Authors: Ann Jacobs
Bye couldn’t sleep. The house felt empty without his mom, full of mournful sounds he’d never noticed before—a creak here, a door closing there, the soft cry of a blue jay in the tree outside his window. God but he wished Karen were here in his arms so they could hold each other and watch as twilight turned to night. Or maybe not exactly here. He’d come to think of that line shack as their special place.
A place where they could let down the façades and be themselves. Where it wasn’t wrong to care about more than the moment’s pleasure, the burst of ecstasy, the sense of mastery over another person’s will. He stretched out on the bed, his naked flesh in contact with the fine Egyptian cotton sheets his mom had always insisted on for her family and guests.
Soft. Silky. Cool to the touch. Yet not as comforting as the feel of Karen’s warm, satin flesh and lush curves. Not as soothing as the quiet cadence of her breathing against his chest, the slight pressure of her slender fingers kneading the soreness out of his back.
Yeah, he wanted her, and not just because she turned him on six ways from Sunday every time they fucked. Bye Caden had never been averse to snatching whatever it was he wanted, ever since he was old enough to appreciate the power inherent in his name.
Until now. Because he’d never before wanted something or someone he doubted Four would ever accept him having. Karen was that. Not to mention that her crazy drunk of a father would come gunning for him with the same fervor he went after rattlers and would-be rustlers of his ratty handful of cattle, if he ever made a play for her.
Apparently this feud wouldn’t die, it just passed on from generation to generation. There didn’t seem to be one damn thing anybody could do to end it. It didn’t help any that Byron Four was a sanctimonious hypocrite who thought his shit didn’t stink, or that Slade Oakley was the local poster boy for alcoholism, orneriness and slothfulness in almost equal measure.
A silvery moon shed its eerie light through the window, casting the whole room in a combination of mournful shadows and pale, barely hopeful light. Bye felt that way, too—shadowed by family obligations, blocked from stepping out into the light.
But he had, if only for a few hours. And he wanted to experience that light again.
* * * * *
“Where’d you disappear to, Bye? I looked all over for you after everybody finally left here yesterday.”
When Deidre looked up at him, Bye could tell she’d had a rough night. “I took Vampire for a long ride.” No need to have Four jumping on his ass first thing this morning, he thought as he stopped at the sideboard and scooped a few breakfast tacos and some sausages onto his plate before taking his place at the table. “I wanted to take a look at my wind farm.”
“That’s my boy. Tilting at windmills when he ought to be learning how to run the Bar C.” Sarcasm dripped from the old man’s lips, but that was nothing unusual. “You ready to ride fences with me today?”
“Sure, boss.” Bye figured it would be too much to expect his father to spend another day grieving. After all, the man had been jumping through all the appropriate hoops for five days now, ever since Mom had died, but she was buried now. Life could go on. “I’ve got an appointment in town late this afternoon, though.”
“I don’t want either one of you hangin’ around Jack Duval. I have no intention of recognizing him publicly as my son, and I don’t want him or Marianne to get the idea they’ve got a nickel’s worth of claim on this place.”
Deidre looked as though their old man had slapped her. Bye wondered for a minute how any man could be so callous about his own flesh and blood. Then, when he thought about it, he came to the conclusion that Four had about as much concern for his kids—himself and Deidre included—as he did for the prize beef cattle he showed with pride and then sent off to slaughter. “Rest easy, Dad. I’m not going to town to drink beer with my newfound half brother.”
Deidre’s shoulders shook, but then she skewered Four with a venomous look. “I’m gonna ride with Diego and the boys today. See if I can help out with whatever they’re doing with the calves.” Deidre pushed her chair back from the table and stood. “I need to change.”
Four looked up at her. “You don’t need to—”
“Dad, leave her alone. Can’t you see she doesn’t want to rattle around the house all day, today of all days?”
He had the grace to nod. “You’re right. Go on, princess, get on some jeans. Hurry up and we’ll wait for you.” When Deidre left he turned to Bye. “I know she had a thing for Duval. She’ll get over it. You make damn sure all the hands keep it front and center in their heads that your sister’s off limits. I’ll let Diego know I’ll hold him responsible for keeping an eye on her.”
It was as though his mom had ceased to exist for his father. Bye had to admit, though, that Four seemed to have even less concern for his mistress who was very much alive, or had been as recently as yesterday. Bye wanted to say something smart-assed but realized fueling an argument he couldn’t win would be stupid. “Okay. You ready?” His appetite had gone south, but he shoved down the rest of a taco and another bite of sausage. “We ridin’ or taking the Jeep?”
Bye figured that. It wasn’t often, since the old man had taken a nasty spill a few years back, that he opted to ride fences on horseback. “Fine with me. I took Vampire for a long run yesterday. He can use the rest.”
“Ha. That six-figure thoroughbred of yours gets nothing but rest. None of the hands can ride him. If he didn’t make me more in stud fees than he costs in feed and pampering, I’d sell him for dog food. He’s worthless for ranch work.”
“Yes, Dad.” Vampire had been a source of discord between them ever since Bye had bought him and brought him home. The old man never would understand how bad it had made him feel when he’d first seen the spirited young colt being practically starved by a bankrupt owner, or why Bye had spent several months’ allowance to buy him and a horse trailer that had seen better days. So he hadn’t told Byron Four. He’d boarded Vampire at a stable near the university, nursed him back to health and saddle-broke him before loading him in the trailer and bringing him home to the Bar C along with his degree.
The big horse was his friend. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t bred for cutting cattle like the Bar C’s string of purebred quarter horses. Taking a last swallow of coffee, Bye stood and made for the door. “I’ll go warn the cowhands off my sister.”
“See that you make it crystal clear.”
* * * * *
There must be at least a hundred miles of fence along the southern edges of the Bar C, so why had they had to pick the section that bordered the Rocking O today? Bye wiped sweat off his brow after hammering brads to secure barbed wire along the top of a section of four-foot-high board fence along the property line. “What started the feud, Dad?” he asked, looking down at the wild brambles and noisy pumpjacks that peppered the neighboring pasture land.
“Doesn’t matter what started it. The damn Oakleys have kept it going by being lousy neighbors. They’ve kept their place like a junkyard ever since I can remember. They’re poor white trash who got rich with oil but still act like trash. Think about the Oakley cousin who turned his honky tonk into a sex club after he lost his liquor license.”
Bye hadn’t thought Four would have a clue about what went on at the Neon Lasso. He wasn’t exactly the type to flaunt his sexual exploits where the neighbors could watch. Apparently, though, the old man kept his ear open to neighborhood gossip. “I know Buck. He seems to be a pretty decent sort. As for him turning the Neon Lasso into a BDSM club, he wasn’t left with much of a choice when he came back from prison and found his means of making an honest living running a bar had disappeared. What goes on there now isn’t against the law.”
“True. Anyhow, you don’t need to venture off the Rocking O to find examples of why everybody considers them trash. Slade Oakley has an itchy trigger finger, not to mention he hasn’t spent a sober day in my lifetime. Look down there. See how he’s let his pasture go to rack and ruin. It’s a goddamn disgrace.”
Bye fought an inexplicable impulse to defend Karen’s father. Nobody, not even Karen, defended him, though he’d heard she got riled up when folks talked bad about Slade in her hearing. “Why do the Oakleys hate the Cadens specifically? From what I hear, the feud’s been going on since long before you or Slade Oakley were born, but nobody seems to know why it got started.” He stowed the tools in the back of the Jeep and crawled back in beside his old man.
“My grandpa—that would be Byron Two—died long before I was born, and neither my father nor my grandfather would talk about it. All I know is what I heard folks whispering about in town when I was a kid. They talked about the first Oakley being a gunfighter who won the Rocking O in a card game, a few years after Lucas Caden had come here and bought up a dozen or more homesteads to form the nucleus of the Bar C. That was around 1881. Lucas had two sons, Luke and the first Byron.
“One story I remember was that Luke, the older son, took up with the gunfighter’s daughter and got her pregnant before he married the daughter of another neighboring rancher. As that story goes, Oakley shot Luke dead after his daughter died birthing her kid. After that, Oakley supposedly took off for parts unknown and got killed in a gunfight a few years later, up in Kansas.” Four shrugged. “Luke’s buried in the old family cemetery over there. The gravestone says he died in 1883.” He gestured toward a small plot surrounded with a fence made from blocks of native limestone.
“What about the Oakley girl’s baby?”
“He was stillborn.”
Good. There was no Caden blood running through Karen’s veins. Since yesterday Bye had become pretty damn concerned about incest and its possibilities. He swallowed hard, and his gaze shifted toward the line shack where he’d done very not-brotherly things with Karen yesterday and the day before. “So who carried on with the Oakley homestead if the owner took off?”
“The girl had a younger brother who stayed and ran the place. I remember that crazy old man. He must have been at least a hundred years old when I was a boy. He’d get liquored up and barge in at the house, accusing everybody of killing his sister and running his daddy away. I guess I must have been around eight years old when the old guy finally died and left the place to his younger son, Slade. Slade was just as mean as his father, even though he was still a teenager when he inherited.” Four shook his head and then started up the Jeep. “Your grandfather tried to buy the old man out, and after he died we made several decent offers to Slade. I tried again just last year to buy the Rocking O, but he ran me off his property with a shotgun. I’m damn lucky he didn’t blow me away.”
Bye whistled. “I’ve heard he’s quick on the trigger with his guns.”
“Yeah. For whatever reason, the Oakleys seem determined to stay and be an unpleasant part of the landscape. Maybe when the Bar C passes to you, you’ll have better luck running them off.”
What if Bye ended the feud by marrying Slade Oakley’s only child? Bye almost proposed that to his father but decided to hold his tongue. “Karen Oakley seems to be making a success of herself,” he mentioned, keeping his tone bland.
“Once trash, always trash. She may have gotten through law school and set herself up in practice, but she’s still an Oakley and that means trouble.”
“Trouble how? It seems to me she’s managed to keep her crazy father from going after people with guns since she’s been back from school. Karen’s pretty and smart, and I don’t think you ought to be thinking of her as trash.”
Four shot a hard look Bye’s way. “Have you forgotten about the feud? I can assure you Slade hasn’t. He won’t, either, ornery old cuss.”
Bye was beginning to believe he could eventually persuade his father the Rocking O with all its oil reserves would be worth sacrificing a son to annex. But that was the easy half of the problem. Slade Oakley most likely would kill somebody before he’d align himself with the family he blamed for having made his people outcasts for more than a hundred years. “Yes, Dad.”
“You might want to think about settling down with a nice girl like Liz Wolfe. The Wolfe spread’s close to half the size of the Bar C.”
Bye expected Four to start salivating at the idea of annexing another prime piece of the high prairie, so he thought he’d better set the old man straight. “Liz and I are friends. That’s all. I seriously doubt she’d be any more interested in me than I am in her.”
“You could easily get her interested, boy. Women fall all over you.”
Bye imagined he’d scare the shit out of quiet, mousy Liz if he ever came on to her. “She’d be terrified if I made a pass at her.”
His dad let out a laugh. “Maybe I’ll go after her mother, then. Mavis isn’t much of a looker, but then she’s got a lot of other qualities.”
Fuck. Four had just buried his wife of thirty years. What was the bastard doing, thinking about bagging another woman so soon? Bye’s laugh was cut off when bile rose in his throat. “Isn’t the Bar C big enough for you,
“Land is wealth. Don’t you go taking that tone with me. I know you spend your evenings at the Neon Lasso, and I bet you’re not whiling the hours away playing poker. At least not the kind you play with cards, ha, ha.” Byron clapped a hand down on Bye’s knee as though he was sharing a private joke. “You know you could marry Liz and keep on playing sex games all you want. She’s too much a lady to pitch a fit about what you do when you’re away from home.”
“The way Mom was?” It was taking real effort for Bye to keep from throwing up his breakfast.
Byron pulled up in the curve of the road and got out of the Jeep, motioning for Bye to join him. “I’ll let that pass, son. I loved your mother, and I’ll miss her. I never would have subjected her to the kind of sex I enjoyed with my mistress until she tried to pull a power play on me, but a man occasionally needs his sex down and dirty.”
“Did Mom know?”
“Never. I kept your mother wrapped in tissue, surrounded by a houseful of pretty things and all the love she could possibly have wanted. I gave her my respect, and I satisfied my baser needs far out of her world so she’d never be hurt. I let her bring up my children the way she wanted. That may be why you’ve never developed the hard edge a man needs in this world.” He paused, looking out in the direction of the wind farm Bye had developed on his mother’s part of the ranch. “She may have been right when she said you’d flourish if I let you build your damn wind farm. It’s starting to make the Bar C money, you know.”