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The kitchen cat twirled around Tess's legs and almost tripped her on her way to the oven. She smiled at it ruefully and made time to pour it a bowl of cat food. The cat was always hungry, it seemed. Probably it was still afraid of starving, because it had been a stray when Tess took it in.
It was the bane of Tess Brady's existence that she couldn't resist stray or hurt animals. Most of her young life had been spent around rodeos with her father, twice the world champion calf roper. She hadn't had a lot to do with animals, which might have explained why she loved them. Now that her father was gone, and she was truly on her own, she enjoyed having little things to take care of. Her charges ranged from birds with broken wings to sick calves. There was an unbroken procession.
This cat was her latest acquisition. It had come to the back door as a kitten just after Thanksgiving, squalling in the dark, rainy night. Tess had taken it in, despite the grumbling from two of her three bosses. The big boss, the one who didn't like her, had been her only ally in letting the cat stay.
That surprised her. Callaghan Hart was one tough hombre. He'd been a captain in the Green Berets and had seen action in Operation Desert Storm. He was the next-to-eldest of the five Hart brothers who owned the sweeping Hart Ranch Properties, a conglomerate of ranches and feedlots located in several western states. The headquarter ranch was in Jacobsville, Texas. Simon, the eldest brother, was an attorney in San Antonio. Cor-rigan, who was four years younger than Simon, had married over a year and a half ago. He and his wife Dorie had a new baby son. There were three other Hart bachelors left in Jacobsville: Reynard, the youngest, Leopold, the second youngest, and Callaghan who was just two years younger than Simon. They all lived on the Jacobsville property.
Tess's father had worked for the Hart brothers for a little over six months when he dropped dead in the corral of a heart attack. It had been devastating for Tess, whose mother had run out on them when she was little. Cray Brady, her father, was an only child. There wasn't any other family that she knew of. The Harts had also known that. When their housekeeper had expressed a desire to retire, Tess had seemed the perfect replacement because she could cook and keep house. She could also ride like a cowboy and shoot like an expert and curse in fluent Spanish, but the Hart boys didn't know about those skills because she'd never had occasion to display them. Her talents these days were confined to making the fluffy biscuits the brothers couldn't live without and producing basic but hearty meals. Everything except sweets because none of the brothers seemed to like them.
It would have been the perfect job, even with Leopold's endless pranks, except that she was afraid of Cal-laghan. It showed, which made things even worse.
He watched her all the time, from her curly red-gold hair and pale blue eyes to her small feet, as if he was just waiting for her to make a mistake so that he could fire her. Over breakfast, those black Spanish eyes would cut into her averted face like a diamond. They were set in a lean, dark face with a broad forehead and a heavy, jutting brow. He had a big nose and big ears and big feet, but his long, chiseled mouth was perfect and he had thick, straight hair as black as a raven. He wasn't handsome, but he was commanding and arrogant and frightening even to other men. Leopold had once told her that the brothers tried to step in if Cag ever lost his temper enough to get physical. He had an extensive background in combat, but even his size alone made him dangerous. It was fortunate that he rarely let his temper get the best of him.
Tess had never been able to understand why Cag disliked her so much. He hadn't said a word of protest when the others decided to offer her the job of housekeeper and cook after her father's sudden death. And he was the one who made Leopold apologize after a particularly unpleasant prank at a party. But he never stopped cutting at Tess or finding ways to get at her.
Like this morning. She'd always put strawberry preserves on the table for breakfast, because the brothers preferred them. But this morning Cag had wanted apple butter and she couldn't find any. He'd been scathing about her lack of organization and stomped off without a second biscuit or another cup of coffee.
"His birthday is a week from Saturday," Leopold had explained ruefully. "He hates getting older."
Reynard agreed. "Last year, he went away for a week around this time of the year. Nobody knew where he was, either." He shook his head. "Poor old Cag."
"Why do you call him that?" Tess asked curiously.
"I don't know," Rey said, smiling thoughtfully. "I guess because, of all of us, he's the most alone."
She hadn't thought of it that way, but Rey was right. Cag was alone. He didn't date, and he didn't go out "with the boys," as many other men did. He kept to himself. When he wasn't workingwhich was rarelyhe was reading history books. It had surprised Tess during her first weeks as housekeeper to find that he read Spanish colonial history, in Spanish. She hadn't known that he was bilingual, although she found it out later when two of the Hispanic cowboys got into a no-holds-barred fight with a Texas cowboy who'd been deliberately baiting them. The Texas cowboy had been fired and the two Latinos had been quietly and efficiently cursed within an inch of their lives in the coldest, most bitingly perfect Spanish Tess had ever heard. She herself was bilingual, having spent most of her youth in the Southwest.
Cag didn't know she spoke Spanish. It was one of many accomplishments she was too shy to share with him. She kept to herself most of the time, except when Dorie came with Corrigan to the ranch to visit. They lived in a house of their own several miles awayalthough it was still on the Hart ranch. Dorie was sweet and kind, and Tess adored her. Now that the baby was here, Tess looked forward to the visits even more. She adored children.
What she didn't adore was Herman. Although she was truly an animal lover, her affection didn't extend to snakes. The great albino python with his yellow-patterned white skin and red eyes terrified her. He lived in an enormous aquarium against one wall of Cag's room, and he had a nasty habit of escaping. Tess had found him in a variety of unlikely spots, including the washing machine. He wasn't dangerous because Cag kept him well fed, and he was always closely watched for a day or so after he atewhich wasn't very often. Eventually she learned not to scream. Like measles and colds, Herman was a force of nature that simply had to be accepted. Cag loved the vile reptile. It seemed to be the only thing that he really cared about.
Well, maybe he liked the cat, too. She'd seen him playing with it once, with a long piece of string. He didn't know that. When he wasn't aware anyone was watching, he seemed to be a different person. And nobody had forgotten about what happened after he saw what was subsequently referred to as the "pig" movie. Rey had sworn that his older brother was all but in tears during one of the scenes in the touching, funny motion picture. Cag saw it three times in the theater and later bought a copy of his own.
Since the movie, Cag didn't eat pork anymore, not ham nor sausage nor bacon. And he made everyone who did feel uncomfortable. It was one of many paradoxes about this complicated man. He wasn't afraid of anything on this earth, but apparently he had a soft heart hidden deep inside. Tess had never been privileged to see it, because Cag didn't like her. She wished that she wasn't so uneasy around him. But then, most people were.
Christmas Eve came later in the week, and Tess served an evening meal fit for royalty, complete with all the trimmings. The married Harts were starting their own tradition for Christmas Day, so the family celebration was on Christmas Eve.
Tess ate with them, because all four brothers had looked outraged when she started to set a place for herself in the kitchen with widowed Mrs. Lewis, who came almost every day to do the mopping and waxing and general cleaning that Tess didn't have time for. It was very democratic of them, she supposed, and it did feel nice to at least appear to be part of a familyeven if it wasn't her own. Mrs. Lewis went home to her visiting children, anyway, so Tess would have been in the kitchen alone.
She was wearing the best dress she hada nice red plaid one, but it was cheap and it looked it when compared to the dress that Dorie Hart was wearing. They went out of their way to make her feel secure, though, and by the time they started on the pumpkin and pecan pies and the huge dark fruitcake, she wasn't worried about her dress anymore. Everyone included her in the conversation. Except for Cag's silence, it would have been perfect. But he didn't even look at her. She tried not to care.
She got presents, another unexpected treat, in return for her homemade gifts. She'd crocheted elegant trim for two pillowcases that she'd embroidered for the Harts, matching them to the color schemes in their individual bedroomssomething she'd asked Dorie to conspire with her about. She did elegant crochet work. She was making things for Dorie's baby boy in her spare time, a labor of love.
The gifts she received weren't handmade, but she loved them just the same. The brothers chipped in to buy her a winter coat. It was a black leather one with big cuffs and a sash. She'd never seen anything so beautiful in all her life, and she cried over it. The women gave her presents, too. She had a delicious floral perfume from Dorie and a designer scarf in just the right shades of blue from Mrs. Lewis. She felt on top of the world as she cleared away the dinner dishes and got to work in the kitchen.
Leo paused by the counter and tugged at her apron strings with a mischievous grin.
"Don't you dare," she warned him. She smiled, though, before she turned her attention back to the dishes.
"Cag didn't say a word," he remarked. "He's gone off to ride the fence line near the river with Mack before it gets dark." Mack was the cattle foreman, a man even more silent than Cag. The ranch was so big that there were foremen over every aspect of it: the cattle, the horses, the mechanical crew, the office crew, the salesmenthere was even a veterinarian on retainer. Tess's father had been the livestock foreman for the brief time he spent at the Hart ranch before his untimely death. Tess's mother had left them when Tess was still a little girl, sick of the nomadic life that her husband loved. In recent years Tess hadn't heard a word from her. She was glad. She hoped she never had to see her mother again.
"Oh." She put a plate in the dishwasher. "Because of me? " she added quietly.
He hesitated. "I don't know." He toyed with a knife on the counter. "He hasn't been himself lately. Well," he amended with a wry smile, "he has, but he's been worse than usual."
"I haven't done anything, have I?" she asked, and turned worried eyes up to his.
She was so young, he mused, watching all the uncertainties rush across her smooth, lightly freckled face.
She wasn't pretty, but she wasn't plain, either. She had an inner light that seemed to radiate from her when she was happy. He liked hearing her sing when she mopped and swept, when she went out to feed the few chickens they kept for egg production. Despite the fairly recent tragedy in her life, she was a happy person.
"No," he said belatedly. "You haven't done a thing. You'll get used to Cag's moods. He doesn't have them too often. Just at Christmas, his birthday and sometimes in the summer."
"Why?" she asked.
He hesitated, then shrugged. "He went overseas in Operation Desert Storm," he said. "He never talks about it. Whatever he did was classified. But he was in some tight corners and he came home wounded. While he was recuperating in West Germany, his fiancee married somebody else. Christmas and July remind him, and he gets broody."
She grimaced. "He doesn't seem the sort of man who would ask a woman to marry him unless he was serious."
"He isn't. It hurt him, really bad. He hasn't had much time for women since." He smiled gently. "It gets sort of funny when we go to conventions. There's Cag in black tie, standing out like a beacon, and women just follow him around like pet calves. He never seems to notice."
"I guess he's still healing," she said, and relaxed a little. At least it wasn't just her that set him off.
"I don't know that he ever will," he replied. He pursed his lips, watching her work. "You're very domestic, aren't you?"
She poured detergent into the dishwasher with a smile and turned it on. "I've always had to be. My mother left us when I was little, although she came back to visit just once, when I was sixteen. We never saw her again." She shivered inwardly at the memory. "Anyway, I learned to cook and clean for Daddy at an early age." "No brothers or sisters?"
She shook her head. "Just us. I wanted to get a job or go on to college after high school, to help out. But he needed me, and I just kept putting it off. I'm glad I did, now." Her eyes clouded a little. "I loved him to death. I kept thinking though, what if we'd known about his heart in time, could anything have been done?"
"You can't do that to yourself," he stated. "Things happen. Bad things, sometimes. You have to realize that you can't control life."
"That's a hard lesson."
He nodded. "But it's one we all have to learn." He frowned slightly. "Just how old are youtwenty or so?"
She looked taken aback. "I'm twenty-one. I'll be twenty-two in March."
Now he looked taken aback. "You don't seem that old."
She chuckled. "Is that a compliment or an insult?"
He cocked an amused eyebrow. "I suppose you'll see it as the latter."