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Because of the date, Penelope knew she wouldn't find him at the barn. That was where he usually was at this hour of the day. Any other time, C. C. Tremayne was always two steps ahead of his men in feeding the animals, especially with the drought that had turned the grass brown and brittle these past few weeks. The drought had been a bad break for her father. Even with the Rio Grande only a few miles away, water was a precious commodity and wells kept going dry, leaving the tanks they filled empty.
West Texas was usually hot in mid-September, but the wind was up and it was unseasonably cold this evening. Penelope had worn a jacket outside, and now she was glad she had. She shivered a little in the late afternoon chill.
It was just beginning to get dark, and Penelope knew that if she didn't get to C.C. before her father did, it was going to mean another nasty quarrel. Ben Mathews and his foreman had been at each other's throats enough in recent
weeks and Penelope didn't want any more arguments. Her father always got bad-tempered when money was tight. Things couldn't be much worse right now.
C.C. was drinking. She knew it; it was that time of year again. Only Penelope knew the importance of that day in September in C.C.'s life. She'd once nursed him through a flu and a raging delirium and he'd told her everything. She didn't let on that she knew, of course. C.C.he was called that, although nobody knew what the initials stood fordidn't like anyone knowing private things about him. Not even the girl who loved him more than life.
He didn't love Penelope. He never had, although she'd worshiped him since she was nineteen and he'd been hired as foreman when her father's oldest hand retired. It had only taken one long look at the lithe, lean, dark-eyed man with the hawkish features and unsmiling face for her to fall madly in love with him. It was three years later, and her emotions hadn't undergone any changes. Probably they never would. Penelope Mathews was pretty stubborn. Even her dad said so.
She grimaced when she saw the light on in the bunk-house, and it was not even dark. The other men were out riding herd, because calving was in full swing and everybody was in a mean temper during calving. It meant long hours and little sleep, and it wasn't normal for any of the men to be in the bunkhouse at this hour of the day. That meant it had to be C.C., and he had to be drinking. And liquor was one thing Ben Mathews wasn't about to tolerate on his ranch, not even when it was being abused by a man he liked and respected.
She brushed back her light reddish-brown hair and nibbled on her full lower lip. She had her long, wavy hair in a ponytail and it was tied with a velvet ribbon that just matched her pale brown eyes. She wasn't a pretty girl, but
she had a nice figure even if it was a little on the plump side. Not overweight, just rounded, so that she filled out her jeans nicely. Her hair was almost red-gold when the sun hit it, and she had a line of freckles over her straight nose. With a little work, she could have been lovely. But she was a tomboy. She could ride anything and shoot as well as her father. Sometimes she wished she looked like Edie, the wealthy divorcee C.C. dated frequently. Edie was a dish, all blond and blue-eyed and bristling with sophistication. She seemed an odd choice for a ranch foreman, but Penelope tried not to think about it. In her mind, she knew the reason C.C. dated Edie and it hurt.
She paused at the door of the bunkhouse and rubbed nervously at her jeans, tugging her nylon jacket closer against the cold wind. She knocked.
There was a hard thud. "Go away."
She knew the curt, uncompromising tone and sighed. It was going to be a long day.
Her gloved hand pushed open the door and she stepped into the warmth of the big common room where bunks lined the wall. At the far end was a kitchen arrangement where the men could have meals cooked. Nobody stayed here much. Most of the men were married and had homes on the ranch, except C.C. But during roundup and calving, the new men who were hired on temporarily stayed here. This year there were six, and they filled the building to capacity. But they'd be gone within a week, and C.C. would have the bunkhouse to himself again.
C.C. was leaning back in a chair, his mud-caked boots crossed on the table, his hat cocked over one dark eye, hiding most of his dust-streaked dark hair, his lean hands wrapped around a whiskey glass. He tilted the hat up, peered at Penelope with mocking derision and jerked it down again.
"What the hell do you want?" he asked in his curt drawl.
"To save your miserable skin, if I can," she returned in equally cutting tones. She slammed the door, skinned off her coat to reveal the fluffy white sweater underneath, and went straight to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.
He watched her with disinterested eyes. "Saving me again, Pepi?" he laughed mockingly, using the nickname that everyone called her. "What for?"
"I'm dying of love for you," she muttered as she filled the coffeepot. It was the truth, but she made it sound like an outrageous lie.
He took it that way, too, laughing even louder. "Sure you are," he said. He threw down the rest of the contents of his glass and reached for the whiskey bottle.
Pepi was faster. She grabbed it away, something she'd never have managed if he'd been sober, and drained it into the sink before he could stagger to his feet.
"Damn you, girl!" he said harshly, staring at the empty bottle. "That was the last I had!"
"Good. I won't have to tear the place apart looking for the rest. Sit down and I'll make you some coffee. It will get you on your feet before Dad finds you," she mumbled. She plugged in the pot. "Oh, C.C.," she moaned, "he's combing the hills for you right now! You know what he'll do if he finds you like this!"
"But, he won't, will he, honey?" he chided, coming up all too close behind her to take her shoulders and draw her back against the warm strength of his lean body. "You'll protect me, like always."
"Someday I won't be in time," she sighed. "And then what will become of you?"
He tilted her worried eyes up to his, and little shudders ran through her body. He'd never touched her except in
amusement or at a dance. Her heart had fed just on the sight of him, from a distance. He was very potent this close, and she had to drop her eyes to his lean cheeks to keep him from knowing that.
"Nobody ever gave a damn except you," he murmured. "I don't know that I like being mothered by a girl half my
"I'm not half your age. Where are the cups?" she asked quietly, trying to divert him.
He wasn't buying it. His lean fingers brushed back loose strands of her hair, making her nerves sit up and scream. "How old are you now?"
"You know very well I'm twenty-two," she said. She had to keep her voice steady. She looked up deliberately to show him that he wasn't affecting her, but the smoldering expression in those black eyes caught her off guard.
"Twenty-two to my thirty. And a damned young twenty-two," he said slowly. "Why do you bother with me?"
"You're an asset around here. Surely you know how close we were to bankruptcy when you got hired?" she asked on a laugh. "Dad owes a lot to your business sense. But he still hates liquor."
"My mother died in an automobile accident the year before you came here," she said. "My father had been drinking and he was behind the wheel at the time." She tugged against his disturbing hands and he let her go.
She looked through the cabinets and found a white mug that wasn't broken or chipped. She put it down by the coffeepot and filled it, and then she took it to C.C., who had sat down and was rubbing his head with his lean hands at the table.
"Head hurt?" she asked.
"Not nearly enough," he said enigmatically. He took
the mug and sipped the thick black liquid. He glared at it. "What in hell did you put in here, an old boot?"
"Twice the usual measure, that's all," she assured him as she sat down beside him. "It will sober you up quicker."
"I don't want to be sober," he said shortly.
"I know that. But I don't want you to get fired," she returned, smiling pertly when he glared at her. "You're the only person on the place except Dad who doesn't treat me like a lost cause."
He studied her smooth features, her soft dark eyes. "Well, I guess that makes us two of a kind, then. Because you're the first person in years who gave a damn about me."
"Not the only one," she corrected, smiling in spite of her feelings as she added, "Edie cares, too."
He shrugged and smiled faintly. "I guess she does. We understand each other, Edie and I," he murmured quietly, his eyes with a faraway look. "She's one of a kind."
In bed, she probably was, Pepi thought, but she couldn't give herself away by saying so. She got up and brought the coffeepot to refill his cup.
"Drink up, pal," she said gently. "The vigilantes aren't far away."
"I feel more steady now," he said after he'd finished the second cup. "On the outside, anyway." He lit a cigarette and blew out a thick cloud of smoke, leaning back wearily in the chair. "God, I hate days like this."
She couldn't admit that she knew why without incriminating herself. But she remembered well enough what he'd said, and the way he'd screamed when the memory came back in a nightmare delirium. Poor man. Poor, tortured man. He'd lost his wife and his unborn child on a white-water rafting trip that he'd had the misfortune
to survive. As near as she could tell, he'd blamed himself for that ever since. For living, when they hadn't.
"I guess we all have good ones and bad ones," she said noncommittally. "If you're okay, I'll get back to my cooking. Dad's reminded me that he's due an apple pie. I've been baking half the afternoon."
"You're a domestic little thing, aren't you?" he asked strangely, searching her eyes. "Is Brandon coming to see you tonight?"
She blushed without knowing why. "Brandon is the vet," she said shortly. "Not my boyfriend."
"You could use a boyfriend, tidbit," he said unexpectedly, his eyes narrowing, his frown deepening as he fingered the empty mug. "You're a woman now. You need more than companionship from a man."
"I know what I need, thanks," she replied, rising. "You'd better stick your head in a bucket or something and see if you can get that bloodshot look out of your eyes. And for heaven's sake, swallow some minty mouthwash."
He sighed. "Anything else, Mother Mathews?" he asked sarcastically.
"Yes. Stop getting drunk. It only makes things worse."
He stared at her curiously. "You're so wise, aren't you, Pepi?" he asked cuttingly. "You haven't lived long enough to know why people drink."
"I've lived long enough to know that nobody ever solved a problem by running away from it," she returned, glaring back when his eyes started flashing black fire at her. "And don't start growling, either, because it's the truth and you know it. You've spent years living in the past, letting it haunt you. Oh, I don't pretend to know why," she said quickly when he began to eye her suspiciously, "but I know a haunted man when I see one. You might try living in the present, C.C. It's not so bad. Even at calving time. And just think, you have roundup to look forward to," she added with a wicked grin. "See you."
She started out the door without her jacket, so nervous that she'd given herself away that she hardly missed it until the wind hit her.
"Here, you'll freeze," he said suddenly, and came toward her with the jacket in his hand. "Put this on."
Unexpectedly he held it for her and didn't let go even when she was encased in it. He held her back against his chest, both lean hands burning through the sleeves of the coat, his chin on the top of her head.
"Don't bruise your heart on me, Pepi," he said quietly, with such tenderness in his deep voice that her eyes closed instinctively at the tone. "I don't have anything left to give
"You're my friend, C.C.," she said through her teeth. "I hope I'm yours. That's all."
His hands contracted for a minute. His chest rose and fell heavily. "Good," he said then, and let her go. "Good. I'm glad that's all there is to it. I wouldn't want to hurt you."
She opened the door and glanced back, forcing a smile to her lips even though he'd just destroyed all her dreams. "Try some of Charlie's chili peppers next time you feel like a binge," she advised. "The top of your head will come off just as fast, but you won't have a hangover from it."
"Get out of here!" he grumbled, glaring at her.
"If I see Dad, I'll tell him you're getting a snack, before you feed the livestock," she returned, grinning. She closed the door quickly and she heard him curse.
Her father was already home when she got there. He glared at her from the living room, her mirror image except for his masculinity and white hair.
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
"Out counting sheep," she said innocently. "Sheep or one black one named C.C.?" She pursed her lips. "Well "
He shook his head. "Pepi, if I ever catch him with a bottle, he's through here, no matter how good a foreman he is," he said firmly. "He knows the rules."
"He was making himself a snack in the bunkhouse," she said. "I just poked my head in to ask if he'd like some of my excuse me, your apple pie."
He scowled fiercely. "It's my pie. I'm not sharing it!"
"I made two," she said quickly. "You old reprobate, you'd never fire C.C. You'd shoot yourself first and we both know it, but save your pride and say you'd fire him if it makes you feel better," she told him as she stripped off her jacket.
He finished lighting his pipe and glanced at her. "You'll wear your heart out on him, you know," he said after a minute.
Her back stiffened. "Yes. I know."
"He's not what he seems," he continued.
She turned, eyeing him warily. "What do you mean?"