Carla Reece had screamed, cried, shouted, hit her brother with all her strength, kicked furniture and walls, but none of it had served to ward off the horrible realization that a stranger was coming to take possession of half her ranch. Just the thought caused nausea to well up at the back of her throat. How could this have happened? Danny was the best poker player in Overlin, Texas. He’d been playing for extra money ever since the older men started letting him sit in on friendly games.
“No one would let you play for stakes that high,” Carla said to her brother. “They know what I’d do to them if they did.” Carla liked a good time as much as anyone, but she never mixed business with pleasure, and anything having to do with the ranch or money was business.
“He was a stranger. Some guy named Laveau diViere.”
“Did Ed know him? Frank? Lukey? Anybody?”
Danny shook his head.
“Then why did you play with him?”
“Nobody else wanted to play.”
“How could you be stupid enough to play for that much money?”
“I didn’t mean to, but I let him goad me into taking a drink.”
“Why? You know you can’t drink.”
“He kept saying I didn’t drink because I was too young, that my mama wouldn’t let me, that I wasn’t man enough to hold my liquor. I know that was dumb, but he was so cocksure I wanted to take him down a notch. I was doing okay until I bet too much on a good hand.”
“Why didn’t you stop there?”
“Because he was such an arrogant son-of-a-bitch. I just wanted to wipe that awful smile off his face.”
“Enough to risk your half of the ranch?”
“I had an unbeatable hand. A royal flush ace high.”
“Nothing’s unbeatable except four aces with jacks wild.” She didn’t play poker, but she knew the rules. “Did you sign anything? Was it witnessed?”
“He made me sign a paper before it would accept my bet. Lots of people saw me do it.”
So there was no mistake, no miraculous way out of this nightmare. She’d have to share the ranch her parents had carved out of the wilderness with a man she’d never seen and already despised for taking advantage of a beardless boy.
Over the following days she’d said a lot of things to Danny she regretted, or would come to regret once she was over the worst of the shock and outrage, but she wasn’t there yet. Now it was more than a week later and still no sign of the villain who’d stolen half of their ranch. Each day that passed without his arrival wound Carla’s nerves tighter. She awoke each morning dreading that this would be the day he would show up and went to bed each night relieved and anxious at the same time.
Insignificant noises annoyed her. The sound of an approaching horse caused her breath to catch in her throat. The slightest aggravation would send her temper spiraling out of control. She paced from one room to another, taking note of things to do yet leaving most of the tasks unfinished. She felt imprisoned in the house, but she couldn’t leave it. Her concentration was gone. Thoughts flew out of her head as quickly as they entered. She was hungry, but the smell of food caused her stomach to heave. She hated to be by herself but couldn’t stand to have anybody around. She was slowly going crazy, each of the last nine days being a little worse than the one before. It had gotten so bad Danny had moved into the bunkhouse.
Lukey, the only lawyer in Overlin, had told her Laveau diViere’s claim was good, but she couldn’t accept giving up any part of her ranch. Her father and mother had risked their lives to hold it against Indians, had worked themselves into early graves to make it successful. Danny loved the ranch as much as she did, so she couldn’t understand how he could have risked it in a poker game.
She left the kitchen and walked through the wide hall to the sitting room, but her mind took in nothing about the room her mother had labored to make into a space that reflected her gentile upbringing. Not the velvet-covered settee or the brocade curtains pulled back by heavy sashes. White sheers filtered the Texas sunlight that flooded the room with a warmth at variance with the chill that arced down her spine every time she thought of having to yield part of her ranch to a stranger. Her stomach heaved so violently, she put her hand over her mouth, but she refused to be overcome by the thought of the man who’d destroyed her peace of mind. She was going to get her ranch back. To have a stranger running it would be an affront to the memory of her parents.
Danny looked so much like their mother, Carla couldn’t see him without thinking of what her mother would feel if she knew what had happened. The ranch had been a job to their father, a way to make a living, but it had been life-changing to their mother. She had reveled in the freedom from the conventional restraints forced upon women in the little South Carolina town where she’d been born. She’d been excited when her husband suggested they try ranching in the new state of Texas. She had put up with hardship because she wanted Carla to grow up with freedoms she had never enjoyed. She had insisted that her husband buy their land. She didn’t trust a system that allowed a rancher to claim land he didn’t own. She hadn’t understood ranching, but she liked it because it was different. She didn’t understand Texans, either, but she loved them because they let her be herself no matter how unconventional or illogical.
Yet inside the house, her mother had preserved part of her former way of life. Never having lived in South Carolina, that was a side of her mother Carla had never understood, yet she loved the house because her mother had loved it.
Carla straightened a doily, one of many her mother had crocheted during winter evenings. She ran her finger over the surface of a side table, but it left no trace. She’d already dusted it twice today. She grunted in frustration. She couldn’t stick with any task, keep her mind on any job as long as she was expecting this interloper any minute. Why didn’t he come? Why did he have to come? Unable to stay cooped up in the house any longer, she walked to the hall, opened the front door, and stepped out onto the porch.
The air was hot and still, but the sun was sinking on the horizon. It would soon be time to start supper. Her brother had to eat, whether or not she felt like cooking. Irritated at her inability to be still, she sat down in a chair, determined to remain there until time to go to the kitchen. But she had barely settled her skirts around her when she noticed a horseman in the distance.
Her body went rigid, and her breath hitched. She shaded her eyes and squinted to see what detail she could make out. Was it someone she knew? Or was it him?
Her first impression was that he was bigger than her brother, who was easily over six feet tall. He rode easily in the saddle, his posture so erect you’d have thought he was in a military parade. His horse, a sorrel with dark mane and tail, was several inches taller than any horse on her ranch, but the most distinctive thing about him was his dress. Despite the heat and the dust, he wore a coat over a vest, white shirt, and tie. His flat-topped, wide-brimmed hat didn’t disguise his fair skin or cover his almost white-blond hair. His black pants clung to his muscled thighs, and his boots practically glistened. Sunlight glinted off the polished surface of his silver-studded saddle and bridle. For a moment she thought he might be trying to imitate a Spanish caballero, but as he drew closer, she sensed that his manner of dress was a reflection of something inside him rather than the other way around. He had an almost regal presence about him which put her back up.
He probably thought he was better than she was, better than anybody in Overlin, most likely better than anybody in Texas. He rode like he owned the world.
She told herself to relax. Danny had said Laveau diViere was dark and a native Texan of Spanish descent. It was unlikely he would have any connection to this blond giant. This man was probably lost. He certainly didn’t know how to dress for Texas.
Yet as he drew closer, she found herself subjected to different feelings. He was so handsome no woman could look upon him and not be affected. There was a cool perfection about him that implied all feeling— mental, emotional, or physical—would be kept under tight control. She shivered despite the heat.
She got an unexpected surprise when he drew close enough to smile at her. All traces of disdain or cold cordiality fled, leaving her the recipient of a smile of incredible sweetness. Despite her usual reticence around strangers, it drew her to her feet and toward the steps. As he drew closer, she could see he was even more handsome than she’d first thought. What could such a man be doing wandering around Texas? He brought his horse to a stop, dismounted, and approached the bottom of the steps. He removed his hat and nodded in greeting.
“Good afternoon, miss. I am looking for Danny Reece.” He spoke with an accent she couldn’t quite place.
“I’m Carla Reece. Danny is my brother, but he’s not here right now. Can I help you?”
“I am Ivan Nikolai. I have come to take over Laveau diViere’s half of your ranch.”
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