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Comanche Flats was one of the biggest ranches around, and Catherine Blake always felt a sense of smalltown friendliness in the town that had grown up around the ranch. Friendliness and peace. Not that Matt gave her much peace, but she did enjoy the company of her mother and her other stepcousins.
She grinned as she wheeled her small rebuilt white Volkswagen convertible between neat white fences to the big Spanish stucco house beyond, her palegreen eyes on the distant line of oaks visible across the prairie. There were twentytwo square miles of land on this ranch, an hour or so out of Fort Worth, Texas, that her greatuncle had built into an empire. It was always described as lying between the Eastern and Western Cross Timbers, long bands of oaks, once formidable, but now reduced in numbers by encroaching civilization. The bands ran from north to south, and in the days of the great cattle drives they had been a point of reference for cattlemen.
Her slender hand brushed back her darkchestnut hair from her oval, olivecomplexioned face, and she felt again a wild thrill of excitement at having graduated from college with a degree in journalism. While at college in Fort Worth, she'd lived in a dorm during the week and come home on weekends. Often Matt had flown over to get her. The ranch was far enough away from the sprawling DallasFort Worth airport that Matt preferred flying in his private plane, which had a hangar at the tiny airport in Comanche Flats. Catherine smiled, thinking about that, proud of her graduation with honors and her promise of a good job in New York. Matthew Dane Kincaid might pull everybody else's strings, but he was through pulling Catherine's as of now. She was almost twentytwo and feeling feverish with independence.
She was just returning from a fourday trip to San Antonio, where she'd tried to find work at a small public relations firm. That hadn't panned out, but through a contact she'd obtained a job at a bigger firm in New York. The job wasn't open immediately; it would take several weeks for her office to be readied. But she must have impressed the executive vicepresident, because he'd flown all the way down to San Antonio to check out her credentials and had hired her on the spot. She felt excited about that. And about having the opportunity to escape her family. And, especially, Matt.
Odd, she thought, how possessive he'd gotten since her graduation from college. He owned the ranch where she and her mother lived, of course, and the feedlot, and he even had a controlling interest in the local real estate companies. But he was only a stepcousin, and Catherine deeply resented his domination. The loss of her fatherhe had died during the Vietnam War, when she was a babyhad made her independentminded at an early age, and she'd fought Matt tooth and nail for years for every inch of freedom she had. When she wasn't dying of unrequited love for him, she admitted bitterly. Hal and Jerry were never so overbearing. Of course, Matt's brothers lacked his fiery temper and shrewd business mind. And his inborn arrogance. Matt made arrogance an art.
Betty Blake, all silvery hair and bright eyes and laughter, came rushing down the steps to meet her daughter.
"Darling, you're home!" she enthused. "How lovely to have you back!"
"It was only for four days," Catherine reminded her as she returned her mother's hug. "How did Matt take it?"
"He's barely spoken to me," Betty confessed. "Oh, Kit, you've landed me in the fire this time!"
"I have to be independent," Catherine said, her green eyes wide and pleading. "Matt just wants his own way again, as usual, but this time he isn't winning. I'll go if I have to wait on tables. But I won't need to," she said stubbornly. "I still have my income from the stock. I'll live on that!"
Betty started to speak but nibbled on her lower lip instead. "Come in and get settled," she said eventually. "Did you get the job?"
"Not the one in San Antonio," Catherine said with a sigh. She glowered. "Imagine, having to sneak off and make up stories about holidays with a nonexistent girlfriend just to go and apply! Honestly, Matt is such a tyrant " She grinned at her mother's worried face. "I won't start again, I promise. Anyway, I did get a job. But it's in New York."
"New York!" Betty looked shocked.
"It pays well, and I don't start for a month. Plenty of time to get ready."
"Matt won't like it," Betty said grimly.
"Matt doesn't matter!"
"You know better than that," Betty replied. "Without Matt, you and I would be living in lowincome housing right now. You know your father got us up to our ears in debt just before he was killed in Vietnam. I've told you often enough."
"And GreatUncle Henry got us out of trouble and brought us to live with him. Yes, I know," she said broodingly. She followed her mother into the enormous house where the beauty of the Spanish styling of the hall and staircase staggered her as much now as it had in her childhood. Betty had been raised in this house, too, by Uncle Henry. "Oh, I love this house," Catherine murmured.
"Your greatuncle was quite a man," Betty said with a laugh. "He had style and taste."
"Except in wives," Catherine muttered darkly.
"Just because Matt's mother was young is no excuse for a remark like that. You know very well she adored Henry. And she gave him three strong stepsons, too."
Catherine didn't reply. She and her mother went up the winding staircase leading to Catherine's bedroom. Matt and Hal, who were both bachelors, lived at the other side of the enormous, sprawling house. Jerry and his wife, Barrie, lived in a house farther down the ranch road.
"The family are all coming for dinner tomorrow night," Betty remarked. "Matt flew to Houston this afternoon, but he'll be back late tonight, I expect. The rains have been horrible. We're expecting more tonight, and there are flashflood warnings out. I do hope he'll fly carefully."
"At least he's not driving, thank God. Matt has never driven carefully," Catherine said dryly. "How many cars did he wreck before he got out of college?"
Betty laughed. "Not as many as Hal did."
Catherine stopped on the way down the hall to stare at the huge portrait of GreatUncle Henry that hung on the wall between a pair of sconces. "I don't like him up here," she said as she studied the face that was so much like her late grandfather'sdark hair and green eyes and an olive complexion, the features Catherine had inherited from her mother's people. "He belongs downstairs in the living room," she added absently.
"I can't watch television with him glaring at me," Betty said reasonably. "Besides, I always feel safe going down the hall in the dark, knowing he's here."
Catherine laughed softly. "Oh, Mama."
"He was my idol when I was growing up." The older woman smiled, staring at the portrait. "I adored him. I still do."
"Even though he provided you with a stepaunt half your age?"
"I like Evelyn quite well, in fact," Betty answered softly. "She took great care of all of us. My parents died when I was so young, I barely remember them." She sighed. "I miss your father so much sometimes "
"So do I, Mama." Catherine hugged her gently and gave her a sound kiss on the cheek. "I'm glad I've got you," she said warmly, then quickly changed the subject. "Now, come and tell me all the news! I'm terribly out of touch."
Betty and Catherine sat down to dinner alone, listening to Annie's mutterings as she waddled around the table putting food on it.
"Never can get the family together all at one time," Annie grumbled, glaring at the food as if it were responsible for her dilemma. "Mr. Hal never shows up until Mr. Matt yells at him, and Mr. Jerry and Miss Barrie gone off again, and"
"We'll eat twice as much," Catherine promised the buxom, whitehaired woman who'd come there with Matt's mother.
Annie relented. "Well, I made enough. We can freeze some, I guess."
She went back into the kitchen, and Catherine and Betty exchanged knowing glances.
"Where is Hal, anyway?" Catherine asked.
"I don't know. Before Matt left, he told him to help the boys move some cattle off the flats, and Hal went out into the rain in a huff. He hates getting wet, you know."
"He hates taking orders more," the younger woman replied.
"A trait he shares with you, my darling." Betty sighed as she lifted her fork. "I do hope you won't start right in on Matt. He's been in a terrible temper since you left."
"I'll wait a day or two, all right?"
Betty looked faintly apprehensive. "All right."
Catherine had gone to bed when Hal came in. She heard him talking to Betty as he went past her door. Good old Hal, she thought with a smile. He was her only ally in Matt's family. She and Hal were a lot alike, both renegades, both refugees from Matt's authority.
She closed her eyes and slept, feeling safe and comfortable in her warm bed, hearing the rain come down in torrents. She wondered if Matt would be able to fly back tonight.
A few hours later the sound of a motor awakened her, and she lifted the window curtain beside the bed to peek out. The outside lights were ablaze, and a tall, lean man in a distinctive tan trench coat and a silverbelly Stetson was getting out of a car. He lifted an attache case and plowed toward the house in the drenching rain. Matt!
With faint misgivings she stared down at his hard, formidable face. It was a shock to catch Matt unawares; he was almost always lighthearted and smiling when he was around Catherine. He smiled more with her than with anyone else. But when he didn't know she was looking, he became a stranger. Matt was a puzzle she'd never solved. Most of his men were afraid of him, although he was never unfair or overly demanding. It was that air of authority he wore, the remnants of his strict upbringing.
Matt was the oldest of Evelyn's sons from her first marriage, and from all accounts, his childhood hadn't been an easy one. Matt's real father had been a military man, and Matt's early life had been spent at military academies. When his father died and Evelyn married GreatUncle Henry, he'd stayed in the academy for another year. Then he went on to boarding school, then college, and then service in the Marine Corps, with little chance for parental love in between. Henry was a formidable man himself, and Evelyn was more businesswoman than mother.
But Matt seemed to have gotten enough love from other sources, she thought wryly, remembering the occasional woman she'd seen him with and the adoring glances that came his way. When she was in college, Catherine's girlfriends had begged to come to the ranch, just for a glimpse of Matt.
Catherine pursed her lips and studied Matt's tall, muscular body as he started through the gate. He was devastating physically, all right. And he had Spanish eyes, very dark and sparkling, and a deeply tanned face that was sharpfeatured and aristocratic. He was something else. She tingled with pride, just looking at him, although she was ready for a fight if it was going to take one to get out from under his thumb. Part of her knew that Matt would never be able to return her tempestuous feelings for him. And it was because of that, more than anything else, that she had to escape. It was devastating to be around Matt and watch him go out with other women all the time. He seemed to have a different one every month. All of them were experienced, sensual women. Nothing like poor little Kit, who had to hide her tears from him. It would have killed her if he'd known how she really feltthat all her outbursts of anger were just defensive tactics.
"Tomorrow," she whispered, and smiled. "Tomorrow we'll have it out, big cousin."
She lay back and closed her eyes.
The next morning when Catherine came down for breakfast Hal was at the breakfast table with Betty, but Matt was already out the door and gone. Hal looked up, his brown eyes sparkling in a mischievous face. At twentythree he was the youngest of the three brothers. He was shorter than Matt and not as muscular. Hal had a good brain, when he used it, and was a whiz with machinery. But he preferred the nightspots to the ranch and slipped away at every opportunity. He played at life, and Matt had threatened to throw him off the property because of his penchant for playing practical jokes. But he was loveable, for all his wicked ways, and Catherine had a soft spot for him. In her younger days, he'd been her staunchest ally in dodging Matt's temper.
"Hi, cousin!" he grinned. "How was the big city?"
"Great!" She sat down and filled her plate. "I got a job!" She told him all about it, enjoying his amazed look as she talked.
"Have you told Matt?" he asked after a minute, his gaze quietly curious.
"I haven't seen him yet."
Hal pursed his lips. "She doesn't know?" he asked Betty.
Catherine cocked her head at him. "Know what?" she asked hesitantly.
"Matt found out where you really were. He's stopped your allowance."
"Oh, Hal, why did you do that!" Betty groaned.
Catherine's eyes sparkled with passion as she threw down her napkin. "Stopped my allowance? He can't! Those shares are mine!"
"He can do what he likes until you're twentyfive," Hal said.
"Where is he?" Catherine demanded.
"Down on the flats, checking to make sure the cattle were all moved before the rains came," Betty said reluctantly. "He told Hal to get them moved before he left for Houston."
Hal didn't reply. He looked disturbed and reached for his coffee cup.
Catherine didn't notice. She was fuming. She needed that allowance to set herself up in New York. She wouldn't have any money until her first paycheck. And Matt knew it!
"I'll shoot him," she muttered.
"Now, darling, don't be hasty," Betty said, trying to soothe her.
But Catherine was already on her way upstairs to change into jodhpurs and boots.
The sunlight was wonderful after the thundering flood of latesummer rain the night before, but Catherine wasn't paying the least attention to the beauty of the wide open land and grazing cattle or the distant enormity of the feedlot. Her narrowed green eyes were flashing, and the set of her slender body in the saddle was as rigid as her perfect mouth.
She shivered a little in the earlymorning chill. Autumn was coming on. Already the hardwoods were beginning to get crisp leaves on them. She searched the horizon for Matt, but he was nowhere to be seen. She could have screamed. There were times when being part of the Kincaid clan was an absolute torment, and this was one of them. She had a great future in New York in public relations. Why couldn't Matt let her go after it? Of course, he didn't know about the New York job offer, but what he'd done would prevent her from going anywhere without his approval. It was always like that. She made plans and Matt fouled them up. He'd done it for years, and nobody had ever stood up to him. Except Catherine, of course.