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"The first step in initiating a successful breeding program is taking the time to observe the available animals. Begin by evaluating temperament as well as physical soundness, or the lack thereof…"
—Successful Breeding: A Guide for the Cattleman
From the top of the hill, Allyson Cabrerra caught sight of the black pickup as it pulled off the shimmering highway onto the graveled patch that served the old cemetery for parking. Brand-spanking-new and disgustingly expensive, the tricked-out diesel was the kind that, in the tiny town of Tangleweed, only an O'Malley would own.
Sure enough, the dust hadn't settled around the truck's shiny chrome hubcaps before Troy Michael O'Malley climbed out.
Ally stiffened—the involuntary reaction of all Cabrerras whenever they spotted an O'Malley—and glanced across the gleaming black casket at her four older brothers. None had noticed Troy yet. All stood with their backs to the road and boots firmly planted on the coarse buffalo grass that littered the hillside. Hats clasped in their work-roughened hands, their dark heads were bowed beneath the searing west Texas sun as they listened to Reverend Smith pray for their late maternal great-aunt, Eileen Hennessey.
"Hear us, oh Lord, in our time of sorrow and grief…."
Neither Sue Ellen Pickart nor Emma Mae Downs, contemporaries of Ally's late great-aunt, noticed Troy, either. Sue Ellen— who enjoyed funerals almost as much as her daily soaps—had her plump face buried in a crumpled pink tissue and was sobbing so noisily even the Reverend's deep baritone could barely be heard above her wailing. While Emma—there to cover the "event" for the Tangleweed Times—stood with wrinkled cheeks sucked in and eyes tightly closed as she concentrated on punctuating each of the Reverend's utterances with a hearty "amen."
Next to Emma, Janie Smith, the Reverend's daughter, faithfully echoed the older women's outbursts in a faint, breathless voice. Her pale cheeks reddened from the heat and painful shyness, Janie kept her eyes fixed on the toes of her flat-heeled shoes, obviously trying to avoid drawing the attention of any of those "alarming" Cabrerra brothers.
No one else had bothered to attend the funeral. The Cabrerra siblings weren't especially social—discounting the brothers' interactions with the single women in the county—and during the last twenty of her eighty-some years, Aunt Eileen had been a virtual hermit. So only Ally saw Troy stand by his truck looking toward the small funeral party before he retrieved a bunch of yellow flowers from the cab.
Then, slamming the door shut, he headed toward the cemetery gate.
Ally tried to ignore him, to concentrate on her feelings for her late great-aunt, but her emotions were regretfully vague. The sad truth was, Aunt Eileen had always kept an emotional distance from everyone when alive, and death hadn't brought her any closer. Troy, on the other hand, was moving much closer. From the corner of her eye, Ally watched him as the Reverend droned on.
"Yea, though I walkthrough the valley of the shadow of death…"
"Amen!" declared Emma.
"Amen," whispered Janie.
"Boo-hoo!" sobbed Sue Ellen, sniffing.
"I will fear no evil…."
Ally "amened" absently with the other women as the Reverend paused, but her attention remained on Troy. She didn' t fear him, of course—but only a fool took their eyes off a moving snake. This snake, she noted, had a hitch in his step, most likely a legacy from the awkward way he'd fallen when bull riding at the rodeo last Saturday, after beating out her second oldest brother Kyle by six points.
"In the presence of my enemies…"
"I will trust in the Lord…."
You certainly couldn't trust an O'Malley, Ally reflected, unless maybe you were one. Troy and his grandfather Mick were pretty tight; she'd give them that much. And although Troy's second cousins had all moved out of state, they flocked back to the O'Malley homestead every Christmas, as faithful as geese migrating to a favorite pond.
Troy must have come to place flowers on his family's plot, Ally decided, as he strode toward well-tended grave sites surrounded by a wrought-iron railing. Like the Cabrerras, generations of O'Malleys were buried up and down the hillside, including Troy's parents. But when Troy didn't even pause to glance at the elaborate headstone on his parents' grave—located a bare ten feet from the more modest one that marked her own parents'—Ally tensed again.
He can't be coming here, she thought, as he continued through the maze of older grave sites that bordered the cemetery. Troy might be arrogant, but she'd never thought he was stupid.
Apparently, she'd overestimated his mental abilities, because Troy kept walking.
"Who shall ascend onto the hill of the Lord?" the Reverend demanded, gazing at his Bible as Troy started up the worn path toward the funeral party. "Who shall stand in his holy place?"
Not Troy, Ally decided, eying his steady approach. Or at least he wouldn't be standing long once her brothers caught sight of him. If Kyle didn't throw him back down the hillside, then the twins surely would. Lincoln and Luke were still pissed off about a fight they'd gotten into with Troy a couple of weeks ago in Big Bob's Bar and Grill, resulting in a decree by the local sheriff— heartily upheld by Big Bob—forbidding the twins to return for at least a month.
"Only he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart can enter the Lord's domain…." the Reverend declared.
A pure heart? That was something an O'Malley could never claim. Just look at how Troy's grandfather had treated poor Aunt Eileen. And what had happened between Troy and Misty Sanderson.
"Who hath not lifted his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully…"
All the O'Malleys were deceitful, from old Mick on down; Ally had learned that in her cradle. As for vanity—please! Troy O'Malley was so vain she was surprised he didn't carry a full-length mirror. Yeah, he knew how attractive he was—to women whose intelligence quotient was equal to their bust size, anyway. At the Houston Rodeo last spring Ally had actually seen a woman trip over her own pink, pedicured toes and fall facedown into the sawdust when Troy threw a wicked, green-eyed glance her way.
"He shall receive blessings from the Lord…."
And not only had Troy been blessed with good looks, he'd been blessed with the money to play them up, as well. When bull riding he wore the usual cowboy outfit of Western shirt and Wranglers, but today he was dressed, as Aunt Eileen would have said, fit for a funeral or Sunday dinner. His charcoal-gray suit made his broad build look leaner and taller. His white shirt was crisp, his hand-tooled boots polished. He made Ally conscious suddenly that none of her brothers, in their well-worn jackets, looked half so slick. That beneath her wide-brimmed straw hat her dark hair needed cutting and her navy-blue dress—bought for her high school graduation six years earlier—had never been very becoming to begin with.
Her eyes narrowed on Troy's tanned face, which was shadowed by his expensive gray Stetson, as he reached the top of the rocky path. A hot flush of resentment swept over her. It wasn't a person's clothes that were important, but what kind of person they were, she told herself. Still, she wished she'd taken more time with her appearance. Because apparently not content with the ill will that already existed between their families, for the past year Troy had elevated the conflict to a more personal level—needling Ally every chance he got. And, oh, how she hated supplying him with ammunition.
Irritably, she swatted at a gnat hovering by her cheek, and at her movement, Troy looked up. Their gazes locked. For a second he remained inscrutable as his green eyes flickered over her face. Then he smiled, his expression shifting to the slightly mocking look Ally knew all too well.
She scowled in return, and Troy's smile broadened. Ally must have made a disgusted sound, because Janie glanced at her ques-tioningly, then followed her gaze as the Reverend concluded.
"Amen!" intoned Emma Mae.
"A-man! I mean, amen!" gasped Janie, her hand flying up to cover her mouth.
"Boo— Oooooh!" wheezed Sue Ellen, her plump face brightening as she, too, caught sight of Troy.
Kyle's head had jerked up at Janie's gasp. He turned—stiffening at the sight of an O'Malley approaching. Without removing his gaze from Troy, Kyle elbowed Linc hard in the ribs. Linc stumbled against Luke, who slipped on the rocky hillside, his arms flailing briefly before he regained his balance.
Ally winced, amazed as always that her leggy brother could be so graceful in the saddle, and so awkward standing on his own two feet. But Luke's clumsiness was forgotten as she caught sight of her oldest brother's face as he, too, glanced back at Troy. Although all the Cabrerras had their Latino father's black hair and golden skin, they'd inherited their Irish mother's eyes—a dark true blue. But in the harsh sunlight, Cole's narrowed gaze looked like slits of frozen blue ice.
For once, the Reverend appeared speechless. Silence fell on the small group, broken only by the sound of cicadas buzzing in the bushes and Sue Ellen's wheezy breathing.
"What are you doing here, O'Malley?" Cole finally demanded.
"Paying my final respects to Miss Hennessey," Troy replied, moving forward toward Ally, so close his broad shadow enveloped her smaller one on the dusty ground. When he removed his hat, his arm brushed hers and she edged away. He glanced down at her, adding with an exaggerated drawl in his voice, "I considered her a friend of mine."
His challenging gaze lifted again to sweep the small party. Cole's face hardened even more and Kyle and the twins shifted restlessly. Ally could almost feel the tension rising in the hot still air as the men eyed one another without blinking. The Reverend must have felt it, too, because he suddenly cleared his throat. His deep voice was extra-hearty as he declared, "Welcome, Troy, welcome. Now, let us all join together in reciting the Lord's Prayer."
Emma led the way, followed dutifully by Janie and absently by Sue Ellen, who'd forgotten to sob and was quivering with excitement as her avid gaze darted between Cole and Troy, reminding Ally irresistibly of Emma's plump poodle eying a gourmet treat. Ally prayed along, too, and one by one the men added their voices to the mix.
They made it through the rest of the short service without incident. No one said a word, not even when Troy laid yellow roses—Aunt Eileen's favorites—on the casket, their heavy, sweet perfume thickening the hot air and drawing the gnats their way. It wasn't until the group had made its way down the hill that tempers flared once again.
Troy started it, of course. The O'Malleys were always starting trouble. Troy stood silent as Cole, pointedly ignoring Troy, invited the rest of the funeral party to the ranch house. But when Ally turned to follow the small group heading toward their cars, Troy caught her by the elbow to stop her.
His grasp was light, but his long fingers radiated heat, making her skin prickle beneath her sleeve. Pulling away from his grip, she shot him a suspicious look.
He stared down at her, his expression solemn for once. "My sympathy for your loss."
"Thank you," she responded warily.
Her cautious tone made the corners of his eyes crinkle slightly with amusement, but his tone remained serious as he said, "This isn't the time or place to do business, but I'd like to meet with you this week. To discuss Bride's Price."
Before Ally could respond, Cole—who'd turned back to see what was going on—reached her side. "There's nothing to discuss, O'Malley," Cole stated as the rest of the party rejoined them. Taking her other arm, Cole tugged Ally farther from Troy, adding, "I told you Bride's Price isn't for sale."
Troy met Cole's stare with narrowed eyes. "Yeah, you told me that. What you didn't tell me was that your sister's the one Miss Hennessey left the land to." His gaze caught Ally's. "Didn't she?"
She nodded and Cole spoke up again. "Ally owns the land," he conceded, "but my aunt put it in a trust to be controlled by me until Al turns thirty or marries." His voice dropped to a harsh, taunting tone. "She's only twenty-four, O'Malley. Why don't you come back in six years?"
Cole didn't add "or when she gets married," Ally noticed. Clearly her brother didn't even consider that a possibility. Her glance swept the rest of the faces intently watching the exchange. Nor, she realized wryly, did anyone else.
Including Troy O'Malley. Eyes narrowing, he frowned at her brother, then bit out, "All right, if you won't sell, then I'll lease Bride's Price from you." He named a sum that made Cole's dark eyebrows lift involuntarily in surprise and Ally's heart leap with excitement. With that kind of money, she could—
"Sorry," Cole said, interrupting Ally's thoughts. He didn't look sorry, however, but grimly satisfied as he added, "But the answer's still no."
A muscle flexed in Troy's square jaw. "That parcel is O'Malley land. You know it and I know it. Now that Eileen's gone, it's time to return it to its rightful owners."
"All I know is that your grandfather deeded that land to my great-aunt and it now belongs to our family," Cole said.
"He only gave it to her because they were betrothed."
"He gave it to her as a gift," Ally corrected Troy before Cole could reply. "There were no strings attached."
Troy spared her an impatient glance. "He was expecting to marry her."
"I see," Ally said thoughtfully. "So Mick was actually giving himself a gift. How like an O'Malley," she drawled, and watched Troy's scowl darken. Pleased by the sight, she added, "Rather stupid of him to cheat on her, then, wasn't it?"
This time the look Troy returned was longer. "Men often do stupid things when it comes to women."
"I certainly won't argue with an expert on that," Ally answered.
One of the twins snickered, while Sue Ellen gasped excitedly. Emma clucked her tongue.
But Troy merely stared at her a moment longer, silently promising future retribution, before his gaze shifted to Cole. He gave a shrug. "What's past is past. It doesn't have any bearing on my offer to either buy or lease that land—offers you'd be wise to rethink, Cabrerra."
"Oh, yeah?" Cole drawled, widening his stance and placing his hands on his hips. "Why's that?"
"Because from what I hear you've spread yourself thin lately, financially speaking, and can use the money."
Cole didn't like that; Ally could tell by the way his voice grew soft. "Where'd you hear that?"
"From a mutual friend," Troy drawled, his tone just as soft and even more taunting than Cole's had been.
The mutual friend, Ally knew, had to be Misty. Apparently her oldest brother knew it, too, because for a second, sheer hatred burned in Cole's icy eyes. He took a step in Troy's direction. Troy stepped forward to meet him, and funeral or no funeral, there would have been a fight—Ally was sure of it—but the Reverend grasped Cole's arm, holding him off.