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No Name, Colorado
Startled awake by a thunderous noise,Cailtin O'Shannessy sat bolt upright. Disoriented from sleep, her first thought was that her father had come home drunk again and was storming through the house toward r room. She had already leaped from bed and was rowing on her wrapper when it occurred to her that nor O'Shannessy had been dead for nearly a year.
Heart still pounding, Caitlin went utterly motionless in the darkness and cocked her head to listen. The noise, she realized now, was coming from outside. Horses? Judging by the din, there were six or seven, and seemed to be heading toward the barn.
Pushing a shank of long, curly hair back from her eyes and quickly tying the sash of her wrapper, she padded across the bare wood floor to the window where light from a waning moon shone faintly through Irish lace. As ,she swept aside the curtains to peer out, several months' accumulation of dust stung her nostrils. Disgusted, she waved a hand to clear the air.
The barn, which sat facing the house about a hundred feet away, looked dark and quiet, just as it should. Above its hip roof, the pale half-moon resembled a broken ivory button dangling by an invisible thread from sequined blue velvet. Though she stared until her eyes started to bum, Caitlin could detect no sip of movement in the patches of darkness under the billowy oak trees scattered about the yard.
Strange, that. She felt certain she'd heard horses. So where were they?
The question no sooner presented itself than she saw lantern light flicker faintly inside the barn. As the glow gained brightness, elongated shadows leaped tolife upon the interior plank walls. Having spent more than one night in the barn tending sick animals by lantern light, she recognized the distorted shadow shapes as those of men and horses. Several of each, judging by the jumble.
Though it was too dark to see the clock beside her bed, she guessed it to be well after midnight, a late hour for company to come calling. But since her brother Patrick had taken up drinking as his favorite pastime three months ago, very little surprised her.
Thoroughly awake now, she sighed and leaned a shoulder against the window frame. Here she was, in the middle of cutting and baling the season's first stand of grass hay, and Patrick had come home with a passel of friends in tow? He was twenty years old, for Pete's sake, only two years younger than she was. When in heaven's name was he going to stop this infernal carousing and get back to the business of running the ranch?
Since he'd started drinking, Patrick rarely spent much time at home anymore, which left her to do all his work as well as her own. With the additional load, she seldom found opportunity to clean the house. And now he'd brought friends home with him? They would undoubtedly make a big, mess in the kitchen, and if any of them spent the night, she'd have linen off all the beds to wash next week as well. As if she had time for things like that? While Patrick was trying to drown his demons in a whiskey bottle, someone had to keep food on the table. It seemed little enough to ask that he at least show her some consideration.
Time, Caitlin. He just needs time.
Even as Caitlin thought those words, she realized they were becoming a familiar refrain. And tonight, she was so bone weary, she didn't have the patience to be understanding. True, Patrick had been going through a lot of turmoil lately, but did that excuse his complete irresponsibility? Usually, she assured herself the answer was yes. But with every muscle in her body aching from doing the work of two men, she felt less inclined to be charitable.
It wasn't easy, accepting the truth about their father. Drunk or sober, he'd been a worthless human being, without scruples or redeeming graces. And Conor's blood flowed in her veins. It made her feel tainted. She'd spent most of her life trying to live down the fact that he was her sire. As a result, she was honest to a fault and would do almost anything rather than break a promise.
Being the only son, Patrick seemed to be having even more difficulty accepting the truth about their father. To Caitlin's dismay, instead of trying to live it down, Patrick now seemed bent on proving to himself and everyone else that bad blood always won out in the end. Conor O'Shannessy's son, a chip off the old block, one hand wrapped around the neck of a bottle, his other knotted into a fist.
In Patrick's mind, his masculinity, his sense of identi- ty, even his pride in bearing the family name, had been destroyed over the last three months. He was angry and resentful. In a way, she even understood his behavior of late, that he was striking out, not only at their new neighbor Ace Keegan, whom he considered to be the source of all his woes, but also at the people in town, by living up to what he believed were their expectations of him.
But enough was enough. She was tired of carrying her brother's share of the load. More importantly, she was beginning to feel truly frightened. With each passing week, Patrick's behavior when he drank was becoming more and more crazy. And, lately, even when he was sober, she sensed a distance between them, as if he were slowly and irrevocably withdrawing from her. Not long ago, he'd been her best friend in the whole world. Now she sometimes felt as if a stranger were living with heran unlikable stranger who was becoming alarmingly like their late father.