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Cherry Whitelaw was in trouble. Again. She simply couldn't live up to the high expectations of her adoptive parents, Zach and Rebecca Whitelaw. She had been a Whitelaw for three years, ever since her fifteenth birthday, and it was getting harder and harder to face the looks of disappointment on her parents' faces each time they learned of her latest escapade.
This time it was really serious. This was about the worst thing that could happen to a high school girl. Well, the second worst. At least she wasn't pregnant.
Cherry had been caught spiking the punch at the senior prom this evening by the principal, Mr. Cornwell, and expelled on the spot. The worst of it was, she wasn't even guilty! Not that anyone was going to believe her. Because most of the time she was.
Her best friend, Tessa Ramos, had brought the pint bottle of whiskey to the dance. Cherry had been trying to talk Tessa out of spiking the punchhad just taken the bottle from Tessa's handwhen Mr. Cornwell caught her with it.
He had snatched it away with a look of dismay and said, "I'm ashamed of you, young lady. It's bad enough when your behavior disrupts class. An irresponsible act like this has farther-reaching ramifications."
"But, Mr. Cornwell, I was only"
"You're obviously incorrigible, Ms. Whitelaw."
Cherry hated being called that. Incorrigible. Being incorrigible meant no one wanted her because she was too much trouble. Except Zach and Rebecca had. They had loved her no matter what she did. They would believe in her this time, too. But that didn't change the fact she had let them down. Again.
"You're expelled," Mr. Cornwell had said, his rotund face nearly as red as Cherry's hair, but not quite, because nothing could ever be quite that red. "You will leave this dance at once. I'll be in touch with your parents tomorrow."
No amount of argument about her innocence had done any good, because she had been unwilling to name her best friend as the real culprit. She might be a troublemaker, but she was no rat.
Mr. Cornwell's pronouncement had been final. She was out. She wasn't going to graduate with the rest of her class. She would have to come back for summer school.
Rebecca was going to cry when she found out. And Zach was going to get that grim-lipped look that meant he was really upset.
Cherry felt a little like crying herself. She had no idea why she was so often driven to wild behavior. She only knew she couldn't seem to stop. And it wasn't going to do any good to protest her innocence this time. She had been guilty too often in the past.
"Hey, Cherry! You gonna sit there mopin' all night, or what?"
Cherry glanced at her prom date, Ray Estes. He lay sprawled on the grass beside her at the stock pond on the farthest edge of Hawk's Pride, her father's ranch, where she had retreated in defeat. Her full-length, pale green chiffon prom dress, which had made her feel like a fairy princess earlier in the evening, was stained with dirt and grass.
Ray's tuxedo was missing the jacket, bow tie, and cummerbund, and his shirt was unbuttoned halfway to his waist. He was guzzling the fourth can of a six-pack of beer he had been slowly but surely consuming since they had arrived at the pond an hour ago.
Cherry sat beside him holding the fifth can, but it was still nearly full. Somehow she didn't feel much like getting drunk. She had to face her parents sometime tonight, and that would only be adding insult to injury.
"C'mon, Cherry, give us a li'l kiss," Ray said, dragging himself upright with difficulty and leaning toward her.
She braced a palm in the smooth center of his chest to keep him from falling onto her. "You're drunk, Ray."
Ray grinned. "Shhure am. How 'bout that kiss, Cher-ry?"
"Aww, why not?"
"I got thrown out of school tonight, Ray. I don't feel like kissing anybody."
"Not even me?" Ray said.
Cherry laughed at the woeful, hangdog look on his face and shook her head. "Not even you." Ray was good fun most of the time. He drank a little too much, and he drove a little too fast, and his grades hadn't been too good. But she hadn't been in a position to be too picky.
She had dreamed sometimes of what it might be like to be one of the "good girls" and have "nice boys" calling her up to ask for dates. It hadn't happened. She was the kind of trouble nice boys stayed away from.
"C'mon, Cher-ry," Ray said. "Gimme li'l kiss."
He teetered forward, and the sheer weight of him forced her backward so she was lying flat on the ground. Cherry was five-eleven in her stocking feet and could run fast enough to make the girls' track teamif she hadn't always been in too much trouble to qualify. But Ray was four inches taller and forty pounds heavier. She turned her head away to avoid his slobbery, seeking lips, which landed on her cheeks and chin.
"I said no, Ray. Get off!" She shoved uselessly at his heavy body, a sense of panic growing inside her.
"Aww, Cher-ry," he slurred drunkenly. "You know you want it." His hand closed around her breast.
"Ray! No!" she cried. She grabbed his wrist and yanked it away and heard the chiffon rip as his grasping fingers held fast to the cloth. "Ray, please!" she pleaded.
Then she felt his hand on her bare flesh. "No, Ray. No!"
"Gonna have you, Cher-ry," Ray muttered. "Always wanted to. Know you want it, too."
Cherry suddenly realized she might be in even worse trouble than she'd thought.
Billy Stonecreek was in trouble. Again. His former mother-in-law, Penelope Trask, was furious because he had gotten into a little fight in a bar in town and spent the night in jailfor the third time in a year.
He had a live-in housekeeper to stay with his daughters, so they were never alone. He figured he'd been a pretty damned good single parent to his six-year-old twins, Raejean and Annie, ever since their mother's death a year ago. But you'd never know it to hear Penelope talk.
Hell, a young man of twenty-five who worked hard on his ranch from dawn to dusk all week deserved to sow a few wild oats at week's end. His ears rang with the memory of their confrontation in his living room earlier that evening.
"You're a drunken half-breed," Penelope snapped, "not fit to raise my grandchildren. And if I have anything to say about it, you won't have them for much longer!"
Billy felt a burning rage that Penelope should say such a thing while Raejean and Annie were standing right there listening. Especially since he hadn't been the least bit drunk. He'd been looking for a fight, all right, and he'd found it in a bar, but that was all.
There was no hope his daughters hadn't heard Penelope. Their Nintendo game continued on the living room TV, but both girls were staring wide-eyed at him. "Rae-jean. Annie. Go upstairs while I talk to Nana."
"But, Daddy" Raejean began. She was the twin who took control of every situation.
"Not a word," he said in a firm voice. "Go."
Annie's dark brown eyes welled with tears. She was the twin with the soft heart.
He wanted to pick them both up and hug them, but he forced himself to point an authoritative finger toward the doorway. "Upstairs and get your baths and get ready for bed. Mrs. Motherwell will be up to help in a minute." He had hired the elderly woman on the spot when he heard her name. She had proven equal to it.
Raejean shot him a reproachful look, took Annie's hand, and stomped out of the room with Annie trailing behind her.
Once they were gone, Billy turned his attention back to his nemesis. "What is it this time, Penelope?"
"This time! What is it every time? You drove my Laura to kill herself, and now you're neglecting my grandchildren. I've had it. I went to see a lawyer today. I've filed for custody of my granddaughters."
A chill of foreboding crawled down Billy's spine. "You've done what?"
"You heard me. I want custody of Raejean and Annie."
"Those are my children you're talking about."
"They'll have a better life with me than they will with a half-breed like you."
"Being part Comanche isn't a crime, Penelope. Lots of people in America are part something. Hell, you're probably part Irish or English or French yourself."
"Your kind has a reputation for not being able to hold their liquor. Obviously, it's a problem for you, too. I don't intend to let my grandchildren suffer for it."
A flush rose on Billy's high, sharp cheekbones. He refused to defend himself. It was none of Penelope's business whether he drank or not. But he didn't. He went looking for a fight when the pain built up inside, and he needed a release for it. But he chose men able to defend themselves, he fought clean, and he willingly paid the damages afterward.
He hated the idea of kowtowing to Penelope, but he didn't want a court battle with her, either. She and her husband, Harvey Trask, were wealthy; he was not. In fact, the Trasks had given this ranchan edge carved from the larger Trask ranching empireas a wedding present to their daughter, Laura, thereby ensuring that the newlyweds would stay close to home.
He had resented their generosity at first, but he had grown to love the land, and now he was no more willing to give up the Stonecreek Ranch than he was to relinquish his children.
But his behavior over the past year couldn't stand much scrutiny. He supposed the reason he had started those few barroom brawls wouldn't matter to a judge. And he could never have revealed to anyone the personal pain that had led to such behavior. So he had no excuses to offer Penelopeor a family court judge, either.
"Look, Penelope, I'm sorry. What if I promise"
"Don't waste your breath. I never wanted my daughter to marry a man like you in the first place. My granddaughters deserve to be raised in a wholesome household where they won't be exposed to your kind."
"What kind is that?" Billy asked pointedly.
"The kind that doesn't have any self-respect, and therefore can't pass it on to their children."
Billy felt his stomach roll. It was a toss-up whether he felt more humiliated or furious at her accusation. "I have plenty of self-respect."
"Could have fooled me!" Penelope retorted.
"I'm not letting you take my kids away from me."
"You can't stop me." She didn't argue with him further, simply headed for the front doorshe never used the back, as most people in this part of Texas did. "I'll see you in court, Billy." Then she was gone.
Billy stood in the middle of the toy-strewn living room, furnished with the formal satin-covered couches and chairs Laura had chosen, feeling helpless. Moments later he was headed for the back door. He paused long enough to yell up the stairs, "I'm going out, Mrs. Moth-erwell. Good night, Raejean. Good night, Annie."
"Good night, Daddy!" the two of them yelled back from the bathtub in unison.
Mrs. Motherwell appeared at the top of the stairs. "Don't forget this is my last week, Mr. Stonecreek. You'll need to find someone else starting Monday morning."
"I know, Mrs. Motherwell," Billy said with a sigh. He had Penelope to thank for that, too. She had filled Mrs. Motherwell's head with stories about him being a dangerous savage. His granite-hewn features, his un-trimmed black hair, his broad shoulders and immense height, and a pair of dark, brooding eyes did nothing to dispel the image. But he couldn't help how he looked. "Don't worry, Mrs. Motherwell. I'll find someone to replace you."
He was the one who was worried. How was he going to find someone as capable as Mrs. Motherwell in a week? It had taken him a month to find her.
He let the kitchen screen door slam and gunned the engine in his black pickup as he drove away. But he couldn't escape his frenetic thoughts.
I'll be damned if I let Penelope take my kids away from me. Who does she think she is? How dare she threaten to steal my children!
He knew his girls needed a mother. Sometimes he missed Laura so much it made his gut ache. But no other woman could ever take her place. He had hired a series of good housekeeper/nannies one after anotherit was hard to get help to stay at his isolated ranchand he and his girls had managed fine.
Or they would, if Penelope and Harvey Trask would leave them alone.
Unfortunately, Penelope blamed him for Laura's death. She had been killed instantly in a car accident that had looked a whole lot like a suicide. Billy had tried telling Penelope that Laura hadn't killed herself, but his mother-in-law hadn't believed him. Penelope Trask had said she would see that he was punished for making Laura so miserable she had taken her own life. Now she was threatening to take his children from him.
He couldn't bear to lose Raejean and Annie. They were the light of his life and all he had left of Laura. God, how he had loved her!
Billy pounded his fist on the steering wheel of his pickup. How could he have been so stupid as to give Penelope the ammunition she needed to shoot him down in court?
It was too late to do anything about his wild reputation. But he could change his behavior. He could stop brawling in bars. If only there were some way he could show the judge he had turned over a new leaf
Billy didn't drive in any particular direction, yet he eventually found himself at the stock pond he shared with Zach Whitelaw's ranch. The light from the rising moon and stars made a silvery reflection on the center of the pond and revealed the shadows of several pin
oaks that surrounded it. He had always found the sounds of the bullfrogs and the crickets and the lapping water soothing to his inner turmoil. He had gone there often to think in the year since Laura had died.
His truck headlights revealed someone else had discovered his sanctuary. He smiled wistfully when he realized a couple was lying together on the grass. He felt a stab of envy. He and Laura had spent their share of stolen moments on the banks of this stock pond when the land had belonged to her father.
He almost turned the truck around, because he wanted to be alone, but there was something about the movements of the couple on the ground that struck him as odd. It took him a moment to realize they weren't struggling in the throes of passion. The woman was trying to fight the man off!
He hit the brakes, shoved open his truck door, and headed for them on the run. He hadn't quite reached the girl when he heard her scream of outrage.