AMELIA HOWARD LOVED THE DESERT COUNTRY OF WEST Texas. It might not be as green and lush as the eastern part of the state, and there were dust storms and coyotes, wolves, and rattlesnakes to cope with, but it had a fascination all its own. Occasionally there were bandidos who raided across the Mexican border, which was just over the Rio Grande—Rio Bravo del Norte as the Mexicans called it—from El Paso. There were no Indian raids; there hadn’t been any for twenty years or more. Still, something was always happening on the border, and Amelia worried constantly about her brother, Quinn, who was a Texas Ranger. Border problems often meant Ranger intervention.
It had been something of a shock for Atlanta-born and-bred Amelia to find herself in west Texas. When her youngest brothers had died two years ago of typhoid fever, her father, Hartwell Howard, had suffered a head injury in a buggy accident trying to get the doctor to come and see them. After that, he suddenly changed. His personality became violent, and he had rages that were unbelievable.
Quinn had gone away to fight in the Spanish-American War and then had settled in El Paso. Left in Atlanta with her failing mother and her abusive father, Amelia learned quickly that being docile and obedient was the only way to escape the physical violence that began to accompany her father’s personality change. It was worse when he drank, and he had started doing that, too. Presumably he did it because of the worsening headaches.
Her mother had died of pneumonia just a year ago. Amelia felt her loss keenly, as did her father. A year ago, he had still had periods when he acted normally. Now, everything was different.
Hartwell had become suddenly impulsive and restless. Just a week after her mother’s funeral, he took a notion to move to El Paso with Amelia, to be near Quinn, who had joined the Texas Rangers and was stationed in Alpine, Texas. Hartwell had abruptly seized an opportunity for dynasty-building in his friendship with a wealthy Texas rancher. The move to work in a Texas bank where the rancher kept some of his fortune was one step in that direction. That it had taken several months to arrange hadn’t stemmed Hartwell Howard’s enthusiasm, either. In fact, at times it had seemed to be the only thing that regulated his increasingly erratic behavior. The second step in her father’s plan was trying to force Amelia into a romantic entanglement for which she had no taste whatsoever.
Her father had suddenly become a money-hungry tyrant. Nor was his cruelty flavored with regret or mercy. But in spite of it all Amelia had stayed with Hartwell. She was intelligent enough to realize that there had to be some connection between the head injury her father had suffered in the buggy accident and his radical personality change. She had loved the man he was. It was not in her to desert him now, when he needed her most. She had always been Hartwell’s favorite child, and her loyalty to him would survive anything, even his rages.
But even if she had been hard-hearted enough to desert him, she didn’t know what she would have done. She had no source of income, and no way of getting one.
Their father had been so kind when she was a little girl, she reflected. He was forever bringing his children and his wife small presents—small, because his job at the bank as an accountant did not generate much income—but there was always affection and compassion from him. This man he had become was no longer recognizable as her father. But out of the love she had borne him in her childhood, Amelia stubbornly stayed with him, protecting him from the world.
That was becoming increasingly difficult. The rages were closer together and now were produced by the smallest things: ashes on his jacket or a misplaced paper.
Amelia was twenty. She had no experience of men. She was lovely enough to marry where she chose. But her father wanted to marry her to Alan Culhane, youngest son of the powerful west Texas Culhane ranching family. The Culhanes did not know what Hartwell was like away from the bank. There was always the risk that they would find out the hard way.
One time Amelia had been frightened enough to try to run away. One night in Atlanta, just before they moved to El Paso, he’d hit her viciously with a leather strap. She still shuddered, remembering what had happened. It was the only time she had reconsidered her decision to stick it out with Hartwell. But her father was in tears the next morning and she gave in and moved with him to Texas. Now, here in El Paso where Quinn was nearby, she felt more confident about her choice.
Amelia had idolized Quinn when she was a little girl. She still did. For all that they were four years apart in age, they looked like twins. Quinn had blond hair, the color of her own, and the same deep brown eyes, although his eyes looked almost black in anger. He had a straight, regal nose, and he was enormously tall. Amelia was only of average height, but she was slender and well made.
Quinn had finished college at the same time as his friend King Culhane, who was five years older than he but who had started college quite late in life. Amelia had only managed to finish high school. Her father felt that women should not be too intellectual, and he’d refused to let her seek higher education. What he didn’t know was that Quinn had schooled her in the classics and in languages, not only Greek and Latin, but French and Spanish as well.
She had a facility for languages, and she was fluent, but her father didn’t know. There was a lot about Amelia that he didn’t know, because she now kept one side of her complex personality carefully hidden. Her temper and spirit were submerged to prevent her father from flaring up when she displayed them. He seemed to grow worse daily. She had consulted a doctor about his headaches once and had been told that his mind might be permanently impaired and that he might even die one day of unseen injuries. The doctor had wanted to see Hartwell, but when Amelia gently suggested a meeting, Hartwell became so violent that she had to put a door between them. Since then she had been afraid to mention it again. Her father had high blood pressure in addition to his headaches, and she didn’t want to risk killing him.
Nor had she told Quinn her suspicions. He had cares of his own without being asked to bear hers as well.
She could shoot a gun; Quinn had taught her. She could ride a horse expertly, from an English saddle or a Western one. She had a mischievous sense of humor that popped out when she was in young company and relaxed. She could paint. But the face she deliberately presented to Alan and the rest of the Culhanes was necessarily a dull and lackluster one. To all appearances, she was a rather blank young woman with an absent smile, lovely but introverted and not very bright. Most of all, she was calm and never argued, so that her father would be calm as well.
Hartwell had forgotten the mischievous, fiery Amelia of years past, which suited her very well. Except that Alan Culhane seemed to like her this way, and that hadn’t been the idea of the masquerade at all.
In many ways, it was easier to cope with her father here on Latigo, the sprawling ranching empire owned by their host, Brant Culhane and his family. The Howards were in residence for a hunting party, and fortunately her father was more interested in sport than in his new passion for overseeing every aspect of Amelia’s life. He was taking medicine for the headaches and drinking very little. He didn’t want to alienate the man he was trying to lure into a business partnership, or the man he wanted Amelia to marry. So she was left to her own devices. Life was pleasant enough except for the one thorn in her side.
The friendship between the Howards and the Culhanes was a long-standing one, formed when Quinn was at college with the eldest son and heir. But it was the younger son, Alan, whom Hartwell Howard had chosen to marry Amelia. Alan didn’t know it yet. Amelia hoped he wouldn’t find out, because while she liked him, she had no desire to become his wife. Not when it would mean living in close proximity to him. The thorn. The serpent in paradise. She hated him. And loved him.
Amelia caught a movement out of the comer of her eye. As if she’d conjured him up, there he was. The thorn. He was approaching as she strolled quietly along the trail near the house, a small posy of wildflowers clutched in her slender hand. She winced with apprehension, because every encounter seemed more painful than the last.
His whole name was Jeremiah Pearson Culhane, but no one ever called him that. He was King Culhane, and all he lacked were the regal clothes and crown. He had the authority, the bearing, the menace of absolute power, and he used it. He didn’t need the prop of his impeccable European background, although it included several cousins from half the royal houses in Europe. He was simply King.
Seeing him dressed as he was now, it was difficult to think of him as a wealthy man. He was wearing the same working clothes that his cowhands wore: faded, stained jeans with flaring batwing chaparreros—the leather chaps that cowboys wore to deflect the vicious chaparral and cacti. His hat was a Stetson, black, wide-brimmed, with a simple leather hatband. His boots were misshapen from use and thick with mud. He wore a crumpled blue bandana around his neck, over a faded and worn chambray shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons on the cuffs and down the front. He carried a Winchester repeating rifle in a scabbard on his saddle. Most of the men did. There were some savage creatures in the wild, some with two legs instead of four.
King didn’t speak as he rode past Amelia. He didn’t even look at her. The silent treatment had gone on for a week—the entire length of time Amelia and her father had been visiting. He contrived to ignore her completely, even when the family was all together in the evenings. No one else noticed, but Amelia did.
From the very first time she’d seen him, when Quinn had brought him home from college to visit with the Howard family in Atlanta six years ago, she’d adored him. She’d only been fourteen, and her big, dark eyes had followed him lovingly. After that one time Quinn mostly went to Texas with King for visits, because King was oddly reluctant to visit the Howard household.
Alan had come to Atlanta for the twins’ funeral, but he’d gone on the train back that very day. King never came back again, because Quinn went to fight in Cuba and then moved to Texas.
Now of course by that time Amelia was the creature her father’s mercurial rages had made her. When she and her father had arrived at Latigo for the hunting trip, King quickly made his utter distaste for Amelia known. She’d overheard a scathing inventory of herself from him the day before. It had wounded her. He was a sophisticated, worldly man around whom beautiful women revolved like planets. For a rural man, he had something of a reputation with city women of a certain sort. Amelia had been disturbed by Quinn’s sometimes blatant stories about him after they left college. But one long look at him six years ago had been enough to change her life.
It hadn’t changed his. He never looked at her. He never spoke to her. He simply pretended not to see her.
Amelia wasn’t a violent woman, but she sometimes thought she would enjoy throwing a rock at him. Her own adopted persona had probably been her downfall where King was concerned. He took her at face value, as a nondescript woman with no brain, no personality, and no spirit, and he treated her that way. Nothing had ever hurt quite as much. Her soft eyes watched him ride away, tall and straight, almost a part of the horse. If only he could see past the mask she was forced to wear to keep peace with her father to the woman underneath. But there was no hope of that now. With a long, pained sigh, she turned back toward the house.
* * *
“You’re so quiet, my dear,” Enid Culhane prompted after dinner that evening. They were all sitting around the parlor, sipping coffee while they worked at new embroidery patterns together. The men had retired to Brant’s study to clean their weapons and get ready for the next day’s hunt.
Enid’s dark eyes narrowed as she studied the demure Amelia. She often thought that there was much more to Amelia than anyone realized. There was a mischief in her dark eyes from time to time that was at odds with her quiet demeanor. And Enid also had her own opinion of the girl’s father. Not a favorable one.
“Brant mentioned that we might go to a concert one night at Chopin Hall. Would you like that?”
“I love music,” Amelia replied. “Yes, thank you.”
“Have you a gown?”
“Oh, yes. I have two.”
Enid finished the delicate embroidery of a flower, her eyes curious. “King is sometimes difficult,” she said without preamble. “He has too much success with women. So much that I sometimes think he is in danger of becoming a cruel rake.”
“But he is not!” Amelia flushed furious at her own impetuous outburst and dragged her embarrassed eyes down to her own handwork. Not before her hostess had seen, and understood, the little flash of defense, however.
“You think highly of him, do you not?”
“He is … a striking man, in many ways.”
“Striking, and thoughtless.” She started on another flower. “Marie is getting the girls to bed. Would you ask if they need anything before I let Rosa close up the kitchen and go to bed?”
Amelia walked down the long hall to Marie Bonet’s room and knocked gently before she opened the door. The girls, aged six and eight, had Marie’s dark hair and dark eyes. They were propped up in the spare bed across the room from Marie’s, dressed in ruffled and laced cotton gowns. They looked like angels.
“How pretty!” Amelia laughed. “Tres belles!” she added in French.
“Tres bien. Tu parles plus bon, cherie,” Marie praised.
“Due, I am certain, to your fine tutoring,” she replied. “Mrs. Culhane asks if the girls need anything else from the kitchen before the cook leaves.”
“No, they are fine. I was going to tell them a story, but they like yours so much better. Do you mind? I impose?”
“Not at all!” Amelia protested. “Go on, do. I’ll get them settled for you.”
Marie smiled. She was petite and dark, very kind and gentle. Her husband had died of a fever only a few months before, leaving a distraught widow to cope with two little girls. Fortunately, there was money in the family, so Marie wasn’t left destitute. Enid Culhane was a cousin of Marie. The women had become close, and Enid had invited Marie and the children to stay at the ranch.
Once Marie had gone back to the living room, Amelia curled up on the bed with the little girls and opened the French reader of fairy tales. She struggled with some words, but the girls were eager to teach her. It was a learning experience for all of them, and she did love children.
She covered the little girls up to their necks when they were sleeping and kissed their rosy cheeks. She stood looking down at them with tender eyes, wondering if she would ever have a child of her own. The thought of being forced to marry Alan and bear his children made her ill.
She turned and tiptoed to the door, opening it very quietly. But as she closed it and slipped away down the dark hall, she collided suddenly with a tall, powerful figure and gasped as lean hands gripped her shoulders.
She knew before she looked up who had steadied her. When King was within a yard of her, she could feel the hair standing on her nape. She had a peculiar kind of intuition that always recognized him, even before he spoke.
Her eyes lifted, curious and quiet, to the dark, lean contours of his face. He had silver eyes, deeply set under thick brows in a lean, square face notorious for its expressiveness. King could say more with a look than his brother could with a dictionary. His temper, like his courage, was legendary in this part of Texas.
He was wearing a dark suit, and against it his white shirt emphasized the olive of his complexion. He was a striking man. He didn’t have Alan’s good looks or the craggy ones of his father. But there was something in that face that made women want to crawl to him. Amelia had seen them simper around him for years and hated his arrogance and sensuality. She hated knowing that he could have any woman he wanted, especially since he made it so apparent that he didn’t want Amelia.
“Watch where you’re going, can’t you?” he asked curtly.
“Sorry,” she said demurely and went to move away.
Surprisingly, his hands tightened on her soft upper arms. “What were you doing in there?” he asked suspiciously, jerking his head toward Marie’s bedroom.
She lifted both eyebrows. “Pilfering jewels?” she suggested with a smile.
“I was reading the girls to sleep,” she said quickly. She hadn’t meant to give voice to her sense of humor.
“They speak very little English.”
He thought her a liar as well as a thief. What else could she expect? “Mais, je parle français, monsieur,” she told him. Mischievously she added, “Je ne vous aime pas. Je pense que vous êtes un animal.”
His head moved. Just a little. Just a fraction. Something changed in his silver eyes. “C’est vrai?” he replied softly.
Blushing furiously, she jumped away from him. He let her go without protest, and she took to her heels, running pell-mell down the hall to her own room. She darted in it and closed the door, locking it as an afterthought. Her face was scarlet. Why hadn’t she realized that such an educated man might have a knowledge of languages past the requisite Greek and Latin? Certainly King Culhane spoke enough French to understand that she’d said she didn’t like him and that he was an animal. She didn’t know how she was going to face him!
Of course she had to eventually. She couldn’t hide in her room during after-dinner coffee. And while she might have betrayed a little knowledge of French, at least she hadn’t disgraced herself by addressing him in the familiar tense. She adjusted her white lace blouse in the waistband of her long black skirt and tucked wisps of hair back into her high coiffure. She winced at her own pale reflection in the mirror and wished she hadn’t been quite so forthcoming.
Enid and Marie and Hartwell Howard were nibbling on the delicate Napoleon pastries that had been served with their coffee when Amelia joined them in the parlor.
Her dark-faced, mustachioed father gave her a cursory appraisal. He had a glass of whiskey in his hand, and his cheeks were red—a dangerous sign. Amelia gave thanks that she wasn’t alone with him. “Where have you been, miss?” he asked angrily. “Is this any way to behave in company?”
“I do beg your pardon,” Amelia said softly, placating him as usual, keeping her eyes lowered as she sat beside Marie and Enid, almost trembling with nerves. “I was detained.”
“Mind your manners,” her father repeated.
Alan came into the room with King and their father. All three men were wearing dark suits, but King looked impeccably elegant in his, while Alan looked uncomfortable. Brant, as usual, was the picture of the country gentleman.
“Your father mentioned that you play the piano, Miss Howard,” Brant addressed her, smiling. He was very like Alan, dark-haired and dark-eyed, with an olive complexion. He and Alan were tall, but King towered over them both. King’s eyes were a light, silvery gray, deep set with thick lashes. His face was more angular and lean than those of the other men in his family, square-jawed with a straight nose and high cheekbones. He had a lithe, predatory way of walking that made Amelia’s heart race.
“Of course she plays,” Hartwell answered for his daughter. He gestured toward the spinet. “Play some Beethoven, Amelia.”
Amelia got up obediently and went to the piano. She couldn’t look at King as she passed him, but she felt his eyes on her every step of the way. Disconcerted by the unblinking scrutiny, her slender hands trembled on the keyboard as she began to play, and she made one mistake after another.
The sudden slam of Hartwell Howard’s fist on the flawless finish of the cherry side table made Amelia jump. “For God’s sake, girl, stop banging away at the wrong keys!” Hartwell roared, disconcerting his host and hostess, not to mention Amelia. “Play it properly!”
She took a steadying breath. Her father’s temper had a visible effect on her. But behind it, she knew, there was something much worse than temper. She shot a quick glance at him. Yes, his eyes were glazed, and he was holding his head. Not tonight, she prayed. Please don’t let him die here … !
“Well, what are you waiting for?” her father raged.
“Possibly for you to stop, so that she can concentrate on her music,” King remarked. His voice was pleasant enough, but the look that accompanied it made Hartwell stiffen.
As if he realized that he’d overstepped himself, Hartwell sat back on the sofa. He touched his temple and frowned as if he were trying to think. He glanced at Amelia. “Go ahead, daughter, play for us,” he said, and for an instant he was the kind, sweet father she’d adored.
She smiled and let her hands rest on the keys. Then she began to play. The soft, building strains of the “Moonlight Sonata” filled the room, swelled like the tide, ebbed and flowed as she let the music become an expression of the turmoil and pain and longing in her own heart.
When she finished, even her father was silent.
She looked up into turbulent silver eyes that were far too close. She hadn’t heard him move.
“You have a gift, Miss Howard,” he said quietly and with faint surprise. “It was a privilege to hear you.”
“Yes, indeed,” Enid enthused. “I had no idea you were so talented, my dear!”
Other praise fell on deaf ears. Amelia had heard nothing past the soft words King had spoken. But beyond that was the darkness growing again in her father’s eyes as he finished his drink and his host rose to refill his glass. Her heart raced with fear.
“May I be excused, do you think?” Amelia asked Enid quickly.
“Nonsense,” Hartwell said coldly. “You’ll stay and be sociable, my girl.”
“Papa, if you please,” she tried again, her dark eyes wide with apprehension.
“I do not please,” he replied. His eyes were growing glassier. “Remember your promise to obey me, Amelia,” he added with a soft warning, and his face tautened.
She could hardly forget when the promise had been made and the fierce blow that had prompted it. But now, Quinn was nearby. She had to remember that. If she were careful, and smart, she could circumvent her father’s violent outburst. She’d done it before, many times. She knew of only one way.
“Alan, you promised to show me the roses, did you not?” she improvised with a shy smile in the younger man’s direction. No one could see, in her position, the desperation in her eyes.
“Indeed,” Alan replied. “Shall we, my dear?” And he proffered his arm.
She took it with cold, numb fingers, smiling as she followed him blindly from the room, dreading the impact of her father’s voice if he objected. But she was betting that he would not. This was what he wanted.
And miraculously, he did not object. He turned and began discussing the weather with his host. He wanted Amelia to become involved with Alan. He had in mind a merger of families. Naturally he didn’t protest.
“I’ll join you, if you don’t mind,” King said lazily, and fell into step beside them.
He pulled an imported cigar from his pocket and struck a match to light it. In the glow, his face had a hardness that Amelia had never encountered in any other man. But patently, he didn’t approve of her friendship with Alan. Perhaps he sensed her father’s plan and intended to put a quick end to it. Certainly, his opinion of her was made evident at every turn.
“Where did you learn to play like that, Amelia?” Alan asked gently, glaring at his brother.
“I had a private tutor,” she replied. “Papa feels that young women should be artistic.”
“And mindlessly obedient, obviously,” King added carelessly.
“King!” Alan snapped. “Pray keep your opinions to yourself.”
“Since Miss Howard is so obviously the obedient slave of her parent, suitors must be in short supply.” He took a draw from the cigar and in the semi-darkness of the patio with its surrounding rose gardens, there was a cold glint in his silver eyes. “Not so, Miss Howard?”
Amelia despised him. The two small confrontations with him this evening had softened her toward him, and now when he sensed she was vulnerable, he decided to attack. How could she have forgotten his opinion of her?
“You must think what you like, Mr. Culhane,” she said with quiet dignity.
“Really, King, hasn’t she endured enough tonight?” Alan asked impatiently.
“If she hasn’t, then I certainly have,” King replied with faint contempt. He made her a brief bow. “Good evening, Miss Howard.”
She stared after him with bloodless lips, so tightly compressed that she thought she might never again be able to open them.
“He is impossible at times,” Alan said gently. “Don’t let him upset you, Amelia. He likes to bully people. It appeals to his sense of humor,” he added coldly.
Amelia glanced at him covertly, reading the resentment and dislike in his expression. Alan was the youngest son and the last to be considered. King was the eldest, and the middle brother, Callaway, was off prospecting in east Texas. Alan stood in King’s shadow and knew that he always would. Amelia felt a kind of kinship with him, because certainly she would always stand in her father’s. She would never have a moment’s peace or independence or freedom while her father drew breath. Not, she thought, that she would wish him dead. She only wished that things were as they had been when her little brothers were alive. Had her father been in a better condition, or absent, she was certain that she’d have lobbed a big rock right at King’s arrogant head.
She forced her busy mind back to Alan and listened with every appearance of interest to his stories about the ranch. But inside she was dreading the end of this visit when she would have to return to town. Right now they were living in a boardinghouse where the presence of other people protected her. But her father had been talking of buying a house for himself and Amelia. If he did that Amelia would have no protection. Quinn lived in the Ranger barracks. There must, she thought frantically, be something that she could do to prevent such a move. She had to keep calm and think!
A desperate solution to her predicament came creeping into her mind. If she married, she thought, her father’s hold on her would be broken. She would be free, and surely Alan would be kind to her. But then her father would be alone, and he might hurt himself or someone else. Could she live with her conscience if tragedy resulted from her urge to get away? He had been the best father in the whole world. Had their situations been reversed, he would certainly not have deserted her in her time of need.
She looked up at Alan with soft brown eyes and smiled sadly. No. She could not run from her responsibility. And even if she did, it would not be fair to use Alan in such a way. He was much too nice.
Alan forgot what he’d been saying and smiled back. Odd, he thought as they continued along the path between the fragrant roses, that he hadn’t noticed how pretty Amelia was in the moonlight!