Authors: Ann Jacobs
“Bye, this must have been about Bertha’s wedding to Byron. She wrote it exactly one year after Luke was killed.”
March 10, 1884
It was a beautiful day. Byron and I said our vows at the little Methodist church in Caden. It’s becoming a nice little town with a post office, general store and tavern where the cowhands go on Saturday nights. My papa gave me away. I wore Mama’s wedding dress again, but this time it felt right. I must hurry now. My bridegroom will be coming, and I am anxious to lie with him. He is a fine man, steady and steadfast, nothing like his older brother. God willing, I will give him strong sons and pretty daughters.
“The next few pages are so damaged we won’t be able to make out what she said,” Karen said, disappointment evident in her expression. “Here. I can only make out a few words, but I think she’s talking about losing a baby.”
Bye strained his eyes, caught the year 1890, and something about Bertha having failed her husband. “It looks like you may be right. Look, I think this word may be ‘twins’?”
“I think you’re right,” Karen said. “You know what, I bet we can find babies’ graves in the old cemetery. The poor woman may have mentioned other lost children on those pages that we couldn’t read. I wonder if she might have ruined the writing with her tears.”
“Could be.” Because he felt Karen needed a hug, he gave her one. “We can go over and look at all the grave markers, after we finish learning whatever we can from this diary. Let’s see what else we can find out.” He turned past several illegible pages to one that seemed practically new compared with the others.
July 4, 1895
Praise the Lord. Yesterday I bore Byron a son. He is Byron, also, because this time I am certain our baby will live.
August 31, 1895
Byron Junior was baptized today. I was able to stand with my husband, though I still am weary from my confinement.
December 25, 1895
We celebrated Christ’s birth with a family dinner. Byron took our son up on his favorite horse and rode him around the paddock before we took him inside and gave him the wooden rocking horse we ordered all the way from Fort Worth.
“Look, Karen, the next entry was written by somebody else.” Bye strained to read the strong, masculine scrawl that seemed to have been watered down, maybe with tears.
July 10, 1896
Bertha Caden, beloved wife and mother, is dead. I buried her today with our stillborn daughter.
Bye felt Karen’s distress. “He must have loved her a lot, just as I love you.”
There were no more entries until June 1920, when Byron II must have married Alyssa. Her handwriting was easier to read, probably, Bye thought, because the quality of ink had apparently improved over the years.
June 15, 1920
My name is Alyssa Caden, and Byron insists that I continue this diary his mother started years ago. Today was my wedding day, which was spoiled only by the rude intrusion of a dirty, boorish man named Slade Oakley. He wanted to use our telephone to call a doctor for his wife. Of course Byron allowed it, though I don’t know why because Mr. Oakley cursed him the entire time he was in the house. I shall forbid my husband from letting such odious men in my house in the future.
December 10, 1922
Mr. Oakley came here again, wanting to use our telephone again. Since Byron was away, I had to deal with him. I fail to understand why the man has still not had his own telephone service installed, so I refused him. When he began cursing and making wild accusations, I had two of our cowhands escort him off the Bar C. I will send my husband to inform the man he is never to come and trouble us again.
“I don’t think I’d have cared much for my great-grandmother. She sounds like a very unpleasant woman.” Bye flipped through several pages of entries, until he saw one that might be pertinent.
“Here’s the entry where Byron Three was born, in 1925. Alyssa only made a couple more entries before the diary ends. The more I read, the more I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked the woman.”
Karen laughed. “She does sound pretty obnoxious. Why do you think she left a lot of pages at the end blank?”
“I don’t know.” How about we go over to the old cemetery and check out when everybody was born and died? Four told me they used it until Byron Three built a new ranch house and family cemetery, not far from where we live now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to build it so he wouldn’t have to live around his mother.”
Karen shook her head then fished a manila folder out of her laptop case. “First we need to look through these old court documents. They may help fill in some of the gaps in this diary. Jack copied them when he was looking for damning information about your family. When I told him I’d like to borrow them, he handed them over. He said there was nothing in them that he could use.”
“Use for what?” Bye didn’t like the idea of his half brother snooping through the family history.
“Leverage, I imagine.”
Leverage my ass.
“Blackmail, you mean.”
“That’s an awfully harsh indictment. According to Jack, your father cut himself off from Jack’s mother a day or so after your mother’s funeral. From what Jack told me, Four dumped her via a FedEx overnight package, not in person, which must have hurt them both. He apparently gave Ms. Duval the deed to the house he’d bought for her, title to a car and the monthly income from a trust fund he established in Jack’s name. The body of the trust is set up to pass to Jack on his mother’s death.” Karen paused as though she was considering whether she should say more. “Jack told me he started looking through old court records after finding out Four had cut ties with his mother—and by extension, with him. Don’t you think Jack had good reason to want to get back at your dad?”
“Probably. I have to admit, sending bad news by courier is pretty cold, but it sounds like something Four would do. I know for a fact he was livid when Marianne Duval spilled her secret. Caden men aren’t known for their kindness, or for tact, especially when they feel they’ve been fucked over. Let’s go through these documents that Jack didn’t think would suit his purposes.”
While Bye agreed there was nothing blackmail-worthy in the old records, he and Karen were able to fill in a good many holes in the timeline they’d worked up from the old diary. “Tell Jack I appreciate that he shared his research. Let’s go on over to the old cemetery now. As far as I know, every Caden up until my grandfather was buried there. I wouldn’t be surprised if Byron Three built the new family cemetery because he didn’t want to spend time with his mother, even in death.”
Between the diary, cemetery markers and the old legal documents from the courthouse, they managed to develop a pretty good chronology of the events that fired the Caden-Oakley feud. There had been incidents during each generation—sometimes more than one—that had kept the feud alive.
“Let’s go tell your dad what we’ve found out,” Karen said, a triumphant look on her beautiful face.
Bye bent and kissed her. “Later, sweetheart. There’s a spot not far from here that’s one of my favorite places on the ranch. I want to show it to you now.”
* * * * *
The Bar C had to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, Karen thought as Bye drove the Jeep over a field of bluebonnets and onto a rutted track carved out of a dense growth of native trees and shrubs.
“Look over there.” He pointed toward a fast-moving stream of clear water where a couple of whiteface deer grazed on the bank. “See the opening in the rock on the other side?”
She saw it, an irregular break in a towering hill of pale, pinkish limestone. Out of the break came a cloud of what looked like steam. “Is that steam coming out of a cave?”
“Yeah. There’s a hot spring inside. It’s a great place for soaking sore muscles. Want to go in?”
“I’m game. I didn’t bring a swimsuit, though.”
He laughed, a deep, hearty sound from deep in his chest. “Neither did I.”
Sex was nothing new to Karen. To Bye, either. They’d both embraced a lifestyle in which men and women alike found no shame in taking sexual pleasure. She shouldn’t feel as though they were embarking on anything original or even innovative, but maybe they were. What she felt for Bye had little to do with the raw passion that characterized sex games she’d played with others, and everything to do with her new, tender emotions that he’d set free.
Love. Respect. Trust she’d never granted another man—even her dad—for reasons she was beginning to understand, but which she gave to Bye without restriction. “Last one in is it,” she said, getting out of the Jeep and running across a narrow natural bridge toward the steamy cave entrance.
When he caught her halfway across the bridge, he threatened to dunk her in the stream, but she knew from his tone that he was teasing. She wasn’t used to being teased, except in a sexual way. Laughter had never been a big part of her growing-up years at the Rocking O. Apparently it had been to Bye, at least in this magical place nature had tucked in a corner of Caden’s Kingdom.
Yeah. That was how she’d think about Bye’s home. Like him, the Bar C was larger than life. When she stepped inside the cave opening, her breath caught in her throat. Crystalline stalactites growing out of the high, uneven ceiling sparkled in the light from Bye’s flashlight. Steam rose off a large, irregularly shaped pool carved by time from a cave floor of shimmering rose-veined limestone. “It’s so beautiful.”
It was almost as though they’d stepped into another world, surreal in its tranquility. A constant drip-drip of condensate off the ceiling punctuated the silence, and warm dampness surrounded them. The cave smelled of salt and minerals leached from the limestone—not unpleasant at all, just different. She imagined the first Caden patriarch might have discovered this magical place and passed the knowledge of it down through generations, protecting it from the greedy eyes of strangers.
When Bye came to her, she fancied she could see love shining in his eyes. As gently as if she were a child, he took off her clothing one piece at the time, folding it neatly before setting it on an outcropping of rock. “This place isn’t half as beautiful as you.” He hugged her fiercely, as though he were afraid she’d disappear. Then he stepped back, leaving her embraced only by warm, damp steam and her own expectations.
His hot gaze never leaving her, he stripped down, his motions economical. Soon his clothes rested beside hers. He took her hand and led her into the hot spring. “You’re the only woman I’ve ever brought here, sweetheart.”
She felt special…wanted…wanting… With one smooth move, he picked her up and held her above the swirling waters. His skin felt cool compared with the hot spring that surrounded them, but when he kissed her his lips were warm, welcoming.
Wanting more, she shifted her legs in the water and drew them back until they floated free while she clung to his shoulders, her anchor against the current. Water bubbled and swirled around them, facilitating a sensual dance that drew her closer then away, until she managed to wrap her legs around his muscular thighs. His hot cock scalded her pussy, but he made no move to enter her.
Instead he kissed her again, his lips softer than velvet, his afternoon beard stubble deliciously scratchy. He did wonderful things to her back with his hands, his movement accentuated by the undulating water. “I’m gonna set you on the edge now. I can’t wait any longer to taste you.”
Warm, hard stone on her backside contrasted with the vibrant heat of his shoulders beneath her thighs. She threaded her fingers through his soft hair, urging him on as he sucked her clit then tongued her cunt for what seemed like hours, using his fingers to intensify her need. God but she wanted his cock. “Please,” she whispered when the pressure became too much, the wanting too intense. “I need you inside me.”
He lifted his head and met her gaze. His eyes, normally so pale, were almost black with desire. “There’s nothing I want more, but I don’t have anything here to protect you.”
“We could…” She couldn’t finish saying it, not with the fresh memory of another Oakley woman, another Caden man—and the pain their carelessness had caused both families for generations after they both were dead and gone.
His balls ached. His dick felt as though it might explode.
Maybe I could pull out. I want to marry her anyway.
That had to be his gonads arguing with his conscience. He dared not heed their advice. “We can’t risk it.” Not when they could finally believe the hundred-thirty-year-old feud was about to end. Not when he realized the hatred between their families had to be resolved before they could have a lifetime together. “Relax and come for me. Don’t think, just feel.”
Lowering his head again, he tongued her rigid little clit and worried the sensitive nub between his lips. Her sexy, musky scent and the taste of her slick, hot juices were driving him crazy, but he loved her too much to risk repeating their ancestors’ tragic history. When she strained toward his mouth, he slid three fingers up her cunt. She gripped him with her vaginal muscles. “Come for me, sweetheart,” he murmured against her pussy. Then he sucked her clit some more.
“Oh God. I’m coming.” He felt her tangle her fingers in his hair. She clutched his head as though she’d never let him go.
He sucked her harder and worked his fingers inside her while her body shook with the intensity of her climax. When she came down, he pulled her back into the waters of the spring and held her close.
Just held her, in this beautiful, magical place he’d known she would love. He felt her heartbeat against his chest and savored the taste of her on his lips. It struck him that he’d never foregone his own pleasure before to keep a woman safe and satisfied. “I’m okay, sweetheart,” he said when she offered to get him off. “This time was for you.”
She found his lips and kissed him. “I want you to know you’re the only man who’s ever been able to make me come that way.”