offer you some cream with it.”
“Had you lapped it up already?” he tormented.
She glared at him. “No. I expect you curdled it.”
He chuckled with reluctant pleasure. He tipped his hat, wheeled the horse gently, and eased him into a nice trot. Trilby and Teddy watched him until he was out of sight.
“He likes you,” he teased her.
She lifted an eyebrow. “I’m not at all the kind of woman he’d be interested in.”
She glared at Thorn’s back with mingled excitement and resentment. “I expect he likes his women with their necks on the ground under his boot.”
“Oh, Trilby, you’re silly! Do you like Mr. Vance?” he persisted.
“No, I do not,” she said tersely, and turned back into the house. “I have a lot of things to do, Teddy.”
“If that’s a hint, sis, I’ll go find something to do myself. But I still say Mr. Vance is sweet on you!”
He ran off, down the long porch. Trilby stood with the screen door open watching after him, worried. She didn’t think Mr. Vance was sweet on her. She thought he was up to something, and she didn’t know what. But she was worried.
When her mother and father came home, Teddy related Mr. Vance’s visit to them, and they smiled in that same knowing way. Trilby flushed like a beet.
“He isn’t interested in me, I tell you. He wanted to see the both of you,” she told her parents.
“Why?” her father asked.
“He’s having a party Friday night,” Teddy said excitedly. “He said we’re all invited, and I can come, too. Can’t we go? It’s been ever so long since we’ve been to a party.” He glowered at them. “And you won’t let me go to see Mr. Cody’s show Thursday afternoon. They said it will be his very last show—and he’s got Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show on the same bill, with real elephants!”
“I’m sorry, Teddy,” his father said, “but we really can’t spare the time, I’m afraid. We’re shipping cattle to California this week, and we’re still behind some of the other cattle companies getting ours en route.”
“Buffalo Bill’s last show and I’ll miss it,” Teddy groaned.
“Perhaps he isn’t really retiring. Besides,” Mary Lang said gently, “there’s sure to be one of those new Boy Scout troops starting up soon in Douglas, what with all the publicity the movement is getting. You could join that, perhaps.”
“I suppose. Can we go to the party? It’s at night. You can’t work at night,” he added.
“I agree,” Mrs. Lang said. “Besides, dear, it really wouldn’t do to offend Mr. Vance when we’re neighbors.”
“And I suppose,” her husband said mischievously as he looked at his daughter, “there won’t be anyone for Thorn to dance with if Trilby doesn’t go.”
Which called to Trilby’s mind an image of the reprehensible Mr. Vance dancing by himself. She had to smother a grin.
“Trilby calls him Mr. Vance,” Teddy pointed out.
“Trilby is being respectful, as she should be,” Mr. Lang replied. “But Thorn and I are cattlemen. We use first names.”
Thorn suits him, Trilby thought to herself. He was just as sharp as one, and could draw blood as easily.
She didn’t say it. Her father wouldn’t approve of blatant rudeness.
“We’re going, then?” Trilby asked.
“Yes,” Mrs. Lang replied, smiling at her daughter. She was a pretty woman. She was almost forty, but she looked ten years younger. “You still have a nice dress that you haven’t worn since we’ve been out here,” she reminded Trilby.
“I wish I still had my lovely silk ensemble,” Trilby replied, smiling back. “It was lost on the way here.”
“Why is it called such a silly thing?” Teddy muttered.
“Well, I never!” Trilby laughed. “And don’t you think naming a stuffed bear for Teddy Roosevelt is silly?” Trilby asked absently.
“Of course not! Hoorah for Teddy!” Teddy chuckled. “His birthday is Thursday, the same day of Buffalo Bill’s show; I read it in the paper. He’ll be fifty-two. I was named for him, wasn’t I, Dad?”
“Indeed you were. He’s a hero of mine. He was a sickly, weak child, but he built himself up and became a rugged soldier, a cowboy, a politician…I suppose Colonel Teddy Roosevelt has been everything, including president.”
“I’m sorry he wasn’t reelected,” Mrs. Lang replied. “I would have voted for him,” she added, with a meaningful look at her husband. “If women could vote.”
“A wrong that will one day soon be righted, you mark my words,” Mr. Lang said affectionately, and put his arm around his wife’s thin shoulders. “President Taft signed the Arizona statehood bill in June, praise God, and many changes will now occur as they work to get the constitution ready for ratification. But whatever happens, you’re still my best girl.”
She laughed and nuzzled her cheek against his shoulder. “And you’re my best boy.”
Trilby smiled and left with Teddy, leaving her parents to themselves. Years and years of marriage, and they were still like newlyweds. She hoped that someday she would be as fortunate in her marriage.
Thorn was halfway back to the ranch when a cloud of dust caught up to him. He turned his head in time to see Naki, one of the two Apache men who worked for him, rein in to match his speed. The other man was tall and had long, shoulder-length black hair. He wore a breechclout and high-topped buckskin moccasins with a red-checked shirt and a thick, red-patterned cotton band tied around his forehead to keep his hair out of his eyes.
“Been hunting?” Thorn asked him.
The other man nodded.
The Apache didn’t even glance at him. He held up one hand, displaying a thick, bound book. “I’ve been looking for it everywhere.”
“I mean, did you shoot anything that we could eat for supper?” he said, glowering.
Naki’s eyebrows lifted. “Me? Shoot something?” He sounded horrified. “Kill a helpless animal?”
“You’re an Apache Indian,” Thorn reminded him, with exaggerated patience. “A hunter. Master of the bow and arrow.”
“Not me. I prefer a Remington repeater rifle,” he said in perfect English.
“I thought you were going to get us something in buckskin.”
“I did.” He held up the book again. “Leatherstocking Tales, by James Fenimore Cooper.”
“Oh, my God!” Thorn groaned. “What kind of Apache are you?”
“An educated one, of course,” Naki replied pleasantly. “You’re going to have to do something about Jorge’s cousin,” he added, the lightness gone from his tone and the smile from his deep-set black eyes as he stopped and faced the other man. “You lost five head of cattle this morning, and not to drought and lack of water. Ricardo confiscated them.”
“Damn the luck!” Thorn cursed. “Again?”
“Again. He’s feeding some revolutionary comrades hidden out in the hills. I can’t fault his loyalty to his family, but he’s carrying it to extremes and on stolen beef.”
“I’ll have it out with him.” He glared at the horizon. “This damned war is coming too close.”
“I won’t argue.” Naki tucked the book in his saddlebags. He produced two rabbits on a tether and tossed them to Thorn. “Supper,” he announced.
“Are you coming down to share it?”
“Share it?” Naki looked horrified. “Eat a rabbit? I’d rather starve!”
“What did you have in mind, or dare I ask?”
Naki’s white teeth gleamed in a face like sculpted bronze. “Fried rattler,” he said, his eyes glittering.
“Snob,” Thorn accused.
Naki shrugged. “One can hardly expect a man of European ancestry to measure up to a culture as ancient and sophisticated as mine,” he said, eyes sparkling with humor. “Meanwhile, I’ll track Jorge’s cousin down for you and bring him along.”
“Don’t, please, do anything nasty to him.”
“No need to look so innocent, if you please. Or wasn’t it you who staked out that drummer on an anthill with wet rawhide when he sold you some snakebite medicine that didn’t work?”
“A doctor should stand behind his cures.”
“He didn’t know you were a Latin scholar,” Thorn reminded him. “Much less that you knew more about herbal medicine than he’d ever learned.”
“He won’t forget.”
“I daresay he won’t,” Thorn agreed. “And I believe he led a lynch mob after you…?”
“From which you were kind enough to save me,” Naki recalled. It had been the beginning of their friendship, and it went back a long, long way. Naki had reformed a little. Not much.
“Bring your snake and I’ll have Tiza cook it for us.”
“He cooks like he rides,” Naki muttered.
“I’ll cook it, then.”
“I’ll bring Ricardo along directly.”
He turned his paint pony and rode leisurely away.
The rest of the week passed all too quickly. Trilby dressed for Thornton Vance’s party with fingers that were all thumbs. She didn’t want to go to Thorn’s house. She dreaded the evening as she’d never dreaded anything else.
The only expensive gown she owned that had made it out from Louisiana with her was a lacy beige one. A vicious dust storm had destroyed most of their possessions on the drive from the train to their new home on Blackwater Springs Ranch. Even now, Trilby could feel the smothering sting of yellow sand as it had blanketed them, almost buried them, on the way from Douglas. One of their acquaintances had only smiled when he was told of their ordeal, remarking that they’d best get used to dust storms out here.
They had, after a fashion. But Trilby sometimes longed for the cool green bayous of her youth and the sound of Cajun patois being spoken on the streets as she went to the bakery each Saturday for a sack of beignets and to shop for new dresses.
With a full purse, it had been fun to go to town in the chauffeured T-model that Rene Marquis drove for the family. Her cousins had always been her friends as well, and there were parties and afternoon teas and picnics…and then, so suddenly, there had been Richard. But before he’d done more than hold her hand in his, her uncle had died, and her father had announced that the family was moving to Arizona.
Trilby had cried for days, but it hadn’t swayed her parents. Richard had gone off to Europe with his own family, with flattering reluctance and a promise to write. But to date, Trilby had written dozens of letters and she had only a card from Richard, from England. It wasn’t even remotely loving. Only a friendly note. Sometimes she despaired of ever gaining his love.
She pulled herself up short. It really wouldn’t do to let herself look back. This was home now. She had to adjust to being an Arizonan, to a different kind of life. But Richard might still come to stay; he might discover passionate feelings for her. She sighed dreamily.
She put on the gown, longing for the old days when she’d had plenty of fine clothes to wear. Money was no longer plentiful. She wanted to leave her hair loose around her shoulders, but Mr. Vance being Mr. Vance, it was better, she supposed, to appear dignified and conservative, so that she didn’t give him any special reasons for mocking her. He sometimes looked at her as if he actually considered her in the same light as a lady of the evening. It puzzled and hurt her. Not that she ever let it show.
She braided her soft blond hair with a blue ribbon and piled it on top of her head, grimacing at the severe thinness of her face. The heat had worn her down just lately. She had little appetite, and her slenderness had exaggerated itself.
When she finished dressing, she pinched her cheeks and lips to put a little color in them and picked up the lacy black shawl the Mexican ladies called a “mantilla.” Her father had brought it to her from Mexico the last time he’d been down there to buy cattle.
“You look lovely, Trilby,” her mother said warmly.
“So do you.” She hugged the older woman, approving the neat, elegant black dress her mother was wearing.
Her father, in his black suit, and Teddy, in his short pants and jacket, looked uncomfortable but fashionable. They climbed into the Model-T and waited while the man of the house fiddled around until it finally cranked. Then Trilby prayed all the way to Mr. Vance’s ranch that it wouldn’t snap a band, or break down, or have a flat tire on the deeply rutted road. It was drizzling rain, and it would be terrible to have to get wet waiting and hoping to be rescued.
Fortunately everything went without a hitch. They pulled up in the long dirt driveway that led to Los Santos Ranch. It was an adobe structure, two stories high, with balconies all around the upper level and patios and gardens surrounding the lower one. Every plant near it seemed to be blooming, even the tall, thin ocotillo that made a natural fence near the front. It was the first time Trilby had seen it, and she was enchanted. Most of the structures she’d seen in Arizona were made of adobe, but they were usually simple and very small. This showplace was something out of a slick Eastern magazine, elegant and expensive.
Thornton Vance was waiting for them on the front porch, which was long and cool-looking with its hammock on one end and comfortable chairs on the other. Light blazed out of the glass windows, spilling in patterns on the sandy, cactus-studded front yard. There was a breeze, but it was a warm night despite the faint mist of rain. The house looked warm and inviting. Incredible, Trilby thought, considering how uninviting its master looked when his dark eyes rested on her. In his dark suit and white shirt, he looked a little severe. His black hair was neatly combed. He looked as elegant as any New Orleans gentleman. Trilby was surprised at how handsome he was when he dressed up.
“Nice of you to invite us, Thorn,” her father said, with easy courtesy, as he helped first Trilby’s mother, then Trilby, out of the car.
“My pleasure. Watch your step, Trilby. You’re headed for a mudhole,” he said abruptly. “Here, Ted, hold this.”
He handed Teddy his glass and abruptly swung Trilby up in his arms—to her shock and her parents’ quickly concealed delight.
He turned, carrying her up onto the porch as if she weighed nothing at all. It didn’t seem to affect him, either, having her so close. But it affected her. She could barely breathe. His cologne was faint and barely detectable, but she seemed to be engulfed in its manly scent. His arms were strong and warm around her. She could feel the muscles in them despite the covering of his long-sleeved shirt and dark jacket. He wasn’t breathing hard at all, as if her weight was unnoticeable.
“Better hold on,” he murmured, with faint amusement. She was holding herself so stiffly that she felt brittle, and he knew she was barely breathing. It puzzled him that a woman of her character should be so nervous in a man’s arms. He didn’t imagine she’d been nervous in Curt’s! “It’s a bit of a steep climb up this porch.”
That slow drawl was seductive. The pitch of his voice had dropped, just enough to stroke her ears like velvet. She’d never been so close to a man before, and the steely Mr. Vance was devastating even at a distance. This was hardly conventional behavior, and she wanted to protest, but her parents were chiding her for being so wary.
“Relax, girl,” her father said, chuckling. “Thorn won’t drop you.”
Defeated, her thin arms climbed jerkily until they rested on his broad shoulders.
His head turned. His eyes met hers in the faint light from the windows, and the sounds of music and laughter and talking died suddenly as she was caught and held in their dark glitter.
His step didn’t falter, but he wasn’t watching as he carried her slowly up onto the porch. And before he stopped to put her down, his arm contracted very slowly, very deliberately, to bring her breasts hard against his chest.
She shivered at the unexpectedly stirring contact, so vulnerable that she was unable to conceal the reaction of her body to the faint caress.
He didn’t speak. Slowly he let her feet down on the floor. As he bent to release her, his mouth was only scant inches from her lips. He searched her eyes, and she felt her body grow warm at the look on his face. It was expressionless, except for the explicit longing in his eyes, the single-minded intent. He stood straight, releasing her, and she stood before him helpless, unable to move, to speak, to act.
Thorn watched her curiously. For a woman of her type, she was amazingly sensitive to his touch. Not that he found it strange that the apparently very correct and puritan Miss Lang should fall apart because of the attentions of a rough cattleman. She was obviously putting on a good act. And why not? She knew he was rich.
“Would you care for some punch, Trilby?” he asked, but his eyes had dropped to her mouth—and he looked as if he might bend and take it under his any second.
Trilby could hardly find her voice. She was so shaken that her purse almost fell from her fingers. “Yes,” she choked. “I would.”
If only he would stop staring at her lips! He made her trembly with an emotion she didn’t understand at all. Her legs would hardly support her. It was difficult to breathe. Her heart was beating like a hummingbird’s wings against her rib cage. All because Thornton Vance was looking at her mouth!
He took her arm, aware of her parents’ exchanged smiles. So they were thinking along those lines. He smiled faintly to himself. He was glad that Trilby was vulnerable to him. He found her very attractive, and he’d been a long time without a woman. He hadn’t wandered up to the wrong side of Tucson for entertainment, or anywhere else since his wife’s death. He was beginning to feel that abstinence. He knew what Trilby was. He wouldn’t need to worry about her reputation.
And if she fell in love with him a little, that wouldn’t hurt, either. He might enjoy having her become serious about him just before he cut it off. Trilby had all but destroyed his cousin’s marriage. The gossip hadn’t been lost on him, and Curt’s wife, Lou, had cried on his shoulder more than once. Lou didn’t know the identity of Curt’s clandestine lover, but she did know that the woman was a blonde. Vance had never doubted that it was Trilby. After all, Sally had seen her with Curt.
It was too bad about Jack Lang inheriting that ranch, he thought bitterly. If it hadn’t been for the Langs coming here to claim Blackwater Springs Ranch, Thorn would have been able to buy it. Then he wouldn’t be losing cattle right and left to drought. He had water on his Mexican property, but it was getting too dangerous to try to run cattle down there. He’d had one raid after another on his stock since the fighting had begun after Díaz’s reelection. Here, water was running out.
Thorn had to find a way to save Los Santos from ruin. The land came first. His father and his grandfather had instilled in him a terrible sense of responsibility for the land, for the heritage it represented, for the need to preserve it at any cost.
For just a moment, it flashed through his mind that he could solve all his problems by marrying Trilby. But he dismissed it at once. She wasn’t the sort of woman he wanted in his home. He wasn’t sure he ever wanted another woman that close.
Sally had sworn eternal love until he’d married her and taken her to bed. Afterward, she’d been a bubbling caldron of excuses. She enjoyed her wealthy way of life, but not her ardent husband. After a few weeks of her utter coldness, he lost most of his feeling for her. Her pregnancy had been the last straw. She hadn’t wanted a child, and she never fully adjusted to motherhood. For the few months before her death, she’d been different. There had been a new light in her eyes, a new radiance to her face. But not when her husband was near. She hated him, and never lost a chance to tell him so. Even Samantha suffered her hostility. At the last, Sally had seemed to resent her family bitterly.
The accident that had claimed her life had been in a buggy one rainy night. She’d gone to sit with a sick neighbor. When she hadn’t come home the next morning, he’d gone looking for her. He’d found her body in the wreckage of the buggy, half lying in a creek. It was on an out-of-the-way road, though, and nowhere near the sick neighbor. He’d assumed that she’d gotten lost in the dark, and his conscience had hurt him for letting her go alone. There was little love in their marriage, but he had loved her until her selfishness and greed killed his feelings for her.
He glanced toward his daughter Samantha, who was standing against the wall just inside the house, looking hunted. She was so fragile-looking, he thought. Odd, she’d been less high-strung since her mother’s death, but she was sad and shy, and, odd thing, she was very nervous around Curt and Lou. He did care for his child, but there was little love left in him. What was love, after all, he thought bitterly, but an illusion. A marriage for practical reasons had a better chance of success. As for the bedroom, there was no shortage of willing women to satisfy his hunger. He didn’t need a wife for that. His eyes sought Trilby, dark with masculine appreciation of her slenderness and grace.
Samantha approached the adults warily, managing a shy smile for Trilby. “Hello,” she said.
“Hello. It’s Samantha, isn’t it? You look very pretty,” Trilby said gently.
Samantha looked surprised at the compliment. “Thank you,” she mumbled self-consciously. “May I go to bed, now, Father?” she asked, with painful shyness.
“Certainly,” he said. He sounded very stiff and uncomfortable. Not like Trilby’s loving, affectionate father. “Maria will go with you.” He motioned to his housekeeper, who nodded and came forward quickly to herd the child upstairs.
“Don’t you tuck her in at night?” she asked, without thinking.
“I do not,” he answered, his voice hardly inviting further questions. “Will you have lime or fruit punch?”
He filled a cup for her and placed it in a saucer. Her hands shook, though, and he had to hold them to help steady it. His eyes met hers again, narrow this time, and probing.
“Your hands are like ice. You can’t be cold?”
“Why can’t I?” she said defensively. “I’m thin. I feel chill more than most people.”
“Is it that, Trilby?” He lowered his voice, and his head, so that his eyes were very close to hers. His lean hands smoothed over the backs of hers. “Or is it this?” His thumb found the damp palm of one and drew over it in what was a blatantly sensual gesture, while his eyes kindled panic in her bosom.
The punch overflowed, fortunately missing her dress and his trousers.
“Oh, I’m—I’m so sorry!” she stammered, flushing.
“No harm done.” He motioned for one of the waiters and drew her out of the way while the man cleaned it up. Her parents and Ted were already mixing with the huge crowd, and no one seemed to have noticed the accident.
“I never used to be so clumsy,” she said nervously.
He drew her back into a small alcove that led to the lighted patio, its paper lanterns making artificial moons in the darkness. His hands framed her face and tilted it up to his dark eyes. “I don’t think it was clumsiness.”
He bent then, and she felt the warm, slow brush of a man’s mouth for the first time in her life. Even Richard had never once tried to kiss her. She’d had only dreams…She stiffened helplessly at the intimacy and a faint gasp passed her dry lips.
Thorn lifted his head. The expression on her face, in her eyes, was one she couldn’t have pretended. It was genuine surprise, mingled with awe, fascination. He had more than enough experience to recognize what she was feeling—and to know that it was new to her. Incredible, he thought, a woman of her experience being so stunned. Unless it was a pretense…
He bent again to make sure, but she jerked away from him, one slender hand going to her mouth. Above it, her gray eyes were like saucers in a delicately etched face blanched with uncertainty.
Thorn grew irritated with her for that dramatic facade. His face hardened; his eyes went cold. He stood watching Trilby, contempt in his very posture as he stared at her slender body.
“Don’t tell me you usually react that way to a man’s caress?” he asked, with smiling mockery. “There’s no need to pretend for me, Trilby. We both know that you aren’t unfamiliar with the feel of a man’s mouth on yours—even on your body.”
The sheer effrontery of the remark made her hand twitch. Her eyes flashed at him and she straightened. “If I had a gun, I’d shoot you, I swear I would! How dare you make such a statement to me!”
He raised his eyebrows. “What kind of treatment did you expect, Miss Lang? Do you think that prim act fooled me?”
She stared at him blankly. “What prim act?”
He looked vaguely mocking. “It’s not very effective coming from your sort of woman,” he drawled. “We both know you want a hell of a lot more from me than kisses.”
She gasped with furious indignation and gave him a fierce glare before she abruptly moved away from him, almost running. He poured himself a cup of punch and wandered off to mingle with his guests. But even as he smiled and wound through the crowd, he was thinking about Trilby. He really shouldn’t have baited her like that. Even if she’d been having a blatant affair with Curt, it didn’t make her a prostitute. She might actually love the man.
He didn’t understand why he’d said the things he had, except that thinking of her with his cousin made him angry.
His eyes finally found her, dancing with, of all people, Curt. The other man was about his height but much heavier and less abrasive. Curt had a ready smile and he liked women. They liked him, too, with his city manners and gentlemanly ways.
Thorn had been fond of him until his wife had thrown Curt up to him as an example of what she called a “civilized man.” He was tired of coming off second when compared to a dandy. Seeing Trilby in his arms made something explode inside him, especially when an icy, resentful Lou, Curt’s wife, sat seething as she watched them dance.
“How’s the Mexican problem?” Jack Lang asked, pausing beside him long enough to divert his attention.
“Getting worse, I think,” Thorn replied. He glanced at Trilby and away again. It was all he could do not to throw a punch at Curt for his duplicity. “Don’t let the women stray far from the house. We’ve had a few cattle stolen. One of my men tracked them down into Mexico. We never did catch the thieves.”
“You can’t fault the peons for taking the side of the insurgents,” Jack said patiently. “Conditions under Díaz are intolerable for the Mexican people, from what we hear from our vaqueros.”
“They’ve always been intolerable. They always will be,” Thorn said impatiently. “The average Mexican peasant has centuries of oppression behind him, from the Aztecs all the way up through Cortés and the Spanish and French, and, eventually, Díaz. These are a perennially oppressed people. They’ve been forced to knuckle under to everyone, especially the Spanish. It takes generations to overcome a suppressed attitude. They haven’t had enough time yet to break the pattern.”
“Madero seems to be doing it.”
“Madero is a little rooster,” Thorn mused. “His heart’s in the right place. I think he may surprise the Federales. They underestimate him. They’ll regret it.”
“His army is ragtag,” Jack protested.
“You need to read history,” came the dry reply. “It’s chock-full of ragtag armies taking over continents.”
Jack pursed his lips. “You’re amazingly astute.”
“Why, because I live on a ranch and spend my life around cattle and dust? I’m well read, and I have a friend who knows more about the past than he knows about the present. Did you meet my Eastern guest over there? McCollum’s an anthropologist, although he also teaches archaeology. He comes out with his students every spring to interview people from local Indian tribes and look for evidence of ancient cultures.”
“You don’t say! He never told me any of that,” Jack murmured, eyeing the tall, rough-looking blond man who was talking to an area businessman.
“McCollum won’t talk about his work. He’s opinionated enough about everything else,” Thorn said, with an amused smile.
McCollum glanced at Thorn and glowered. A minute later, he excused himself to the man with whom he was speaking and joined his host. “You’re talking about me, aren’t you?” McCollum demanded bluntly. “Behind my back, too.”
“I was telling my neighbor how much you know about the past,” he said, smiling. “This is Jack Lang. He owns Blackwater Springs Ranch. Jack, this is Dr. Craig McCollum.”
“Glad to know you,” Jack said. “Are you here to dig around?”
“No, more’s the pity. I’m in town on business, so I stopped in to see Thorn. What do you think about the Mexican situation?”
Jack told him. McCollum, a tall, dignified man, pursed his lips and his dark eyes narrowed. “You think the peons have a chance?”
“Yes,” Jack said. “Do you?”
McCollum shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Thorn has probably mentioned that he has several Mexican cowboys who work for him. Their fathers worked for his father. To them, being dominated by foreigners is a bitter way of life. Change takes time.”
“Is Madero going to win?”
“Yes, I think so,” Thorn said after a minute. “He genuinely cares about his people and he wants something better than they have for them. He’s managed to win the support of most of his people, and they’ll fight. Yes, I imagine he’ll win. But before he does, a lot of good blood is going to be spilled. What concerns me is that some of it may be ours. We’re in a sticky position here, on the border.”
“We don’t have to get involved,” Jack said stubbornly.
Thorn smiled indulgently. “We’re already involved. Or haven’t you noticed that some of your vaqueros disappear for a day or two at a time?”
Jack cocked his head and shrugged. “Yes. They go to see their families.”
Thorn chuckled and drained his punch glass. “They go to ride with the Maderistas and help raid neighboring ranches. Be careful they don’t raid yours. You’ve lost some cattle recently, too, I believe?”
“A few head. Nothing serious.”
“Perhaps those few were to see if you’d give chase,” Thorn cautioned. “Keep a close watch on your herd.”
“Yes. I’ll do that.” Jack sighed heavily, his eyes going to his wife, who was talking animatedly to some neighbors. “I dragged my family out here without realizing the gravity of the situation, you know. I had no idea the Mexicans would revolt. I put every dime we had into this operation, but it isn’t going as I thought it would. I’m losing my shirt, Vance.”
“Give it time,” Thorn said, mentally weighing his own chances to latch on to the ranch if Jack looked like he was losing it. “Things generally work out by themselves.”
“Yes, if I have anything left by then.”
“No need to sound so pessimistic,” Thorn reminded him. “If things heat up, there are plenty of U.S. troops ready to combat any threat. And besides the local militia, there’s support from Fort Huachuca if it’s needed. Buck up. Come on, I’ll introduce you to a couple of my bankers. You may need a friend in commerce one day. Craig, you can keep us company.”
From her position with Curt, talking to two unmarried young women talking about the upcoming marriage of a third, Trilby watched Thorn Vance and Craig McCollum with her father. Dr. McCollum wasn’t at all bad-looking, but it was Thorn who caught her eye. He was nice-looking when he made the effort, she thought reluctantly. Black suited him; it made him look more muscular, even taller than he was.
While she stared at him, he suddenly turned his head and caught her staring in his direction. A cold anger contracted his brows, and she flushed and looked quickly away. Her heartbeat was unusually fast and she wished she didn’t feel or look quite so breathless. It hadn’t been like this with Richard. She’d been so fond of him, but he hadn’t made her knees go weak. For heaven’s sake, all she’d thought about since she’d arrived was how it would feel if Thorn kissed her with real passion—not that faint brushing contact that had unnerved her. She almost wished that she’d given in to him, but that was unseemly, unladylike, and totally impossible. She couldn’t encourage him. A widower like Thorn Vance would certainly want more than she was prepared to offer, and he was hardly likely to offer her marriage. He was something of a ladies’ man, she gathered from their conversation, and he seemed already to think her a woman of loose morals. She had no thought of ending up a scarlet woman because of her body’s helpless reaction to him. She’d simply have to keep her distance from now on.
“Look at her,” Lou bristled minutes later when Thorn took her onto the dance floor. She was glaring toward Trilby, who was still standing beside Curt. “Has she no shame?”
“I’ll take care of it,” he told the woman, who was dark and much older than Trilby. “Don’t worry.”
“So blatant,” she choked. “He’s got two children, and he doesn’t care how much gossip he stirs up. It isn’t only her. Now there’s some woman down in Del Rio.” She dabbed at her eyes miserably. “I wish I’d never met him.”
“What do you mean, some woman in Del Rio?”
“A pretty little Mexican peasant girl whose father owns a taverna,” she said huskily. “He spends all his time down there.”
That struck Thorn as odd. If Curt were having a mad affair with Trilby, why was he seeing another woman as well? And a poor Mexican girl, at that?
“He likes to see me humiliated,” she whispered, glaring at her husband’s back. “He enjoys hurting me.”
“Why should he want to do that?” Thorn asked gently.
Lou blushed. “I was…in the family way when we married,” she said, faintly resentful. “He’s never let me forget it. He didn’t want to marry me.”
It began to make sense. “Are you certain that he’s seeing Trilby?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “He disappears every other night. Maybe he’s seeing them both. How should I know? I hate him!”
“No, you don’t.”
She sniffed. “No, I don’t. I wish I could.” She leaned her head against him. “Why couldn’t I have loved you, Thorn? You’d never cheat on your wife.”
“It’s not my way,” he agreed.
“Look at her,” she muttered, glaring at Trilby. “So cultured and citified and elegant. She’s nothing to look at, though. All bones and a face that no man could call pretty. I’m much better to look at than she is!”
“Now, Lou,” he said gently.
She stumbled and had to regain her balance. “I’m being spiteful, I know. Why don’t her people control her? If she’d been raised right, she wouldn’t be carousing around with my husband!”
The question made Thorn thoughtful. Mary and Jack Lang were moral people. They hadn’t raised Trilby to be licentious. Surely if they knew she was seeing Curt they’d stop her. Of course, he rationalized, they might not know about it.
Minutes later he approached her where she stood with Curt and slid his hand down to capture hers.
“Excuse us, won’t you?” he told Curt, and he didn’t smile. His cousin’s eyebrows arched in surprise.
Thorn led her onto the floor, where several people were doing a lazy waltz to the music of the live band he’d hired.
“I think it’s time Curt spent just a little time with his wife,” he said icily.
Trilby flushed with anger. She smiled coolly. “How kind of you to sacrifice yourself on her behalf.”
He shifted his eyes to where Lou was coaxing a reluctant Curt to dance with her. The whole situation made him angry.
His arms contracted around Trilby, and she stiffened. “I might as well dance with a slab of lumber,” he remarked as they went around the floor for the second time. His hand gripped her slender waist hard and he shook her gently. “Will you relax?”
She was stiff in his arms, because she was angry at the remarks he’d made and frightened of how he made her feel. Her hand in his was cold and nervous, more so when his fingers began sliding in and out between her own, making her knees wobbly. He’d been so antagonistic, and now he was acting as if—as if he wanted to seduce her!
“Please stop doing that,” she said irritably, tugging at her hand.
“Doing what, Miss Lang?” he asked, with every evidence of innocence.
She glared up into his dancing dark eyes and then down again. “You know what.”
“You relax and I’ll stop doing…that.”
Her teeth clenched. “Have you no knowledge of civilized behavior at all?” she asked haughtily.
His dark eyes glittered at her. “I’m a man,” he said quietly. “Perhaps you aren’t used to the breed?”
Her gray eyes flashed at him. “I do most certainly know a few men!”
“Pretty city boys,” he shot back. “With nice manners and manicured nails and slicked-back hair.”
“There’s nothing wrong with manners, Mr. Vance,” she told him. “In fact, they rate rather high on my list of priorities.”
“You sound very indignant. I’ve seen a setting hen less ruffled than you look right now,” he said mockingly. “All feathers and fury because I’ve insulted your background.” The smile faded as he looked at her. “I buried my parents with my own two hands,” he said, shocking her into lifting her eyes. “They were killed by Mexican bandits raiding up into Arizona. I have no love for outlaws, and less for Eastern tenderfeet who think a man is measured by his vocabulary. Out here, Miss Lang, a man is measured by his ability to hold on to what’s his, by his ability to protect his loved ones and insure their survival. Pretty talk doesn’t stop bullets or build empires.”
“You sound very critical of city folk,” she began.
“I am critical of them. We had two Washington big shots out here after my parents were gunned down. We tried to explain the situation brewing in Mexico and the need for some protection for settlers here, and we got nothing but promises of ‘looking into the situation.’”
“Washington is quite far away,” she reminded him.
“Not far enough away for me,” he said shortly. “I couldn’t get any cooperation from Washington or the army, so I handled the problem myself.”
“I tracked my parents’ murderers down across the border,” he explained.
“Did you find them?”
“Yes.” He glanced toward the band and motioned to them. They’d been winding down, but they began the song again.
She didn’t pursue the question. The look in his dark eyes had been fairly explicit. She had a terrible vision of men being gunned down.
He felt the quiver against his hand at her back and he nodded. “You’re going to have to get a little tougher if you want to live in this country.”
“Did I ever say that I wanted to live here, Mr. Vance?” she asked with soft hauteur. “I came because I had no choice.”
“You seem to like some things about it,” he continued, with faint sarcasm.
“That’s right, I do love the dust! I’m thinking of starting an export business so that I can share it with the world.” She couldn’t face another argument. “Can we stop dancing?”
“Why?” Her attitude put his back up. She was making his desert sound like some alien and unwanted land. She made him feel like some uncivilized savage. Well, perhaps he was, but he didn’t like her so superior attitude. She was hardly fit to judge him, considering her behavior with his married cousin.
His hand contracted, bringing her close against him so that she could feel his chest warm and hard against her breasts, even through several layers of cloth. “Don’t you like being held close to my body like this, Trilby?” he asked, with deliberate mockery, holding her shocked eyes.
“Of all the insufferable things to say!” She stiffened and stopped dancing. No man had ever talked to her like this. She stared at him as if she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly.
“You do that so well,” he remarked cynically. “You almost convince me that I’ve shocked you.”
She was out of her depth, and disturbed. He made her feel things she didn’t want to feel. “Shock is hardly the right word. Please let me go,” she said tersely.
“Very well,” he replied, loosening his hold. “But don’t think you’ll escape me completely,” he added mockingly. “I don’t give up when something, or someone, interests me.”
The words had an ominous ring.
“I should prefer to become an object of interest to a fat sidewinder!” she returned.
Her analogy amused him. He smiled, which made it even worse. Trilby turned away and muttered to herself all the way back to her parents and Teddy.
It was one thing to be faced with a head-on accusation and reply to it. But Thorn Vance was only making nebulous innuendos, and she didn’t know how to handle them. She couldn’t imagine why he thought so badly of her.
If it had mattered, she might have pressed him for an answer. As it was, she told herself, Richard was the only man in her life. That being the case, what did Mr. Vance’s opinion matter?
After Thorn’s contempt the night before, it was doubly shocking to Trilby when he suddenly appeared at the ranch the next morning and invited her to go for a ride in the desert.
He looked as if he expected her to refuse, and his smile was mocking. “Not on a horse, Trilby,” he drawled. “I’ve brought the touring car, as you can see.”
She glanced doubtfully at the big, open car. “I don’t like automobiles,” Trilby said. “We had one back in Louisiana and our chauffeur was forever snapping bands, and having flat tires, and skidding into the ditch on muddy roads. Even the one we have now is too fast,” she added, with an accusing glance at her grinning father.
“The buckboard would be less comfortable, I assure you.”
“Do go, Trilby,” her mother said gently. “It will do you good.”
“Indeed,” Jack Lang agreed.
Trilby could hardly tell them what Thorn had said to her the night before, or accuse him publicly of treating her like a loose woman. Her pride wouldn’t let her advertise his opinion of her.
“What about Dr. McCollum? Aren’t you neglecting him?” she asked, grasping at straws.
“Craig left on the El Paso train,” he said simply. Then he simply stared at her, his mocking smile daring her to produce another excuse.
She was no coward. “All right,” she said composedly. “I’ll go with you, Mr. Vance.”
She dressed in a long blue dress with lace-up shoes and a frilly hat. Then she wrapped a shawl around her shoulders—just in case the weather changed—and went out to Thorn.
He’d certainly impressed her parents with his apparent pursuit of Trilby. And the dignified gray suit he was wearing only added to the image he was projecting of a pillar of the community. Jack and Mary were beaming at him, their approval so obvious that it was embarrassing. Only Trilby knew that whatever Thornton Vance’s intentions were, they certainly weren’t as respectable as he looked.
“I’ll have her back before dark,” he assured them. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.”
“Why, of course you will, dear boy,” Jack Lang replied, as if it were a foregone conclusion and needed no emphasis.
Trilby sat quietly while Thorn cranked the car and came back to sit beside her. Naturally, she thought bitterly, it wouldn’t take him a half hour of sweat and muttered swear words to get it running, as it had Richard when he’d taken her and Teddy out riding. She held that competence against Thorn. It was just one more thing that set him apart from most men.
She waved as they sped off down the wide dirt road that led toward the mountains. She held her hat on, glad of the windscreen that kept the thick dust out of her face. The car her father drove was missing its windscreen. Teddy had accidentally knocked a baseball through it.
“Too fast?” Thorn asked, glancing ruefully at Trilby. “I’ll slow down a bit.”
He did, lifting his booted foot from the accelerator pedal. The car chugged along, so loud that conversation was next to impossible even if he’d been a talkative sort. He glanced out at the brownish hue of the land, where the grasses were dormant in autumn. The paloverde trees that dotted the landscape were glorious. He glanced at Trilby, wondering if she knew what they were. He pulled off the main road onto a smaller dirt one that led back to a secluded box canyon. As they drove, Trilby noticed that trees became more plentiful and the mountains loomed large and ghostly.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, delighted with the wooded canyon.
He pulled over, onto the side of the road, and cut off the engine. “Do you like it?”
“Why, it’s lovely,” she exclaimed. Her wide eyes were expressive. “I had no idea there were places like this in Arizona. I thought it was all cactus and sand.”
“You’d have known sooner if you’d ever agreed to come out with your father and brother,” he chided.
“I eat enough dust in the house, thank you, without going out in search of more during roundup,” she replied.
“Dust won’t melt you, sugar plum,” he said, with faint sarcasm.
“I hardly expected that it would, and please, could you refrain from calling me pet names?”
He turned in the seat to face her, idly rolling a cigarette while he stared at her. There were only the two of them in the world, in this beautiful wild place. Trilby was intensely aware of him as a man and was fighting not to respond to him. It was very easy to remember how it had been when he’d kissed her the night before. She was much too vulnerable to him, and he had a bad opinion of her. She must remember that, somehow. Her posture straightened as she fought not to betray the tingling excitement he engendered in her.
But he saw her discomfort and understood it very well. “You’re very stiff and formal with me, Trilby. Why?”
She met his searching gaze bravely. “It isn’t me that you’re interested in, Mr. Vance,” she said shortly. “I’m not completely stupid.”
She surprised him. That didn’t often happen with women. Sally had been pretty, but not particularly intelligent. Trilby was. “Then if I’m not interested in you, what am I interested in?”
“The water on my father’s property,” she said, without backing down.
He smiled appreciatively. “Well, well. And what makes you think that?”
“You need water. You don’t have enough, and we do, and my father won’t sell or lease any to you. That’s why,” she replied. “My father doesn’t even suspect that you might be playing up to me for ulterior motives. He thinks the sun rises and sets on you. So does the rest of my family.” She glared at him. “For myself, Mr. Vance, I think you’re a shipless pirate.”
He chuckled softly. “Well, that’s honest, at least.” He stuck the rolled cigarette in his thin mouth and produced a match to light it. Pungent smoke filled the air.
“I don’t really blame you,” she said after a minute. She fumbled with her cloth drawstring purse. “I suppose water is life itself out here.”
“Indeed it is.” He took another draw from the cigarette. “Are you up to a little walking?”
“Of course,” she said, glad to escape the confined space.
He came around and opened her door, carefully helping her out. The touch of his fingers made her heart jump. She moved quickly away from him and began to walk down the road. It was so peaceful. The wind blew noisily and there was a smell, a crisp, earthy smell, in the air. Her eyes found rock formations in the hills beyond. The trees were golden and magnificent against the faint reddish yellow of the maple leaves.
“What sort of trees are those?” she asked curiously.
“The golden ones? They’re paloverde trees. They have long strands of golden blossoms in the spring, and in the autumn they go glorious. I like them better than the maples.”
“Those others are oaks, aren’t they?”
“Some of them. That—” he indicated an enormous tree with a bent trunk “—is a cottonwood. A few decades ago, people used to strip off the bark and scrape the tree for sap. It’s sweet, you see, like a confection.”
“Oh,” she cried delightedly, “how clever!”
“And those are willows,” he added, gesturing toward a stand of sapling-type trees along the banks of the stream.
She looked around suddenly. “Is it safe here?” she asked quickly. “I mean, are there Indians near here?”
He smiled. “Plenty of them. Mostly Mescalero and Mimbrenos Apaches. There used to be a wealth of Chiricahuas, but when Geronimo was captured, the government shipped his whole band back East to Florida and kept them in a fort on the bay at St. Augustine for a long time. They finally moved them back out to New Mexico. Geronimo killed a lot of white people, but then, the white people killed a lot of Apaches, too. Gen. George Crook finally got him to surrender. Quite a fellow, old Nantan Lupan.”
“Grey Wolf. It’s what the Apaches called Crook. They respected him. When he gave his word, he kept it. Odd for a white man. He did all he could to help the Apaches for the rest of his life, after Geronimo’s surrender. Geronimo died February of last year.”
“I didn’t know that.”
He glanced at her. “You Easterners don’t know much about Indians, do you? Apaches are interesting. They called the old Chiricahua chief Cochise, but his Apache name was Cheis. It means oak. God only knows how it got altered to Cochise. He was a wily old devil, smart as a fox. He led the U.S. Cavalry on a merry chase until the peace came. But Geronimo refused to give up and live at the white man’s mercy on a reservation. There were times, not so long ago, when just the name Apache could make a grown man tremble out here.”
She kept quiet, waiting for him to go on. She was fascinated with his knowledge of the Indians.
He smiled, sensing her interest. That pleased him. “Indians are not ignorant. I have two Apache men who work for me. One of them is Chiricahua. And he is,” he added dryly, “hardly the Eastern image of an Indian. You’ll see what I mean when you meet him. His name is Naki.”
“What does it mean?” she asked curiously.
“He’s actually called Two Fists, but Apache has glottal stops and nasalizations and high tones…I can’t pronounce his second name. Naki means ‘two.’”
“Are you…do you have any Indian blood?”
He shook his head. “My grandmother was a pretty little Spanish lady. They had a little girl. My grandfather got tired of the responsibility and deserted her.” He let that slip. He’d never told anyone else.
“Didn’t he love her enough to stay?”
He grew stiff. “Apparently not. My grandmother starved to death. If it hadn’t been for my great-uncle, the one who owned Los Santos, my mother would have starved, too. She and my father inherited Los Santos when my great-uncle died. I was eighteen when Mexicans raided up here and killed them.”
“Did you have brothers or sisters?”
“I was one of three kids; I had two sisters,” he said. “They both died of cholera.”
“I was just a kid at the time. I don’t remember much about them.” He smoked his cigarette as they walked, his head high. He walked without stooping, his posture perfect, like his clothing. For a cowboy, he wore the suit very well.
“You said your grandmother was Spanish…”
“And you wonder why Mexicans attacked her daughter and son-in-law,” he guessed.
“Don’t you know yet that most Mexicans hate the Spanish? It’s one of the reasons they’re fighting now. They’ve had Spanish domination since Cortés. They’ve had enough,” he replied simply. “But the people who killed my parents weren’t revolutionaries. They were just bandits.”
“I’m sorry. About your parents, I mean.”
“So was I.”
There was a wealth of pain in the words, and she remembered reluctantly how his expression had told her he dealt with the murderers. She turned her attention to the ground, looking at the sandy soil. “Does much grow out here?” she asked idly.
“The Hohokam, the Indian people who once inhabited this land before the time of Christ, were an agricultural people. They learned to grow corn in clumps, and to irrigate the land. They had a system of government and a religion that was far ahead of their time. They may have existed as a culture for thousands of years.”
She stared at him with renewed respect. “How do you know all that?”
He chuckled. “McCollum,” he said simply. “It pays to have an anthropology professor for a friend. He’s very good at his job. He stays with me when he’s exploring ruins in the area. He comes several times a year when he’s teaching.”
“I like him. I didn’t realize he was an educator,” she said.
“Yes. He teaches anthropology and archaeology at one of the big colleges up North.”
“It must be interesting. Do you go with him when he looks for ruins?”
“When time allows.” He shoved one hand in the pocket of his slacks and slanted a look down at her from under the wide brim of his hat. “Do you like archaeology?”
“I know very little about it,” she admitted. “But it’s interesting, isn’t it?”
“Very.” He put out a lean, tanned hand suddenly and stopped her in her tracks. “Be still a minute. Don’t talk. Look there.” He pointed toward the bushes, and she felt her heart racing. Was it a rattlesnake? She wanted to run, but just as her feet got the message from her brain, a funny, long brown bird went scampering from under the bush to dart across the road.
She laughed. “What is it?” she exclaimed.
“A roadrunner,” he told her. “They hunt and kill snakes.”
“Well, bully for him.” She chuckled.
“Snakes are beneficial, you silly child,” he chided. “Bull snakes and rat snakes and black snakes don’t hurt anything. They eat rats and mice. And a king snake will kill and eat a rattler.”
“I don’t want to look at one long enough to identify it,” she informed him.
He shook his head. “Come on.”
He led her off the trail eventually, and into a shady area where a stream cut through the forest floor. Huge, smooth boulders ran up from the stream toward the mountains.
“This is an old Apache camp,” he told her. “It isn’t on the reservation, of course, but they still come here sometimes. Naki likes to camp here when he’s rounding up strays. He’s marvelous with horses.”
“Does he wear war paint and headdresses?” she asked innocently.
He glared at her. “He’s Apache,” he said. “Apaches don’t wear feathered headdresses like the Plains Indians. They wear a colored cloth band around their foreheads and wear their hair shoulder length. They don’t live in tepees like the Plains Indians, either. They live in a sort of round or oblong lodge called a wickiup.”
“Do people out here hate the Indians?” she asked.
“Some do. There have been times when we were allies with them, and even with the Mexicans, to fight off the Comanches when they tried to come south and conquer us.”
“And the Confederate flag flew over Tucson once, during the Civil War,” he said, chuckling at her. “A lot of Southerners settled out here in Arizona. You should feel right at home.”
“I wish I did,” she replied quietly, and meant it. She stared down at the soil. “There aren’t any cacti right here.”
“Plenty out on the desert, mostly saguaro,” he told her, “and organ pipe. Those saguaro are huge and heavy. They have a sort of woody skeleton inside. One can kill a man if it falls on him.”
“What are the tall, thin ones?”
“Ocotillo,” he said. “Mexicans use it to build thorny fences.”
“We have prickly pear cactus in Louisiana,” she said.
“Not in Baton Rouge,” she said, grinning.
He stopped walking and turned to look at her. “Do you speak any French?”
“Just a little,” she said. “Mama is fluent.” She searched his dark eyes. “Do you?”
“I speak Spanish fluently,” he said. “And a smattering of German.”
He didn’t look away, and neither did she. For moments that stretched with sweet tension, he looked down at her. Her lips parted as her heart began to race. He had the most decadent effect on her, she thought.
His dark eyes dropped, as no gentleman’s would, to her bosom. She caught her breath.
“Limits,” he murmured. “You Eastern women can’t live without them. Out here, a man sees something he wants and he just takes it.”
“Including women?” she asked huskily.
“It depends on the woman,” he replied. “My wife was like you, Trilby,” he added bitterly. “A hothouse orchid transplanted into hot, sandy soil. She hated it, hated me. She should never have married me. She wouldn’t have,” he added, with a cynical smile, “but she did like my money.”
The thought irritated him. He didn’t like remembering Sally. Trilby brought it all back.
“You…loved her?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said harshly. “I loved her. But she wanted poetry and roses every morning and maids to wait on her. She wanted a gentleman to escort her to social functions. She hated my roughness, hated the loneliness. She grew to hate me. Everything about me,” he added, averting his eyes. “I don’t need telling that I’m a savage. Sally told me twice a day.”
Incredible that she should pity him, she thought, watching his rigid features grow even harder. How terrible, to love someone who hated you…
He looked down and caught her compassionate stare. It made him furious that she should feel sorry for him. It made him more furious that he’d begun to like her, to enjoy her company. She was a tramp, and he was letting himself be drawn into her sticky web. He was a fool!
He threw the cigarette down in the dirt and reached for her.
“I don’t need your pity,” he said curtly, staring at her mouth. “Not when you’re more contemptible than I’ll ever be!”
His mouth bit into hers, twisting, hurting her. She gasped and tried to fight him, but he was much too strong. His arms were like vises, his mouth tasting of tobacco and pure man. He used his body like a weapon to humiliate her. His lean hands slid quickly to her hips and ground them against his thighs.
The intimacy was staggering to a woman who’d barely been kissed before. Her body seemed to flush all over at the shock of feeling the changed contours of his body against her stomach. She cried out, furiously outraged and embarrassed by the unspeakable liberties he was taking, beating at him with her fists and trying to kick him.
Surprised at her show of fury, he let her go. She stood glaring at him with a red face, her hair escaping from its tidy bun, her gray eyes blazing. She reached up and struck him across the mouth as hard as she could.
“You savage!” she cried, shaking all over. “I knew…you were…no gentleman!” she raged.
“And you’re no lady, you Louisiana tramp,” he said, without flinching from the blow. His eyes were like death as he looked at her. “If I were a little less civilized than I am, I’d throw you down in the dusty road and ravish you where you lay.”
Her face went even redder. Her mouth trembled, tears formed in her eyes at the blatant insult. To think that dear, courtly Richard had never done more than touch her hand, and this savage had—had…
“You lay one hand…on me…and I’ll hit you with a tree limb! How…dare you?” she choked, almost sobbing with rage. “I shall…tell my father!”
“Do that,” he replied calmly, “and I’ll tell him about the affair you’re having with my married cousin!”
She stared at him as if he’d gone mad. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s too late to lie about it,” he told her, his voice cold with contempt. “Sally saw you and Curt kissing each other. She told me, several weeks before she died.”
Her face went from red to deathly white. She faltered and almost fell. His hand shot out to steady her, but she threw it off, hating him.
“That is a lie,” she whispered, shaking. “It is a vicious, unfounded lie!”
“Why would my wife lie to me?” he drawled. “And she’s dead now. How convenient for you. She can hardly contradict you, can she?”
She swallowed, and then swallowed again. She thought she might faint. She knew there wasn’t a drop of blood in her face. His expression told her that arguing with him wasn’t going to change his mind. He’d decided that his wife’s lie was gospel. Nothing she said was going to convince him that she’d done no more than talk to his cousin Curt.
She lifted her hobble skirt with trembling cold hands and started unsteadily back toward the car.
He followed her, opening her door with overblown courtesy.
She didn’t look at him as she got in. She couldn’t bear to. She sat like a statue as he cranked the car and turned it back toward home.
It wasn’t until he pulled up in her front yard that he spoke again. “There’s no use playing the martyr with me,” he said carelessly. “I know what you are.”
“If I were a man, I would shoot you through the heart,” she said, choking. She was shaking with outrage and temper. “When I tell my father what you’ve accused me of, he probably will shoot you! I hope he does!”
He raised both eyebrows. “You can’t possibly mean to actually confess to him?” he asked insolently. “You’ll destroy his illusions.”
She controlled her urge to slap him again, but barely. “Mr. Vance,” she said, with cold indignation, “in order to conduct a clandestine relationship with your cousin, I should be obliged to leave the house after dark.”
“That would be no problem. You have an automobile,” he reminded her.
“I can neither drive nor ride a horse,” she said stiffly.
He hesitated. “Then someone could have driven you.”
She nodded. “Oh, of course. My parents would understand that I wanted to leave the house at night, alone, something I’ve never done in my life!”
She was blowing holes in his theory. He frowned. He didn’t like the cold facts she was putting to him.
“The incident Sally told me about was at a party that your parents attended,” he said, averting his eyes with growing unease.
“I see. I’ve been prejudged, without even the chance to defend myself.” She stared straight ahead, shivering as a distasteful thought came to her. Her hands gripped her purse. “I suppose…your wife didn’t confine her confession to you.”
“She told Lou, Curt’s wife,” he replied.
Her eyes closed. So that explained why Curt’s wife had been glaring at her so furiously. Probably the vicious gossip had gone the rounds of the entire community. And all because she’d liked Curt and enjoyed talking to him. It had been perfectly innocent.
“Why don’t you ask your cousin if I’ve been having an affair with him?” she asked weakly.
“And have him lie to save your good name?” He laughed. “That would be intelligent, wouldn’t it?”
“Mr. Vance, I should never think to accuse you of any intelligent act,” she said in a harsh tone. “As for your disgusting slander, it is unfounded and grossly unfair. Yes, I shall tell my parents.” She turned and looked at him fully. “The truth is the best weapon I know. And you, sir, will live to regret having accepted a lie without question—even from your late wife.”
Her indignation registered then, and later. She got out of the car, avoiding his assistance, and marched toward the house. He went after her.
Her parents and Teddy were not inside, so there was no necessity for him to explain Trilby’s hostility. Trilby went straight into her bedroom and slammed and locked the door with an audible click, without a single word to Thorn.
He stood outside the closed door and his tall body went rigid. Why had she acted as if he’d done something unspeakable to her, when he was only telling the truth?
“Oh, damn women!” he cursed violently, and went back out the door.
When Jack and Mary came back, Trilby had just bathed her face and hands in cold water. But her eyes were obviously red, and so was her pert nose.
“Why, my dear,” Mary exclaimed, “what’s happened?”
“Your hero has shown his true colors,” Trilby told her father, with trembling dignity. “His wife told him that she saw me kissing his married cousin Curt. He believes that I am involved in a clandestine affair with the man.”
Mary gasped. Jack’s face went hard with contained rage. “How dare he!” he raged. “How dare he make such an accusation to you!”
“I do not want to see Mr. Vance again,” she said pointedly, folding her hands tightly in front of her. “I told you from the beginning that I considered him an uncivilized savage. Perhaps now you’ll understand why.”
“I’m shocked,” Mary said heavily. She took Trilby’s hand and tugged her into the living room, to pull her down gently on the sofa. “Thank goodness Teddy is still mending harnesses with Mr. Torrance. I would hate for him to hear this.”
“Yes,” Jack said, his voice curt. “He idolizes Thorn.”
“Mr. Vance is a good businessman,” Trilby said, choking. “He’s very wealthy and you cannot afford to antagonize him. But now, will you both please stop pushing me at him? He believed that I am—that I am a woman of easy virtue, and when he was alone with me, he behaved in a very…ungentlemanly fashion.” She gripped her hands tightly together. It was painful to have to say these things to her parents. “I do not wish to be forced into his company again.”
“And certainly you will not be!” Mary said shortly, daring her husband to argue.
“Indeed not,” Jack murmured. He sighed heavily and ran a hand through his gray-sprinkled hair. “Trilby, I misjudged the man. I’m very sorry.”
“So am I, Father, because you admire him.”
“How can he believe such a thing of you?” Mary groaned. “And why did his wife tell such an obvious lie? It makes no sense.”
“It makes a great deal of sense if she told the lie to avert suspicion from herself,” Jack said tautly. “That’s something we can never repeat outside this house,” he cautioned the women. “I do not want an action for slander against us when we’re already in financial woe.”
“I don’t want to make any trouble for Mr. Vance,” Trilby said, with dignity. “I only want him kept away from me.”
“You can be certain of that,” Jack assured her. “If any business crops up that requires his presence here, I’ll give you ample warning, my dear. I’m very sorry to have placed you in such an awkward position.”
“You weren’t to know how he dislikes me,” she told her father bitterly. “Oh, I do wish we’d never left Louisiana! Richard will be home soon…”
“And you want to see him?” Mary said. She smiled and patted Trilby’s hand. “Well, he can come out to us for a visit. Would you like that? He can stay as long as he likes.”
“Do you mean it?” Trilby asked enthusiastically. “Truly?”
“Truly.” Mary laughed and hugged her daughter. “It will make a nice change to have young male company in the house.”
“Could he bring Sissy and Ben with him?” she asked, mentioning his sister and brother. “And perhaps his cousin Julie?”
“Justaminute.” Jack laughed. “How am I to feed these pilgrims?”
“We can butcher a steer, of course,” Mary replied. “And there are plenty of vegetables.”
“I give up. Go ahead, have him out.”
“You’re a dear, Father,” Trilby said, her harsh experience of the morning already forgotten in the joy of having her heart’s dearest wish granted. She would see Richard again! It was almost worth the anguish of the day.
Trilby sent a letter to Richard’s sister, Sissy Bates, inviting the four of them out to the ranch. Then she went home with her father and went on with her everyday chores while the days passed and she waited impatiently for a reply.
Thorn Vance had been pushed firmly to the back of her mind. She no longer cared about his opinion, and her father had called on Curt and Lou Vance the day after Thorn’s insulting behavior toward his daughter.
He came home furious. He and Lou had exchanged harsh words until Curt came in and asked what the fuss was about. When Jack told the man what Thorn had said, Curt was appalled.
Although to Jack, Curt had looked frankly guilty, he had denied immediately any involvement whatsoever with Trilby. He apologized for his cousin Thorn’s suspicions and for any embarrassment Trilby might have suffered. He gave his wife a vicious tongue-lashing and promised to speak to his cousin and correct the undeserved blemish on Trilby’s name with anyone who might have been misled by the gossip. Jack left somewhat placated but still seething about the insult to his daughter’s good name. It was beyond him why a man like Thorn Vance should have so easily accepted Trilby’s guilt. Most men, himself included, had instincts about women. Trilby kept close to home and she was never blatant in her dress or speech. Of all the things he prized, his good name and that of his family was his greatest treasure. He hoped that the damage could be corrected. In Baton Rouge, no one who knew the Lang family would ever question the good name of his daughter or his wife. But here in Arizona, that was not the case.
Trilby had worried herself sick about public opinion. She wasn’t a coward, but Blackwater Springs was a small community. Doors closed when malicious gossip got around. She hated the gossip much more for her mother’s sake than for her own. She didn’t know how they could face their neighbors ever again.
They had to, however. Jack Lang insisted on taking his family to church the following Sunday. He set them down in a prominent pew, glancing around as if ready to do battle on his daughter’s behalf. Hiding at home, he told his family, was more or less tantamount to admitting guilt. Since Trilby had nothing to be guilty about, there was no reason not to let the neighbors see them holding their heads up.
It wasn’t until after the ceremony that two of the more socially prominent matrons came forward to pass the time of day with the Lang family. One of them mentioned that some malicious gossip about Trilby had been scotched by Curt Vance himself. They were certain that his wife had been instrumental in spreading it.
Trilby was somewhat placated. She noticed that Thorn Vance wasn’t among the worshipers. No, Mr. Vance didn’t come to church since his wife’s death, one of the women offered. Pity, too, she added, when his little girl could certainly use the benefit of the gospel.
Trilby murmured suitably. But she was relieved that Curt had apparently made an attempt to put an end to the nasty gossip. She only hoped it would stop. She was certain that she’d never forgive Thorn Vance as long as she lived for what he’d said and done to her.
Days went by without Thorn stopping by, and she actually began to relax and try to put the incident into perspective. Best of all, a cable arrived from Louisiana. Richard and his brother and sister and cousin would leave the following week for Blackwater Springs. Trilby let out a whoop that could be heard halfway down the block and danced a jig on the way back to the runabout.
“Good news, I assume?” Her father chuckled.
“Yes! Oh, Father, he’s coming, he’s actually coming!”
“It’s good to see you smile again, daughter,” he said gently. He pressed her hand warmly. “It will be worth the trouble to have you happy.”
“I can hardly wait!”
“I am not surprised.”
He drove her back home. There was a celebration that night for Trilby’s good fortune. Then, just as they began to prepare for bed, loud gunshots echoed through the desert, accompanied by the sound of bellowing, stampeding cattle.
Jack and Teddy rushed into their clothing and out onto the front porch. Old Mosby Torrance was already there, tall and stiff-necked, his watery blue eyes blazing out of a face like honed leather.
“Ten of them,” he panted, having run from the bunkhouse. “Vasquez and Moreno saw them. Mexicans, they think, after the cattle.”
“We’ll give chase,” Jack said coldly. “I’ll have Mary fetch some rations. Roust the men and I’ll break out some extra ammunition for the rifles.”
“No sooner said than done, boss. I’ll get my Winchester—”
“Oh, not you, Torrance,” Jack said abruptly, staring at him as if he thought the old Texas Ranger was off his bean. “No, you have to look after the women. You, too, Teddy,” he told his son, who looked shocked. “This isn’t a job for either of you. I’ll get my guns.”
Torrance looked violent. Teddy moved forward. “It’s okay, Mr. Torrance,” he said miserably. “I guess we’re both out of it.”
The old man swallowed. “Damnedest thing about getting old, boy,” he said huskily, “is that everybody thinks you’re no account anymore.”
“I think you’re magnificent, sir!”
Torrance felt the sting go out of Jack’s words as he looked down into the hero-worshiping face of the youngster. He had a son of his own somewhere. But his wife had died of pneumonia one winter while he was out chasing outlaws; he didn’t know where the boy had been sent. By the time he got home, it was all over and his only child had vanished without a trace. He’d searched, but to no avail. He looked at Teddy and hoped that his child was as sturdy and brave as this one.
“Can you shoot?” he asked Teddy.
“I sure can,” Teddy replied. He grimaced as he glanced after his father. “He doesn’t think so, though. Gosh, Mr. Torrance, nobody thinks we’re any good for a fight, do they?”
“I reckon not. Well, I’ll go get my gun anyway, in case they make a play for the house. You can help me keep watch outside.” He glared toward the hall. “I don’t guess he’ll mind that.”
“Not if we don’t tell him,” Teddy said, and grinned conspiratorially.
Torrance chuckled. Teddy really was one hell of a boy.
He went back to the bunkhouse and took out his nickleplated, mother-of-pearl-handled .44 Colt revolver. The gun had been in a lot of battles with him over the years. It was still a respectable weapon, despite the .45 that most everyone carried these days. Like himself, the gun was out of place in a century that boasted machines that went as fast as a horse on the land and in the air. He was like a prehistoric man, he sometimes thought. Someone who’d lost the world he belonged in, and who couldn’t quite fit into the new one.
It was a different story just after the Civil War when he became a Texas Ranger and wrote his own history as he went. Along with men like Bigfoot Wallace, he was a legend among Texas peacemakers. He’d backed down outlaws and gunfighters; he’d once backed down a whole damned lynch mob after a prisoner. But none of that was known out here, and nobody cared what he’d been fifty years ago.
Maybe he should be grateful that he even had a job, he supposed. Not that Jack Lang had had much choice about hiring him. He was foreman until Lang had inherited the place. Now he was the cattle foreman. Lang was his own boss.
He stuck the gun in its gunbelt and picked up his Remington, checking the action before he strode back out the door. He was tall and lithe. Except for his white hair, he looked much the same as he had when he was in his thirties, his step sure and firm on the wooden floor of the porch, his carriage erect and proud. What a hell of a shame, he thought, with faint amusement, that a man had to go and get old. There had been a time when he was sure he was going to be young forever.
Jack Lang came out the door buckling on his gun belt with fingers that just barely managed it. He was dressed in an exaggerated Western style, with woolly shotgun chaps and leather wristbands, new boots with heavy rowels on the spurs, and a pair of pearl-handled six-guns that looked like something out of a dime novel.
The Easterner always dressed like that when they went out to hunt rustlers. They never found any, because Lang didn’t trust the Apache boy who scouted for them, and he didn’t believe that anyone could track a man through a stream.
Torrance shook his head. Somebody ought to tell that dude that woolly shotgun chaps were suited to Northern winters and were worn by Montana and Wyoming cowboys, not Arizona ones. Those heavy rowels were Mexican—no self-respecting, civilized man would think of using them on his horse. The pistols were pretty, but they’d never been fired. And those wristbands would come in handy for a roper, but Jack Lang couldn’t throw a rope.
Torrance kept his thoughts to himself, though, and just nodded when the boss told him to watch the women. He could track as well as that Mexican, Vasquez, whom Lang had given scouting chores to. Better. And he could still outshoot any one of Lang’s other cowboys. He knew Mexicans because he’d trailed so many of them in his Ranger days. But Lang would never know that, because he didn’t think a man Torrance’s age was fit for cowboy work.
He sighed more wistfully than he knew when the outfit rode off without him. Teddy came to stand beside him.
“It’s all right, Mr. Torrance,” Teddy said. “I know that you could do a better job of it than any one of Dad’s men. Even if he doesn’t.”
Torrance looked down at him with pure delight. “You’re a wonder, Teddy.”
“So are you, Mr. Torrance.”
Inside, Trilby watched the men ride away and worried. One of the hands had mentioned going by Los Santos to pick up Thorn Vance. Her father had argued with the man, and Trilby knew why he didn’t want Thorn involved. But then she’d heard the telephone being rung, and her father muttering because it took the operator so long to wake up and put his call through.
He had the operator ring Los Santos and presumably spoke to Thorn, quite curtly. There was a pause, and her father muttered his agreement to stop by Los Santos on his way after the bandits. She hoped Thorn wouldn’t lead her vulnerable father into any gunplay. Jack Lang posed very well, but he knew next to nothing about violent men….
When the makeshift posse got to Los Santos, Thorn was already waiting for them. His rifle was in its sheath and he was wearing a sidearm, a black-handled Colt .45 that had belonged to his great-uncle.
He’d had to browbeat Jack Lang into letting him join the party. The Easterner had been hell-bent on going alone with his few men, and Thorn had a sudden mental image of the older man lying dead in the Arizona dust.
His conscience had burned him raw over his assumptions about Trilby. He’d done enough damage to her reputation that he hadn’t felt right about going back over to the Lang place. He knew Jack and the rest of the family despised him for what he’d said to Trilby, although, miraculously, she seemed not to have told anyone what really happened during that ride on the desert. It was better than he deserved, he admitted. Now at least he could help keep her father alive. Perhaps that would atone a little for his actions.
Samantha had been asleep, and he hadn’t woken her. The child was so withdrawn and quiet lately that he worried about her. She was thin and pale as well, not a healthy child in any way. He wished that his emotions weren’t locked in steel so that he could communicate with her on some level. But since Sally’s death, Samantha had drawn into her own mind. He didn’t know how to reach her anymore.
He watched Jack Lang ride up, his expression preoccupied.
Jack, in turn, studied the Westerner, feeling suddenly overdressed and out of place. Thorn looked grim, Jack thought, and even under the circumstances, he was able to appreciate how very Western and dangerous the other man looked in his jeans and blue-checked Western shirt and red bandanna. He had on wristbands, as Jack did, but Vance’s were scarred and worn dark with age. His boots had small rowels on the spurs and he was wearing wide, bat-wing leather chaps. His hat wasn’t a new one like Jack’s. It was weather-beaten and warped, but it suited him somehow. A rope was looped over his saddle horn and he was carrying the usual saddle roll that most of his men’s gear sported. A colorful Mexican poncho was thrown over one broad shoulder and he was smoking a cigarette with lazy disinterest. For a man going to war, he looked magnificently unaffected.
Jack had to bite back angry words. He hadn’t really spoken to Thorn since his conversation with Curt Vance. It was difficult to have to deal with a man who’d been instrumental in very nearly ruining his daughter’s reputation.
“Ready to go?” Thorn drawled when Jack reached him. “I can add ten men to the party.”
“I’m sure we have enough,” Jack replied stiffly. “I brought six.”
Six men, plus himself and Vance, to hunt down a party of bandits. Thorn could have chuckled at the man’s innocence. The Mexican revolutionaries probably boasted fifty men. Fighting across the border was growing stronger by the day as the resistance to Díaz’s rule mounted. Several different small bands of insurrectionists were raiding local stock from the northern Sonoran province of Mexico—and they weren’t averse to taking local cattle over the border to sell as well as feed hungry men. Of course, they didn’t exactly pay for the local cattle they took. Things in Mexico were definitely building to war, Thorn thought privately, and he was worried more by the day about the grim possibility of American intervention if fighting migrated over the border. Intervention would mean war with Mexico, and no one wanted that.
“I’d feel more comfortable with my men along,” Thorn said. He looked straight at Jack as he spoke and he didn’t blink. The look was as vivid as a curse.
“As you wish, of course,” Jack said austerely. He hadn’t mentioned Trilby, and neither had Thorn. But both men were having trouble acting naturally.
Thorn had heard about Jack’s visit to his cousin and what had been said. He and Curt had argued for the first time in memory. But at last, Curl had convinced him that his shadowy paramour was not Trilby. The revelation had left Thorn confused and brutally ashamed. He’d savaged Trilby, all because Sally had accused her. But why had Sally lied? That was the only piece of the puzzle he couldn’t fit in.
However, there was no time for it now. Thorn put his hand to his mouth and let out a fierce, piercing whistle. Immediately ten mounted men rode out and joined the small party.
They looked a lot like their boss, Jack thought. Most of them wore weather-beaten clothing and they were armed to the teeth. One or two of them looked absolutely roguish. There were two Apaches in the group; one short, aging one and another who was tall and well built with oddly intelligent black eyes. He looked positively grim.
“You’re not taking the Indians?” Jack asked under his breath.
Thorn mentally counted to ten. “Naki and Tiza are my trackers,” he told Lang. “The best in my outfit. I can’t even find the signs they can.”
“Look here, I don’t trust Indians,” Jack snapped. “The stories I’ve heard about them…”
“I don’t imagine you’ve heard that in the old days some whites kept the Apaches as slaves?” he asked quietly. “Or that soldiers often attacked Indian villages and killed women and children?”
Lang cleared his throat. “Well…”
“I’ll vouch for my men. All of my men,” Thorn said quietly. “Let’s ride.”
“Yes, of course.” Jack raised his arm and motioned for his men to follow. He tried to fall in alongside Vance, but the man put his spurs gently to his horse’s flank and went like the wind. Jack Lang knew for a fact that he couldn’t have managed to even stay on the horse at the speed Vance was going. He fell back, riding with his own group as Vance and his men outdistanced them. Jack refused to let himself ask who was leading the party. It was apparent that Vance was.
Despite the faint color breaking over the mountains, it was mostly dark. But the Apaches dismounted from time to time and stared around at things like boulders and stony ground. Lang was certain no man could track over rock, but the Apaches were able to. They led the men across the broad, white river that separated Jack’s land from Vance’s, and off to the west of Douglas.
“Vance, this is near the border. Damned near the border,” Jack said, voicing his concern. “We can’t go over into Mexico without permission.”
Thorn leaned his wrists over his pommel and gazed at Jack Lang. “Listen, there’s no question that the raiders have crossed the border. We only needed to know where, not if. They’ll be down below Agua Prieta, and we can find them if we’re quick. If we wait until we get permission, you’ll lose half your herd. Besides that, we can’t risk the army coming down here after us.”
“But, man, if we’re caught…”
“We won’t be.” He signaled to his men and rode forward at a quick clip.
Jack hesitated, but in a minute, he followed.
They trailed the Mexicans to a valley just below the San Bernadino Valley, careful to keep plenty of distance between them and the U.S. Army troops that were bivouacked there along the border. The bandits were so confident that they’d settled down to a nice, leisurely breakfast with one of Jack Lang’s steers being butchered as the main course.
There were only six of them. That convinced Thorn that they were only renegades, not part of any Maderista forces. These men were acting on their own, he was pretty sure, but they didn’t look quite smart enough to be acting without guidance. He wanted to know whom they were working for.
He signaled to his men, forgetting that it was Jack Lang’s party, and rode into the camp, unfurling his lasso at the same time. He threw a loop over the man who looked like the leader and jerked him down. The others had drawn their weapons, but finding themselves outnumbered and outgunned, they quickly threw up their hands, crying out in garbled Spanish.
A rapid monologue of Spanish exploded from Thorn, who stepped gracefully out of the saddle to hog-tie the leader. But as he began to question the man, one of the Apaches, the tall one, approached him and, with a cold look at Jack Lang, began to speak in his own tongue.
“We’re not alone here.”
“Speak English,” Thorn snapped.
“Not in front of him,” Naki replied, indicating Jack Lang. “I’ve heard what he’s been saying. If he insults me once more I’ll tie him bare-legged to a cactus. You tell him that,” he added, with a cold scowl in Jack Lang’s direction that made the older man look uncomfortable.
“Will you tell me what you found out?”
“When you tell this stage cowboy that he’s headed for a stake and some firewood, I will.”
Thorn glared at him. “It was the Iroquois in the Northeast, not the Apaches, who burned people at the stake!”
Naki glowered as he eyed Jack. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, very well! There are about a hundred Federales headed this way.”
“Why didn’t you say so?!” He turned in the saddle. “Federales,” Thorn said sharply. “We’ll have to clear out. Get those cattle moving!” he called to his men.
They fired into the air to stampede the milling cattle, and Thorn quickly threw his roped quarry across his own saddle before he mounted and lit out for the border.
“Don’t spare the horses!” he called to Jack Lang. “We can’t let ourselves be caught on this side of the border!”
“As I said myself before we sashayed down here,” Jack muttered to himself, but not so that Thorn could hear him.
They made it across the border just minutes ahead of the Mexican soldiers, cattle and all. In the ensuing rout, all but the Mexican thrown across Vance’s saddle managed to escape while the cowboys tried to salvage the cattle. They did lose a few head in the process, but not enough to make any great difference in Jack Lang’s fortunes.
With Thorn in the lead, they rode hell-for-leather for Blackwater Springs Ranch. Trilby heard them come up and ran to the window. Jack Lang and Thorn were just riding up to the front of the house. She was so relieved to see her father that she instinctively ran out onto the porch.
Thorn saw her just as he tossed the trussed Mexican to the ground and loosened his rope, leaving the freed man lying there. He looked utterly ruthless as he turned to her.
“Get in the house and stay there,” he said, with icy command.
She began to disobey just as the Mexican looked at her and laughed. He said something in Spanish to Thorn.
It was obviously something insulting, and about her, because Thorn went for him on the spot. The Mexican pulled a knife, which Thorn was too furious to notice. But Naki saw it. As the smaller man raised it to strike, Naki’s hand flashed down to the big hunting knife he carried in a sheath on his belt. He whipped it out and flung it, handle first, with frightening speed and accuracy, knocking the Mexican’s knife right out of his hand.
“I say!” Jack Lang exclaimed from where he was sitting beside Naki.
The Apache slipped out of the saddle gracefully and retrieved his knife. Thorn and the Mexican were mixing it up roughly now, knocking each other about with little care for which bystanders they knocked over.
“Heathen savages,” Naki remarked as he swung back into his saddle.
Jack Lang stared at him incredulously, diverted from the fight.
“That!” Naki emphasized, waving one arm toward Thorn. “God in heaven, man, don’t you even care that they’re in danger of bashing each other’s brains out? I thought you white people were civilized!” He managed to sound disgusted and superior.
“You speak English!” Jack gasped.
“Yes, but it leaves a foul taste in my mouth. Mixed metaphors, double negatives, alliteration…”
He turned his horse and rode off, still muttering to himself. He could barely contain his laughter as Jack Lang sat with his mouth open, gaping after him.
Thorn and the Mexican were drenched in sweat and covered with dust and blood. Thorn was tall, but the Mexican was broader, and his pride had been damaged by the indignity of his treatment.
But Thorn eventually beat him into a dazed submission and, dragging him up, began to question him in curt Spanish. The man answered reluctantly, but he did finally answer. Thorn let him go with a shove.
“Give him a horse,” he told Jack Lang. “I’ll reimburse you.”
“We’re letting him go?” Jack gasped. “But he should be arrested, tried for his crime!”
“I said, let him go,” Thorn told the older man in a way that defied protest.
Jack motioned to one of his men and sent him after a suitable mount. Trilby had gone back into the house at the beginning of the unpleasantness, but she was hopelessly drawn to the window as she heard the sickening thuds abate. What she saw made her run for the back porch, where she was violently sick.
While she was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping hot, sweet tea to calm her nerves, Thorn came in with her father. He was bare-headed, his face cut and badly bleeding, like his knuckles.
“Can you do something for Vance, Trilby?” her father asked curtly. “Your mother is in the bedroom and she won’t come out.”
Trilby didn’t blame her. “Of course,” she said, bucking up. She could hardly contain her nausea. The smell of blood was overwhelming. She got a pan and went to the sink, adding a clean cloth to the water she pumped into it. She sat down at the table beside a weary Thorn and slowly began to clean his cuts. She didn’t look into his eyes. In fact, he didn’t lift them; he acted oddly subdued. Perhaps, she thought bitterly, he was in pain. She had to fight the urge to leave the room and let him stay that way, but her soft heart outweighed her outrage for the moment.
“I don’t understand why you wanted the Mexican turned loose,” Jack said irritably.
“Keeping him would cause his men to come after him,” Thorn explained, wincing when Trilby wiped his cut cheek. “Some Mexicans are like Apaches when they want revenge.”
Jack was beginning to get the picture. “I see.”
“I doubt it, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. They make a habit of raiding north of the border for cattle and selling them to a big landowner in the southern province of Sonora. I told them if I caught them on this side of the border again, I’d have a little talk with their benefactor. I don’t think we’ll see them again anytime soon. But there are other raiders. This isn’t the end of it.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.” He grimaced as he saw Thorn’s face. The man had helped him, despite the damage he’d done. “You look terrible.”
“Fighting isn’t pretty. Is it, Trilby?” he asked her, with a glint in his dark eyes as he suddenly looked up, full at her.
She averted her eyes. “No.” She had to choke the word out. “What did he say that made you attack him?”
“I’ll never tell you that,” he said solemnly. “He did it to provoke me, hoping he could catch me off-guard and put that knife into my belly.”
“Your Indian friend,” Jack said uneasily. “He’s not what I expected.”
“He’s not what anyone expects,” Thorn replied. “Thank God for his skill with a knife. I’d have been gutted but for him.”
“How fortunate for you that you weren’t,” Trilby said. Her eyes looked into his. “Am I to understand that you were actually defending me?” she asked, with quiet hauteur.
He caught his temper as it started to flare. When he spoke, his deep voice was soft. “Yes. No murderous bandit should be allowed to talk that way about a decent woman,” he said shortly.
She dipped the bloodstained cloth back in the water, noticing how pinkish the once clear water had become. She lifted it back to Thorn’s face. “But then, I’m not a decent woman, according to you,” she replied bitterly.
He caught her wrist tightly. His eyes were frankly apologetic. “Curt told me the truth. I’m sorry. More sorry than you realize.”
“Don’t ruin your image, Mr. Vance,” she said as she tugged her hand out of his grasp and continued her ministrations. “I hardly think apologies are part of your repertoire.”
Her father was hovering nearby. Thorn wished him in Montezuma. He needed to see Trilby alone, to see if he could mend the distance he’d put between them. She acted as if she despised him and he’d given her good reason. Even a blind man should have realized that her innocence was no pretense.
“Your man, the Apache,” Jack persisted. “He speaks English.”
“Does he, really?” Thorn asked, managing to look surprised.
Jack cleared his throat and walked out.
His absence gave Thorn the opportunity he’d wanted to patch things up with Trilby, if he could.
“Look at me,” Thorn said quietly. “Trilby…look at me.”
She forced her eyes down to his.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Did I frighten you that day?”
She flushed and turned away.
He got up, standing behind her. His lean hands caught her shoulders gently. “You’re upset. You’d never even been kissed, had you?” he said regretfully.
“No,” she said through her teeth. “And what you did…”
He let out a heavy breath. “Yes. What I did is something that belongs in a relationship between married people. You learned things about me that you’d never have known in the normal course of things.”
She flushed and was glad that he couldn’t see her face. “I’d better finish cleaning your face, Mr. Vance,” she said stiffly.
He turned her toward him, bending so that he could see her eyes. “Don’t hate me,” he said, his voice surprisingly soft. “I was wrong. I want to make amends.”
“Do you? Then please stay out of my way.” She laughed uneasily. “I want nothing to do with you.”
His face stiffened. He’d frightened and shocked her. She made him feel inadequate somehow. His hands fell from her shoulders and he sat back down again.
His attitude made her feel guilty. “You have my forgiveness if you think you need it, Mr. Vance. I’ll thank you for defending me, regardless. I’m sorry you were hurt on my behalf.”
“These little cuts?” he said heavily. “They sting, but they’re not much. I’ve had bullet wounds hurt worse. They tear the flesh when they penetrate.”
Her hand paused in midair. “Bullet…wounds?” She swayed and her knees turned to jelly.
He caught her as she went down, holding her propped against his strong body. “Trilby, for the love of God…”
She drew a slow breath and the nausea and the faintness began to dissipate. “I’m sorry,” she said weakly. “It’s just…there was so much violence!”
She felt fragile. So fragile. He bent suddenly and swept her up completely off the floor in his arms, turning into the living room, where her father had just reappeared from outside.
“Trilby, what’s wrong?” Jack asked.
“She fainted. I shouldn’t have mentioned bullet wounds,” Thorn said ruefully. “She needs to lie down.”
“Yes. Of course. This way.”
Her father led the way to her neat bedroom, standing aside to let Thorn carry her in and place her delicately on the white embroidered bedspread.
“Jack?” Mary Lang called suddenly, her voice almost hysterical. “Jack, where’s Teddy?”
“I think he’s out back with Torrance,” Thorn said over his shoulder.
“Oh, bother,” Jack muttered. “Trilby, dear. Are you all right?”
“Yes, Father,” she whispered. “I’m just a bit sick. And glad that you’re all right.”
He nodded. “I’ll be right back.”
Left briefly alone with Thorn, Trilby tried not to meet his eyes. He looked terribly cut up, and she wondered if that cut on his cheek would heal without leaving a scar.
“I’m sorry about all this,” he told her stiffly. “I guess you’ve never seen a fistfight before, either.”
“Hearing it was bad enough.” Her eyes glanced off his face. “You should bathe your face again tonight,” she murmured.
“I’ll do that. Naki has some kind of herbs he uses on cuts. I’ll let him doctor me.”
“Are you sure he won’t poison you?” she asked, with faint humor.
“He’s my friend,” he said simply. “Friends don’t poison each other. If you’re sure you’re all right, I’ll be on my way.”
“Thank you for looking after my father,” she said, with stiff pride.
“He needed looking after,” he said shortly. “My God, he’ll lose everything if he doesn’t toughen up.”
“It’s so brutal out here,” she said suddenly, her wide eyes expressive.
“Of course it is. It’s no place for lilies.”
She blanched. Her hands dovetailed on her waist as she lay there looking up at him from her pillow. She felt vulnerable with a man in her bedroom. He seemed to fill it, dominate it. He looked at her as if she were hopeless. Perhaps she was.
His dark eyes slid down her body to her slim ankles and back up again. She was slender and well made, and he ached thinking about how her mouth felt under his.
But she was looking at him as if he frightened her. Probably he did, he thought bitterly. He’d been antagonistic toward her from the very beginning; he’d insulted her, been roughly physical with her, and then he’d savaged her reputation. How could he expect her to trust him?
That was a pity, when she’d begun to appeal to him in a totally new way, he thought ironically. She’d been scared to death and sick while he fought the Mexican, but she was game! White in the face and shaking, she’d still had the nerve to doctor his wounds. He admired her. He’d admired her when she fought with him verbally, and she’d done that from the first time they’d met. He couldn’t remember one time when he’d ever admired his late wife—except in the very beginning of their relationship.
“I won’t let anything happen to your father, Trilby,” he said quietly. “To any of you.”
She swallowed down a bout of nausea and closed her eyes. “This terrible country,” she whispered. “I wish we’d never come.”
He hated the way she said that. “Listen, it’s not as bad as you’re making it out. Trilby, I’d like to show you my desert….”
Her eyes flew open and began to glitter with feeling. “The way you showed me last time?” she asked accusingly.
He muttered under his breath and stood up. He swept off his hat and wiped the sweat from under it with the long sleeve of his shirt. “You won’t see my side of it, will you?” he asked quietly. “I acted on what I believed to be the truth.”
“God sitting in judgment? Your opinion of me makes me sicker than your wounds, Mr. Vance,” she said huskily, her gray eyes wide and unblinking in a face like paper. “I have no use for a man who can jump to a conclusion and refuse to let go of it, even when all the evidence contradicts it.”
“Sally lied to me,” he repeated.
“I didn’t know you,” he persisted. “I had no idea what kind of person you really were.”
“You might have given me the benefit of the doubt,” she said coldly. “As it happens, my father was able to undo the damage you did to my reputation. That is fortunate, because a beau of mine is coming out to stay very shortly. I should hate him to get a bad opinion of me from local gossip.”
He went very still. “A beau?” he asked.
She smiled haughtily. “Apparently you think my lack of beauty precludes me from having gentleman callers. It might interest you to know that not all men judge a woman by her face or form. Richard admires me for my intellect.”
“Richard who?” he shot at her.
“Richard Bates. We grew up together in Baton Rouge. His family and mine would very much like for us to marry,” she added deliberately. “And so would I. I’ve loved Richard half my life!”
He felt tight as a drawn cord. Her dislike and contempt for him were as tangible as his had once been for her. He felt small and mean, and because his guilt made him raw inside, he lashed out.
“He’s a city boy, I gather? One of those dandies with no brain or guts?”
“Richard is a gentleman, Mr. Vance,” she said, with faint hauteur. “Which is something no woman could ever accuse you of being. Certainly not if she’d ever had the misfortune to be alone with you!”
He flushed. His hand crushed the brim of his hat and his wounded face went livid. “You don’t pull your punches, do you?”
“I wish I could punch you, Mr. Vance,” she said fervently. “I wish I were a man for just five minutes. I’d do you more damage than that Mexican managed!”
He drew himself up to his full height. “I’ve apologized,” he said shortly.
“And you think that wipes out months of harsh treatment and contempt and insults.” She nodded.
Put that way, no, he didn’t. He let his eyes wander over her face for one long moment as he began to realize just how much he’d made her hate him. He was going to lose her and her father’s water rights in one fell swoop, and this Eastern dude she loved was going to waltz in and scoop her right out of his life. He felt sick right where he lived.
He didn’t say another word. He turned abruptly, slammed his hat back on his head, and walked out of the room.
Trilby closed her eyes. Let him go, she thought angrily. She certainly didn’t want him. She never had! She thought about Richard instead, and the tenseness left her face all at once. Richard was coming, at last! For once, her dreams seemed to be coming true. When Richard arrived, the vicious Mr. Vance would become nothing more than a bad memory.
Bad, like the events of the day. Trilby refused to think of the danger her father had been in. She wanted nothing to spoil the joyous time ahead.
When Trilby got up, minutes later, Mary Lang was still sick and faint from what she’d seen outside her window. The whole unpleasant episode had pointed out what was worst about their new home.
“I had no idea men fought like that,” Mary told her daughter later when they were sitting quietly together after putting out a meal for Jack. “I’d never seen men fight.”
“Neither had I. The Mexican said something about me. Mr. Vance wouldn’t tell me what it was, but it was why he hit him.”
“Thank you for taking care of his wounds, Trilby,” Mary said. “I just couldn’t!”
For the first time, Trilby felt older than her mother. It was not to be the last time she felt that way.
The idea of Thorn fighting for her was surprising. Of course, he had sworn that he’d changed his mind about her. But it didn’t wipe away the damaging things he’d said.
He came visiting late one afternoon at the end of the week, after Jack Lang had come in from checking his line riders. The sun was going down and the sunset, always spectacular, had brought Trilby onto the darkened front porch steps to watch. She was sitting there, alone, while her family talked around the kitchen table, when Thorn rode up.
Her heart raced as he swung lithely out of the saddle and tied his mount to the post. Fear, she supposed, had to be responsible for that reaction. Or anger, perhaps. She noticed that he was still wearing working garb.
Her innate sense of courtesy wouldn’t let her be deliberately rude to a visitor, in spite of the hostility he kindled in her. “You usually ride a horse when you come to visit, Mr. Vance,” she commented politely from her perch on the top step. “I thought you liked automobiles.”
“I don’t. Not particularly.” He sat down beside her, a lighted cigarette in his hand, and he didn’t remove his wide-brimmed hat. He smelled of leather and tobacco and dust and sweat, but Trilby didn’t find him in the least offensive. That reaction puzzled her. Since she didn’t like him, shouldn’t she find his nearness unpleasant?
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