Read The Texan's Dream Online

Authors: Jodi Thomas

Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical, #Texas

The Texan's Dream

BOOK: The Texan's Dream
5.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


FROM THE SECOND-FLOOR LANDING JONATHAN CATLIN watched a slender young woman wrapped in plaid walk into his lawyer’s office. She looked as out of place as mesquite among all the layers of mahogany furniture.

He was an expert on being out of place, he thought. Jonathan closed his eyes and leaned into the shadows of the second-floor hallway. He knew, if she noticed him, all she’d see was a man who, from polished shoes to white collar, looked every inch the gentleman.

But it was a facade. A mask as meticulously applied as war paint.

In the past few years he’d roamed the world exploring, trying on cultures as easily as one might clothes. But none fit. He no more belonged in New York, or London, or Africa than he did at home among his kin. But with his grandmother’s death, his travels were at an end. At least for a while.

He was about to be anchored to thousands of acres of land in Texas. All he wanted to do was help a friend in trouble at Fort Elliot, get the ranch in running order, sell it, and then continue his drifting.

But tomorrow morning, he not only had to return to the ranch, now, his lawyer, Clark, was insisting he take someone with him to help straighten out the books. His grandmother’s will had given Jonathan twelve months to make the Catlin Ranch a success, or all the land would go to the state of Texas. Except, she’d insisted, for small portions allotted to longtime employees.

Jonathan didn’t care about the land. But, if he wanted to travel, he’d have to make the ranch run, at least until he could inherit and sell the place.

He couldn’t help but wonder how resolute this woman in plaid would be if she knew the danger she was about to step into. Besides living on a ranch bordering the frontier with the Indian Wars in full fury, she would be walking into a long-running feud that left no wounded, only casualties.

Jonathan slipped through the side door of Clark’s office as the applicant reached the top of the stairs and greeted Clark. The slight hint of an Irish accent flavored her soft voice.

Jonathan listened through a connecting door as Clark offered her a seat in the other office. The lawyer explained how his client needed a bookkeeper for only a year and was having trouble finding someone willing to travel so far for a temporary position. Clark didn’t add that he’d searched a week for a man to fill the job. Nothing. Considering a woman was a compromise Jonathan had reluctantly agreed to.

He had to leave at dawn, with or without a bookkeeper. If this woman didn’t fit the requirements, he would look in Dallas and trust his luck to hire someone not already working for Horris Wells. Wells was a greedy man who’d hated his neighbors for years. Now, with the passing of Catlin land from one generation to another, he saw his chance to gain.

“Your papers are in order.”

Clark’s voice drifted through the open doorway between the offices, drawing Jonathan away from thoughts of the ranch.

“You understand the job is only for one year. At the end of that time the books should be in order and hopefully in the black.”

“Aye, I mean, yes, I understand.”

“It’s Miss Kara O’Riley, correct?” Clark bellowed as he waddled around a massive oak desk. “You’re not married.”

“Yes, it is Miss O’Riley,” the woman answered directly as she pulled glasses from a small bag. “At least for a year. I’m to be married then to Devin O’Toole. As soon as I return from Texas, if I get the job, of course.”

Jonathan twisted so that he could study her face through the slight opening. The uneasy feeling that she was lying washed over him. He would’ve guessed her unclaimed. She had that “never been kissed” look about her. If she lied about a fiance, he wouldn’t blame her. In this world a woman was safer if all thought a man, even an absent one, was in her life.

He looked closer.

Her glasses were too large for her tiny nose and distorted her face slightly. Even in a town like Kansas City, where men outnumbered women by double, she’d not be among the first to be asked to dance. Yet she seemed so sure of this Devin O’Toole. Maybe the Irishman did exist.

“You also understand, Miss O’Riley, that you must be able to leave tomorrow.” Clark glanced toward the open side door and caught Jonathan’s stare. The attorney waited for permission to continue.

When Jonathan made no move, Clark turned back to Kara O’Riley.

She nodded.

Clark played with his watch chain when he felt uncomfortable; Jonathan watched the lawyer imprison his fingers in the gold braid. From his hiding place, he couldn’t help but wonder if Clark worried about the woman being able to handle the job, or if Clark feared she was stepping into a lion’s cage, tempted by the job as bait.

“You’re so young,” the lawyer mumbled. “Are you sure your father and husband-to-be will allow you to travel so far?”

“They’ve both more important matters to attend to.” The woman turned her face to the side and removed her glasses.

Jonathan caught the sadness in her eyes and guessed she was just repeating words she’d heard. She was not a woman treasured by anyone. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she hadn’t known … but she did.

She glanced at the side door but showed no sign of noticing him poorly hidden in the shadows.

In the few seconds her reply took, Jonathan saw the determination of someone preparing for battle, not simply an interview. Her eyes drew him even from six feet away. She had warrior eyes, he decided, doing what she had to do. Fire smoldered in the green depths, hinting she might fight even when she knew the cause was lost.

Clark changed the subject as he took his place behind the desk. “I understand. You come highly recommended. The agency said we must take you. If it’s travel you want, we have the job for you.”

Kara O’Riley nodded. “Aye, I am ready to leave today. My lease is up on my room, and I saw no need to renew until we talked. As we speak, my landlady is probably placing my bag on the porch.”

Clark smiled, apparently surprised by such eagerness. “You understand that the position is in Texas, and we are prepared to pay your traveling expenses?”

Jonathan watched the woman nod. Clark drew an envelope from his desk as he ran through a list of things she might need.

Jonathan moved away from the doorway while she listened to the job’s description. This one just might make it through the interview, he thought.

Then she’d be his problem.

* * *

Kara hurried into the hallway and closed the door to Mr. Clark’s office behind her. She leaned against the wall and tried to slow her breathing as she whispered thanks to the saints and guardian angels. She had the job! By dawn tomorrow, she’d be safely out of Kansas City.

Clutching the envelope tighter, she laughed softly. Fifty dollars! Proof they wanted her. Clark said she could take the money and buy whatever she thought she might need for the year in Texas. He emphasized the money was part of her traveling expenses, not her salary.

Before dawn tomorrow she would buy luggage, clothes and a hundred other things. She held the money against her chest and twirled. In all her life, she’d never been able to buy more than a few things brand-new. Now everything would be store-bought. Fifty dollars. A fortune.

A shadow moved at the end of the hallway. Kara froze. The thought crossed her mind that someone had lain in wait to steal the envelope.

She quickly shoved the money into a pocket hidden in the lining of her jacket. Reminding herself she was an O’Riley, she prepared to fight. No one would take anything from her easily.

The shadow formed into a tall man wearing a great coat that made him look more like he floated than walked toward her.

“You got the position,” he grumbled.

Kara blinked at him, hoping to lose some of her fear. As he came into focus, he looked even more menacing. He was tall and powerful, with movements as silent as a cougar hunting its prey.

“I’m s-sorry,” she stammered. “I don’t see well from a distance. I didn’t notice you standing there.”

“A blind bookkeeper?”

He didn’t smile and, now that she could see his face clearly, she guessed he’d never be the kind of man who’d be a thief. More likely a killer. His hair was dark and too long to be stylish. His blue-gray stare went right through her. His face could’ve been carved from granite. If there had been an ounce of softness, he would have been handsome. But no ounce was there.

A vision of herself lying in this hall, her neck snapped by this murderer, her eyes wide open in death, flashed across Kara’s mind.

“I’m not blind.” She pushed the image away. If he meant to kill her, he’d hardly stop to talk. “Only a little nearsighted.”

“That could prove deadly in Texas.” He moved suddenly, silently, to her side. “How will you see a rattler before he strikes? When they bite, you’ve only time to write your will before the poison moves through your body and into your heart. They say you paralyze an inch at a time until you can’t even close your eyes but are forced to watch the faces of those watching you die.”

His eyebrows drew together as he added, “Or will you see a raging buffalo or longhorn charging you so fast his hooves sound like thunder? The horns will lift you off the ground before you have time to scream.”

Kara held her head high. She wouldn’t allow this man to intimidate her. She wouldn’t. From the cut of his fine coat, she’d guess he’d never had to work all day for wages that wouldn’t buy enough to satisfy hunger. He’d never been all alone with no one to trust.

The stranger moved directly in front of her. “How does a nearsighted person tell direction when the plains are so flat there are no landmarks? In winter, the snow blinds a man so easily that he can take a wrong step between the house and the barn and freeze to death before finding his way back. If sighted folks have problems, you wouldn’t have a chance.”

“I am not afraid,” Kara lied. She was no pampered lady. She’d grown up on the hard, working-class streets of Pittsburgh.

The man laughed seemingly more at himself than at her. “Clark’s a fool to think you’ll survive the trip out. He should’ve warned you. You’re not prepared.”

Kara was starting to wish the man were a thief. He would be far less frightening. “Mr. Clark gave me money to buy a coat and boots. By dawn, I’ll be prepared. He didn’t say it would be easy.”

“Did he explain you’ll have to shake the coat out each morning before you put it on so that the scorpions that nested there during the night won’t bite you? And your boots will always have to be checked for tarantulas at dawn. They can be far deadlier than snakes.”

Kara pictured herself lying dead as wagons passed along a rutted road a few feet away. In her vision, a snake had bitten through perfectly good stockings to her leg. A family of scorpions crawled across her hand. And a tarantula hung from her throat like a hairy brooch. With her last heartbeat, she could hear the thunder of buffalo heading toward her.

“Maybe I should reconsider.” She tried to hold her imagination at bay. It couldn’t be as bad as this stranger painted.

The man’s low voice chilled the air.

“Some say the creatures are the least of a newcomer’s worries. They say the wind will drive you mad. Out of loneliness, you’ll hear voices in the breeze and screams in the storms.”

Kara backed toward the door of Mr. Clark’s office. “I have to … I have to …”

The dark stranger stepped away. “I just wanted to warn you.” He almost sounded apologetic, making his stories all the more real. “Texas is no place for cowards.”

Kara hurried into Clark’s study, the envelope in her hand.

Clark was gone. Only one of the secretaries stood beside the desk.

“I must see Mr. Clark.” Kara tried not to sound hysterical. Starving to death suddenly sounded like the lesser of two evils.

“He’s already gone,” the secretary answered. “I told him you were talking with Mr. Catlin in the hallway. He took a deep breath and left down the back stairs, saying something about beating the snow home.”

“Mr. Catlin?” Kara remembered Clark mentioning that name.

The secretary smiled. “Yes, your new employer. He’s the man you’ll be working for. I believe the orders on the envelope say you’re to meet him at the Mayflower Arms Hotel at dawn.”

Kara stared in disbelief. The shadowy figure in the hallway with those dark eyes and horrible stories was her employer!

The woman must have seen her fear. “Oh, don’t worry about him. I’m sure most of the things folks say about Jonathan Catlin aren’t true.”

“What things?”

The woman hesitated. Her need to gossip quickly won out over common sense. “They say he was raised with savages and, despite his dress and polished manners, a wild animal lurks just beneath the surface.”

“You can’t mean that!” Kara didn’t want to believeher one chance to get out of town was with a madman.

“I don’t know. I’ve been told that he’s one of the richest men from Kansas City to Galveston, yet women at social functions avoid him as if he were a diseased beggar.” She nodded slowly as if swearing her words were true. “He moves silently, like he’s been trained to hunt. And his eyes. There’s no kindness in his eyes.” The secretary leaned closer. “They’re the eyes of a killer.”

BOOK: The Texan's Dream
5.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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