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Authors: Leila Meacham

Ryan's Hand

BOOK: Ryan's Hand
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To Arthur Richard the Third

in whom I have two kings

Dear Ones,

I'm writing to share with you the history behind
Ryan's Hand
as my first, long-ago attempt to put on paper a story of fiction and to say (caution?) that you will find this book—an out-and-out romance—a departure from the more recent historical sagas of
Roses
,
Tumbleweeds
,
Somerset
, and
Titans
. That
Ryan's Hand
and the other two romances subsequently published in the mideighties have been resurrected to a second life has both thrilled and somewhat concerned me. I am thrilled at the interest of my readership in the books that spurred their republication and concerned that the books may disappoint my readers' expectations. Therefore, without a whiff of apology, I believe a little explanation is in order.

In 1982 I became aware of the Harlequin and Silhouette tidal wave sweeping the country, to name a couple of romance publishers in the forefront of the genre. The eye-opener happened in my classroom at a local junior high school where I was a teacher of ninth-grade English. I began to notice that many of the girls hurried to their seats to open up small, white-jacketed books to read before the bell rang. Curiosity—and the thrill of seeing my students reading something other than surreptitiously passed notes—drew me to their desks to see what had claimed their riveted attention. The handover was usually accompanied by a blush. “Ah, Mrs. Meacham, I don't know that this is the type of thing you read,” my students would say, or something on that order.

To which I'd reply, “As long as you're reading, I don't care what the subject matter is.” Well, of course I did, but the books—romances, they were called—seemed harmless enough.

So I decided to read several for myself, an experience that led me to express to a colleague that while I understood the allure of the books to teenage girls and the women who flocked to the well-stocked shelves in bookstores to buy them, I found the usual dissension between the main male and female characters implausible. I distinctly remember saying, “Why, their silly conflict could be settled over a cup of coffee at Denny's.” To which she seriously replied, “Well, then, why don't you write one yourself and show 'em how it should be done?”

“Oh, I couldn't,” I said. “I don't know the first thing about how to write a book, romance or otherwise.”

“I bet you can,” she said, “and I'm willing to put money on it. If you try and can't, I'll buy you a steak dinner at the San Francisco Steak House, and if you try and can, you'll buy me one.”

Well, to my utter shock, considering I didn't even know how to chapter a novel, I lost the bet. That summer during school vacation, confident that my friend would be picking up the tab at the San Francisco Steak House, I sat down at my old Smith-Corona electric typewriter ('twas the predawn of the PC, and I wasn't awake yet) to give the romance genre a whirl, if for no other reason than to appreciate the writers of the category who tried and succeeded. So
Ryan's Hand
was conceived. I was determined that the enmity between hero and heroine (who, of course, as the formula dictated, were really secretly hot for each other) was well deserved, and the story evolved from there. Novice that I was, I broke the cardinal rule of fiction: I wrote about what I
didn't
know. I never knew anybody the likes of Jeth and Cara, had never been to Boston, sat on a horse, twirled a rope, or been on a cattle roundup. I did, however, know about West Texas, land of sandstorms, blistering heat, pumping jacks, and fabulous people. A perfect setting where I could allow my imagination to run wild, I thought, as long as it did not stray too far from what I could see were the established guidelines of the romance.

When the book was completed, the same colleague suggested I send it to a local literary agent, and before I knew it, six weeks later,
Ryan's Hand
was acquired for publication. As a result, I was put under contract for two more romances,
Crowning Design
and
Aly's House
, which were published in the following two years. But I'd had enough of writing and publishing. I did not care for the solitary life and isolation of a writer, and I found the experience of meeting deadlines unnerving. I returned to the classroom, and my books went the dusty way of many an unknown author's first literary efforts, without my ever learning whether I had showed anyone “how it should be done” or not.

But that was then, and this is now, thirty-two years later. In the sweeter light of now, I elected to let the books stand as they were then, warts and all. I ask only that you read with the understanding that at the time of their creation, I did not know what in the world I was doing. Please treat kindly and do be well.

Leila Meacham

I
n a lounge at Boston's Logan International Airport, Cara Martin waited for the newly arrived 727 to release its passengers. The sun streamed through the wide expanse of glass facing the runway, but it was a cold February day and Cara pulled her old wool coat closer as she waited eagerly for the ramp door to open. Ryan would be among the first to disembark, she knew, for he always traveled first class.

She hoped he'd been able to get some rest on this trip to Texas to visit his brother. Each evening the weather news had said that temperatures had been mild there, and maybe Ryan had had an opportunity to bask in the sun on that remote ranch of theirs. He'd looked so tired when he left Boston ten days before. He lived too hard, Cara thought. She was convinced the only times he ever relaxed from the fast pace he set for himself were these quiet Sundays they shared together.

An attendant arrived to open the door to the ramp. Cara, a thrill of excitement lighting her too-serious, violet-flecked eyes, moved to the mouth of the roped-off area that funneled passengers into the concourse, afraid that in the milling crowd Ryan might not see her. She was easy to overlook. Standing less than medium height, she was a slightly built, rather severe young woman whose faded jeans and outdated brown coat gave her a faint air of poverty. She wore no makeup to enliven the classic features of her winter-pale face, and the rich bounty of her golden hair had been sternly drawn into a ponytail at the base of her slender neck.

Suddenly the reserved features exploded with a smile as a tall, dark-blond young man, his gait self-assured and buoyant, strode through the ramp door. “Ryan!” Cara called out happily and waved to catch his eye. The smile had brought an astonishing beauty to her grave face, lighting up the violet-blue eyes, drawing the primly set lips back from her small, perfectly aligned teeth. Ryan saw her and responded with a one-sided grin, which gave his urbane good looks a boyish appeal, and lifted a slim briefcase in greeting.

Cara moved back away from the crowd so she and Ryan might have a private reunion, her joy still lighting her face. He had gotten some sun, she saw, but a pallor remained beneath the light tan. There was still that hollow look about his eyes.

She looked up at him with sudden shyness when he reached her. It was still a marvel to her that this handsome, popular, immensely wealthy, transplanted Texan had become the closest friend she had ever had. “Hi,” she said. “Good trip?”

Ryan gazed down at her affectionately, one hand holding a costly leather suit bag over a well-tailored shoulder. “One to last forever. Miss me?”

“Bunches and bunches. How did you find your brother?”

“Impressive as usual. He looked great.”

Cara's expression sobered slightly. “Did…he think the same about you?”

“He thought I looked a little green around the gills. Too much salt air, he said. I assured him it was nothing of the kind. Just overwork. Did you bring my car?”

“I did, but very reluctantly. The snooty beast doesn't like me, Ryan. I think it knows I drive a Volkswagen.”

Ryan chuckled and let her take his briefcase. Holding hands, they strolled off down the concourse, too engrossed in conversation to be aware of the curious contrast they made.

Once outside in the unseasonably bright sunlight, Cara looked up at Ryan's drawn face with concern. “I had to park rather far away. If you want to wait here, I'll bring the car around.”

“Don't be silly. My legs need a good stretch. Tell me what you have planned for us on this beautiful Sunday.” He began the fast clip to which Cara had grown accustomed in the year she had known him.

“I thought we might go down to Devereux Beach and see if we can find some oak,” Cara replied. “We had a nor'easter night before last, and I'm sure if any lobster traps were left in the water, they're driftwood now. We should be able to replenish our store if no one else has beaten us to them.”

“You're quite a scavenger, you know that?” Ryan looked down at her indulgently.

“Part of my seafaring heritage,” Cara answered, unperturbed. “Something you landlubbers wouldn't know anything about. I'll bet you don't have our kind of oak in Texas to burn in your fireplaces.” She was referring to the oak sections of destroyed lobster traps that Massachusetts residents were fond of collecting from the beaches after a storm to add to their firewood. The salt lodged in the wood produced flames of brilliant hues.

“You'd get no bet from me on that, Puritan. Scrub oak is what you'd burn in Texas,” Ryan commented.

“Not me.” Cara shook her golden head. “I can't imagine myself ever being in Texas.”

Ryan did not reply to that, and Cara began a rundown of what had transpired in Boston during his absence. Her summary included amusing gossip about the society lions with whom Ryan hobnobbed as well as some stories from the subsidiary of the Boston City Library where she was a reference librarian. She kept up a steady stream of chatter to spare Ryan the effort of talking, certain that he had come down with a severe virus, and fight it though he might, he was losing the battle. It was only as they arrived at Ryan's car, a sleek, red Ferrari, that she realized he had not been listening to a word she'd said.

“Ryan?” Cara spoke worriedly and touched his arm. “I don't want to harp, but I can tell that you don't feel well. Why don't we forget about going to the beach today? I can leave you the picnic lunch, or make you some soup and then pop on off to my apartment so you can get some rest.”

Ryan looked down at the upturned face, caught once again by the sheer innocent beauty of it, which had always caused a throb deep in his heart. He longed to hold her, to pull her to him and crush her against him until the pain inside his body subsided once and for all. Now that, he thought wryly, would be the way to go.

“Not a chance, Puritan,” he said easily and took the keys Cara handed him. “I'll get all the rest I need soon. I just want to go to the place and change; then we'll hit that beach.”

Ryan's “place” was an elegantly masculine town house overlooking Marblehead Harbor. While he changed, Cara stood in the sparkling sunshine on his balcony and looked beyond the harbor toward the Atlantic, which her forebears had sailed. The ocean was calm today. Seagulls cried and soared against a bright blue sky, and waves played gently among the marble-like rocks that had given the harbor its name. It was one of those unexpectedly beautiful days rare to Boston in winter, and Cara was annoyed at the feeling of uneasiness that prevented her enjoyment of it.

She turned restlessly from the railing and walked through French doors into Ryan's well-appointed living room. Her eyes fell on a silver-framed, enlarged photograph of Ryan and his only brother, Jeth, whom she had never met. The young Bostonian picked up the photograph and studied the faces of the two brothers. Both were wearing Western cords and shirts, and had their backs against a corral fence, Jeth with an arm propped in casual affection on the shoulder of his brother. Their kinship was hard to discern. Ryan, elegant and slim and blue eyed, was an urbane contrast to his taller, more rugged brother. Ryan was handsomer than Jeth, but the older brother with his dark hair and eyes, his strong, masculine features only slightly relieved by a smile for the camera, dominated the photograph. Cara would never tell Ryan that she didn't think she would like Jeth. The older brother looked the epitome of what he was: a feudal rancher living in the remote reaches of West Texas, where he was a law unto himself. He would be a man whose heart would be hard to penetrate, the kind of man who would have held her family in contempt.

Cara replaced the photograph in its position of prominence on the mantel, aware that Ryan was standing in the doorway of the living room watching her. She turned with a smile and surveyed him. “You look better, but are you sure you want to tackle the beach? Even on a day as fine as this one, it's bound to be blustery.”

Barefoot, Ryan came into the room carrying thick socks and fleece-lined boots. He had changed into a heavy sweater and down-filled pants. With a start, Cara noticed that he had lost quite a bit of weight in the last few weeks. “Did you fellows eat anything this last week,” she asked, “or did you simply drink your meals?”

Ryan chuckled as he sat down in a leather chair near her and began pulling on the socks and boots. “What foolish notions you have about us bachelors. Why do you ask?”

“Because you've lost so much weight, Ryan.” Cara looked down at the bent head, at the slim fingers busy with laces, and a wave of affection rushed through her. She knelt down in front of him and covered his hands with hers. “Ryan, what's wrong? Is your brother all right? Is everything okay at the ranch? You didn't quarrel, did you?”

“Whoa, Puritan!” Ryan laughed into the bright eyes that at times seemed to have stars behind them. “Your concern is sweet, but it's unfounded—”

“No, it isn't, Ryan!” Cara argued. Earnestly, her hands went to his shoulders and found them startlingly thinner than she remembered. “You don't look well, my friend. You obviously haven't been eating or getting enough rest. You've been such a compassionate ear for me this year, so please let me do the same for you. Tell me what's wrong.”

Ryan lay back in his chair with a sigh and studied her from under his thick, sandy lashes. “Okay,” he said cryptically, “I'll come clean if you'll do one thing for me.”

“What's that?”

“Take off that monk's cassock.”

Cara looked down in surprise at her coat, then back at Ryan with a grin. “Am I to assume that you do not appreciate old faithful here? I'd like to remind you that this is the only coat still around from my more affluent days.”

“Fidelity has not improved its appearance, love.”

“Oh, all right!” She shrugged out of the coat, letting it fall behind her, and settled on the floor at Ryan's feet. Her over-large thick gray sweater hung from the shoulders but roundly molded the high fullness of her breasts. “Now shoot,” she ordered, giving Ryan her attention, unaware of the flicker that had appeared briefly in his blue eyes.

Ryan rested his head on the high back of the chair and pondered the ceiling for a few seconds before speaking. Then he admitted, “I have been ill lately. I've been battling a stomach virus for nearly a month. That's why I've lost weight and look a bit drawn. It's nothing serious, but it is debilitating.”

“Have you been to a doctor?”

“Yes,” Ryan said shortly, his tone implying that the subject of his health was closed. “Also”—he turned his head to the photograph on the mantel—“I can't help but worry about that rawhide-tough brother of mine. Jeth seems so alone to me. The big house is as empty and quiet as a tomb. With all that gray tile Jeth chose for the floors, it looks like one, too. Our mother never had a chance to decorate the house. Only the construction was finished when she and Dad were killed in that plane crash. I'd like to see Jeth marry a wonderful woman who will give him children to make that house a home.”

“Then why doesn't he?” Cara asked. “He certainly can't be without choices.”

“He has those, for sure. But Jeth thinks the kind of woman he'd want to share his life with doesn't exist.”

“Perfection rarely does,” Cara commented dryly, then felt herself flush as Ryan lifted his head to look down at her quizzically. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I've no business passing judgment on your brother.” Cara slipped her hand into his. “Please go on, Ryan.”

“The kind of woman Jeth needs would have to be special, not perfect,” Ryan explained patiently. “She'd have to be the kind of woman who could love the land like he does, accept its demands and flaws—the heat and wind and sandstorms and isolation. She'd have to respect its people too, all the different breeds and cultures of them. And she'd have to love Jeth, really love him, not his fortune or his power or his empire, but the man who lives behind that rock-hard exterior of his that's gotten thicker through the years.”

“That's quite an order,” Cara said softly. “Ryan, have you never thought of marrying and having those children to make that house a home? I'd hate to lose the best friend I'll ever have”—she smiled wistfully—“but still that's a possibility. The ranch belongs equally to both of you, doesn't it?”

Ryan shook his head. “On paper, yes, but the land, the house, the oil, the cattle—they really belong to Jeth. He has a philosophy that land, like horses—anything wild held captive by man—must be cared for or he has to let it go. I remember the day he demonstrated that to me. I was eighteen that summer. I'd been so busy studying for the entrance exams for Harvard I'd completely withdrawn from the ranch's operation. One day Jeth asked me to go out to the stables with him. Texas Star, my horse, was snorting around the corral, and I realized then what was on Jeth's mind. He'd found out that one of the hands had been taking care of him. At La Tierra, a man takes care of his own horse. He asked me how long it had been since I'd ridden Texas, and I had to confess I couldn't remember. I could see that he was reverting to the wild stallion he'd been when I captured him for the roundup…”

“So what happened?” Cara urged as Ryan paused.

“Jeth walked over to the corral gate and opened it. Then he slapped Texas's flank, and my horse took off for the mountains where I'd found him.”

“But that was cruel!” she gasped.

“It was
kind
, Cara! Don't you see? Texas could never belong to anyone else, and he didn't belong to me anymore, so he had to be set free. I can still see that horse. He was a three-year-old palomino and at the base of his mane was a perfectly formed white star. He raced off for a distance, then he stopped and looked back. I started to go after him, but Jeth stopped me by saying something I've never forgotten…”

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