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Authors: Diana Palmer

The Rawhide Man

BOOK: The Rawhide Man
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IT WAS A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE…

But convenient for whom? Jude Langston had practically kidnapped Bess White and brought her to his San Antonio ranch. It wasnșt that heșd wanted her so desperately-he didnșt even like Bess. No, Judeșscool green eyes were firmly fixed on the shares of his company that sheșd inherited.

Bess had always thought of Jude as the Raw hide Man-lean and rough. But then she discovered he could also be unexpectedly gentle, and it devastated her. For as much as she fought it, Jude had captured her heart. Yet how could she stay in a marriage that was so much less than such a union should be?

THE
ESSENTIAL
COLLECTION

New York Times
and
USA TODAY
Bestselling Author

DIANA PALMER

THE RAWHIDE MAN

To Doris, Kay, Kathleen, June, Mary, Cindy, Sharalee, and all those lovely San Antonio ladies

Dear Reader,

I really can’t express how flattered I am and also how grateful I am to Harlequin Books for releasing this collection of my published works. It came as a great surprise. I never think of myself as writing books that are collectible. In fact, there are days when I forget that writing is work at all. What I do for a living is so much fun that it never seems like a job. And since I reside in a small community, and my daily life is confined to such mundane things as feeding the wild birds and looking after my herb patch in the backyard, I feel rather unconnected from what many would think of as a glamorous profession.

But when I read my email, or when I get letters from readers, or when I go on signing trips to bookstores to meet all of you, I feel truly blessed. Over the past thirty years I have made lasting friendships with many of you. And quite frankly, most of you are like part of my family. You can’t imagine how much you enrich my life. Thank you so much.

I also need to extend thanks to my family (my husband, James, son, Blayne, daughter-in-law, Christina, and granddaughter, Selena Marie), to my best friend, Ann, to my readers, booksellers and the wonderful people at Harlequin Books—from my editor of many years, Tara, to all the other fine and talented people who make up our publishing house. Thanks to all of you for making this job and my private life so worth living.

Thank you for this tribute, Harlequin, and for putting up with me for thirty long years! Love to all of you.

Diana Palmer

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter One

T
hunder was crashing wildly outside the elegant middle Georgia house, but the poised young woman standing in the parlor was too numb to be frightened of it. The ordeal of the past two days had stripped her nerves of all feeling.

Elizabeth Meriam White was twenty-two and felt fifty. Her mother’s lingering illness had been torment enough, but she hadn’t expected the loss to be so traumatic. Wishing only the peace of oblivion for her beloved parent, she hadn’t realized how empty her own life was going to become. Now she had no one. Her stepsister had left that morning for Paris in a whirl of expensive perfume and chiffon, with her share of their mother’s estate firmly in hand. They’d never been close, but Bess had hoped for something more after the ordeal. She should have known better. Crystal had never once offered to help nurse her dying stepmother. After all, she’d told Bess carelessly, there was plenty of money to hire someone to do that.

Plenty of money. Bess could have cried. Yes, there had been, until Bess’s father died and her mother remarried to Jonathan Smythe and turned her father’s business interests over to him. Carla had never bothered with finance, except to make sure that the Rawhide Man couldn’t get his hands on that precious block of shares in the Texas oil corporation his father and Bess’s had pioneered together.

Bess shivered at the thought of Jude Langston. She’d always thought of him as rawhide through and through, because he was like that—lean and tough and very nearly invulnerable. He hadn’t been at the funeral, but Bess had seen her mother’s will and she knew he’d be along. Even in death, Carla’s obsession with besting Jude went on.

With a long sigh, Bess walked to the window and watched the rain beating down outside on the bleak, barren trees, whose autumn leaves had only just disappeared as cold December hovered overhead.

She leaned her forehead against the cold window-pane and closed her eyes. Oh, Mama, she thought miserably, I never knew what loneliness was until now. I never knew.

It had been a long year. A long two years. Carla had had a progressive kind of bone cancer that hadn’t responded to any kind of treatment, not radiation or chemotherapy. And Carla herself had refused any discussion of bone marrow transplants. So her death had been by inches, while Bess had tried to be brave and nurse her and not go to pieces. It hadn’t been easy. Her mother had been demanding and perverse and irritable and impatient. But Bess loved her. And she took care of her, up until the final hospital stay. She did it without any help from Crystal, too, because Crystal was having a mad fling with a French count and couldn’t be bothered to come home. Except to grab her share of the pitiful amount of money that was left, of course. Bess had reminded her coldly that hospital and doctor bills had drained the family resources. And then Crystal had asked about the oil stock….

Bess rubbed the back of her neck where it felt strained to the limit. She was sick all over with grief and the lack of rest and food. The stock, Crystal had said, might pull Bess out of the hole.

“Even so, you’ll have to sell the house, Bess,” Crystal had said, oddly sympathetic. “It’s mortgaged to the roots of the grass.”

“The minute he hears from the attorneys, Jude Langston will come down on my head like judgment,” Bess returned, “and you know it.”

“That sexy man,” Crystal said, nodding dreamily. “My God, what a waste, to look like that and be as hard as he is. He could have women by the barrelful, but all he wants to do is play around with oil and cattle and that baby of his.”

“Katy’s not a baby anymore,” Bess reminded her. “She’s almost ten.”

“That’s right, you go to the ranch every summer, don’t you, to those reunions? But you didn’t go this summer….” Crystal remarked.

Bess colored delicately and turned away. “I had to take care of Mother,” she said shortly.

“Yes, I know it was hard. I’d have helped darling, really I would, but…” Her delicate features twisted. “What will you do about the stock?”

“I wish I didn’t have it,” Bess said levelly. “I don’t relish having to face Jude. I only wish Mother hadn’t tied up the stock the way she did.”

“Oh, she hated him, all right,” Crystal said, laughing. “Even when she was able, she’d never go to the reunions, because she knew he’d be there. Why were they such enemies?”

“Because she was a society girl,” Bess said bitterly, remembering. “And there’s nothing in the world Jude hates more. Katy’s mother was one, you know. She broke their engagement while he was in Vietnam and married someone else, even though she was carrying his child. He still takes that hatred out on anyone handy. Mother. Or me. I just wish the battle had died with her.”

“I think you’ll manage, sweet,” Crystal told her, sizing up her stepsister’s tall, elegant carriage. Bess wasn’t exactly pretty, but she was a lady and she had class, and it stuck out all over her, from her silver blond hair to her soft brown eyes and creamy complexion.

“Against Jude?” Bess smiled sadly. “I watched him back down an armed cowboy once, when I was with Dad at the Langston ranch. I was about fourteen, and one of the hands got mad at Jude for something. He took a couple of drinks and went at Jude with a loaded gun. Jude didn’t even flinch. He walked straight into the gun, took it away from the cowboy and beat him to his knees.”

“Your eyes flash when you talk about him,” Crystal observed, watching Bess. “He excites you, doesn’t he?”

“He frightens me.” The older girl laughed nervously.

Crystal shook her head slowly. “You’re awfully naive for a woman your age. It isn’t fear, but you aren’t experienced enough to know that, are you?” she asked absently. Then she shrugged and whirled away. “Have to run, pet. Jacques is meeting me at the airport. Let me know how things work out, won’t you?”

And that was that. Bess was left alone in the house, and it was getting dark. She had no family, no close friends—there hadn’t been the opportunity to make friends, with an invalid mother who needed constant care. So she was alone.

Involuntarily her mind went wandering back to Jude like a puppy that wouldn’t mind. He’d be along, all right. As soon as he realized that Bess had control of his precious stock, he’d be at her throat. He hadn’t managed to run over Carla, though, and he wasn’t going to run over Bess, either. She had the shares and she was keeping them. They were all that stood between her and starvation, and they paid a high dividend.

She let the curtain fall and turned away from the window too quickly to catch the flash of car lights against the glass. The force of the rain muffled the sound of a purring engine coming closer.

Bess went into the bare hall and sat down on the steps, ruffling her disheveled blond hair. She touched her face lightly, mentally comparing it with Crystal’s. Her nose was arrow straight; her mouth had a bee-stung appearance, full and red and soft. Her brown eyes were wide spaced and appealing. She wasn’t beautiful like her stepsister, but she wasn’t ugly, at least. Of course, she was very thin and small breasted—not voluptuous like Crystal. But someday she might find a man and get married. And again she thought of Jude and cursed her stubborn, stupid mind. Jude would never marry. For heaven’s sake, he’d never even bothered to marry Katy’s mother!

Bess stared around her at the opulent home, which had been part of the White estate for over a hundred years, surviving even the Civil War. How sad that it hadn’t been able to survive the Smythes, she thought with a surge of humor. Crystal was right, of course. It would have to be sold. Dividends from her stocks would provide enough to support her if she was frugal, but not to maintain the house as well.

With a weary groan she got to her feet. She might as well get busy and clean out some drawers or something. It would have been a blessing if she’d had a job to go to, but she’d been trained for nothing except managing this monstrous house. And soon she wouldn’t have even that. She laughed almost hysterically at the thought. She’d have to get a job.

The sudden clang of the doorbell made her jump. She hadn’t expected visitors in this wild rain.

She glanced at her hair in the mirror. It looked as if it had been caught in a windmill, but there was no time to fix it, and she wasn’t wearing makeup at all. She looked pale and plain and sickly. She hoped this wasn’t going to be another bill collector; she had enough trouble already, and the phone calls and demands for payment were growing hourly since the news of her mother’s death had been made public. When it rained it poured, she thought desperately.

A wild shudder went through her when she opened the door. The man outside was the image of every woman’s secret dream. Tall, broad shouldered and long legged, dressed in an expensive gray pin-striped suit with matching Stetson and boots, he looked like something out of a smart men’s magazine. But his face, deeply tanned, was as inscrutable as a stone carving. His mouth was rigid, as firm as his jaw. His eyes were deeply set under thick black lashes and they were a glittering pale green. His scowling eyebrows were the same jet black as the hair she glimpsed under his hat. And the whole portrait was so formidable that she instinctively stepped back.

“You’ve been expecting me, I imagine,” Jude Langston said curtly, just a trace of a Texas accent in his deep, measured voice.

“Oh, yes, along with flood, earthquake and volcanic eruptions,” she agreed, using the protective guise of humor that had always saved her nerves when she had to deal with him. “I won’t even bother asking why you’re here. Obviously, you’ve seen the will.”

BOOK: The Rawhide Man
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