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The telegram crumpled in the slender hand, a scrap of badly used timber that would have served better as the tree it once was. Pale green eyes stared down at it, hated it.
"Is it bad news, Mama?"
Becky's soft young voice broke through the anguish, brought her back to the reality of the huge empty Victorian house and the plain, withdrawn child.
"What, darling?" Her voice sounded odd. She cleared her throat and helplessly twisted the crumpled telegram in her hand. "Bad news? Well yes."
Becky sighed. She was so old for six, Maggie sometimes thought. Her life had been disordered from the very beginning. An exclusive boarding school hadn't made her an extrovert; it had only emphasized her painful shyness, made it more obvious.
"Is it Daddy again?" Becky asked quietly. She read the answer in her mother's worried eyes and shrugged. "Well, Auntie Janet is coming today," she said with childlike enthusiasm and smiled. "That should make you feel better."
Margaret Turner smiled back. Her daughter's rare smiles were magic. "So she is, although she isn't really your aunt. She's my godmother. She and your Grandmother Turner were best friends. What a nice surprise for us, meeting her last week. She didn't even know I had you, you lovely little surprise, you."
Becky giggledone of those sweet sounds that Maggie had heard so seldom lately. The boarding school was taking its toll on Becky, but there'd been no choice about it once Maggie went to work. She had no one to keep Becky after school, and her job meant occasional long hours and Saturday work. That left the child vulnerable, and Dennis wasn't above taking her away and hiding her somewhere. He was capable of anything where money was involved. And this newest threat, this telegram, made it plain that he was going to sue for full custody of Rebecca. He wanted Maggie to know immediately that he'd just given his lawyer the green light to go back to court.
Maggie swept back a strand of her short dark hair, which was very straight, curving into her high cheekbones. She was slender and tall, a good silhouette for the clothes that were such a rage this season. Not that she was buying new clothes. Thanks to her ex-husband's incredible alimony suit against herwhich he'd won and the fact that her attorneys were still draining her financially, times were getting harder by the day.
About all that was left was this white elephant they lived in and a relatively new carand Becky's trust. Maggie's own father had never approved of her marriage to Dennis, althoughat the timeshe hadn't understood why. He'd cut Maggie out of his will entirely, leaving everything in trust for Becky. Maggie hadn't known this until his death, and she'd never forget the outburst from Dennis at the reading of the will. Her heart already broken, his callous attitude had taken the last of her spirit. After that, she hadn't really felt alive at all. She'd kept going for Becky's sake, not her own.
Dennis had tried to break the will. It couldn't be broken, but there were loopholes that would allow the administrator of the trust to sell stocks and bonds and reinvest them. Maggie could imagine what Dennis would do with that kind of control; in no time he'd have reduced Becky to poverty, robbed her of her inheritance.
As it was, Maggie was working long hours in a bookstore to make ends meet. She loved books, and the job was nice. But being without her daughter wasn't. She prayed for the day when she could bring Becky home and not have to worry that Dennis might kidnap her if she was left with a sitter. It was a good thing that Maggie didn't have a social life. But even in the days when her family had been wealthy and she'd had every advantage, she'd never cared for socializing. She'd kept to herself and avoided the fast crowds. She'd been much like Becky as a childshy and introverted. She still was.
"I won't have to live with Daddy, will I?" Becky asked suddenly, and the look in her big eyes was poignant.
"Oh, darling, of course you won't!" Maggie drew the spindly-legged child close to her, caressing the incredibly thick hair that trailed down her daughter's ramrod-stiff back. Becky was all she had in the world now, the most precious thing she had left; the only thing of worth to come from the six-year marriage that she'd finally garnered enough courage to end just months before. The instant the divorce had become final, she'd gone back to using her maiden name, Turner. She wanted nothing of Dennis in her lifenot even his name.
"Never," Maggie added absently. "You won't have to live with him."
That might become a well-meant lie, she thought miserably as she cuddled her daughter, because Dennis was threatening to take Becky from her. They both knew that all he wanted was the mammoth trust Alvin Turner had set up for his grandchild before his death. Whoever had responsibility for Becky had access to that fortune. So far, Maggie had managed to keep the child out of her ex-husband's hands. He'd already announced his engagement to the woman he'd moved in with following the divorce, and Maggie's attorney was worried that Dennis might get the edge in a custody suit if he had a stable family life to offer little Rebecca.
Stability! If there was one thing Dennis Blaine didn't possess, it was stability. She should never have married him. She'd gone against her father's wishes, and against the advice of Aunt Janet. It had been a whirlwind courtship, and they'd made a handsome couplethe shy young debutante from San Antonio and the up-and-coming young salesman. Only after the wedding and her subsequent immediate pregnancy did Maggie learn that Dennis's main ambition was wealth, not a happy marriage. He liked womenand one wasn't enough. Barely three weeks after their wedding, he was having an affair with another woman, mostly as an act of vengeance against Maggie, who'd refused to stake him in a get-rich-quick scheme he'd concocted.
She sighed over her daughter's silky hair. Dennis, she'd discovered, had a vindictive nature, and it had grown worse as time passed. His affairs were legion. She'd tried to leave him, and he'd beaten her. It was the first and last time. She'd threatened to go to the police, with all the scandal that would have raised, and he'd promised in tears never to do it again. But there were other ways he'd been able to get back at her, especially after Becky came along. More than once he'd threatened to abduct the child and hide her if Maggie didn't go along with his demands for more money.
In the end, it had been because of Becky that she'd moved out and filed for divorce. Dennis had brought one of his ladyloves into the house and had been cavorting with her in bed when Becky had come home unexpectedly and found them. Dennis had threatened Becky, warning her not to tell what she'd seen. But Becky was spunky. She had told. And that very day, Maggie had moved with the child back to her old family home in San Antonio. Thank God her parents had held on to the house even after they'd moved to Austin.
Dennis, meanwhile, had cut his losses and stayed in Austin, where he and Maggie had lived together for the six years of their disastrous marriage. Once the divorce had become final, he'd initiated a grueling lawsuitwith Maggie's money, ironically enoughand had ultimately been granted visitation rights.
Well, she wasn't giving up her child to that money-grubbing opportunist. She said so, frequently. But Dennis's forthcoming remarriage could cause some devilish problems. She didn't quite know what to do, how to handle this new development.
"Couldn't we run away?" Becky asked as she drew back. "We could go live with Aunt Janet and her family, couldn't we? They own a real ranch, and Aunt Janet's so nice. She said after she visits us, we could visit her and ride horses"
"I'm afraid we can't do that," Maggie said quickly, forcing down the image of Gabriel Coleman that swam with sickening intensity before her eyes. He frightened her, colored her dreams, even though it had been years since she'd seen him. Even now, she could close her eyes, and there he was. Big, lean, rawhide tough. All man. Dennis wouldn't dare threaten her around Gabe, but Maggie was too frightened of him to ask for sanctuary. It was a well-known fact that Janet and her son didn't get along. Maggie had enough problems already without adding Gabe's antagonism to them. He didn't care for her. He thought of her as a bored socialite; he always had. She was prejudged and predamned in his pale eyes. She'd never stood a chance with him, even in her younger days. He hadn't given her a second look. Once, she'd wanted him to. But after Dennis, she'd had too many scars for another relationship. Especially with a man like Gabriel, who was so much a man.
"But why can't we?" Becky persisted, all eyesgreen eyes, like her mother's.
"Because I have a job," Maggie said absently, smoothing the long silky hair of the little girl. "Well, except for this month-long vacation I'm getting while Trudie is in Europe. She owns the shop, you see." Trudie had decided that Maggie needed some time off, too, and she'd closed up shop despite the loss of cash. It was one of many reasons that Maggie loved her friend so much.
"Then can't we go home with Aunt Janet? Oh, can't we?" Becky pleaded, all but jumping up and down in her enthusiasm.
"No, and you mustn't ask her, either," Maggie said shortly. "Anyway, you have one more week at school before vacation. You have to go back and finish out the semester."
"Yes, Mama," Becky sighed, giving in without a fight.
"Good girl. Suppose you dash out to the kitchen and remind Mary that we're to have an apple pie tonight in Aunt Janet's honor," she added with a smile.
"Yes, Mama," Becky agreed, brightening. She ran, skirts flying, out of the immaculate living room with its wing chairs and Chippendale sofabeautiful relics of a more graceful agedown the long hall toward the spacious kitchen.
The house had been in Maggie's family for eighty years or more. It was here that she and Dennis had spent an occasional weekend with her mother after her father's death from a heart attack, but she didn't mind the memories as much as she would have minded losing the home place. She touched the arm of the sofa lovingly. Her mother had sat here in happier days, doing embroidery, while her father had sprawled in the big armchair on his visits homeand they'd been few, those last years, because as an ambassador his duty had kept him away.
Maggie's mother had traveled with him until ill health had forced her to remain in Texas. She'd died within six months of her tragic loss, swiftly following the husband she'd adored. Maggie often thought that such love was a rare thing. Certainly she hadn't found it in her marriage. She wondered if she ever would find it. She was much too frightened to take the chance a second time; the risk, to Becky, was even greater than the risk to herself.
She studied her slender hands quietly, drinking in the subtle scent of lavender that clung like dust to the old furniture. A knock on the door disturbed her thoughts, then the knob twisted and Janet Coleman breezed in.
"Darling! Oh, it's so hot outside! Why I keep an apartment in San Antonio I don't know, when I could have one someplace cold."
Like a white-haired whirlwind, Janet embraced the younger, taller woman with a deep sigh.
"You must love the city. You've had that apartment ever since I can remember." Maggie smiled, drawing back to stare down at the older woman in the chic gray suit.
"I've got my nerve, haven't I, inviting myself for dinner." Janet laughed. "But I couldn't resist it. It's been so many years, and to run into you out of the blue in that department store! Shocking, to think I didn't even know about Becky! And here you'd been married for six years, and getting a divorce " She shook her head. "I miss your mother so much. I have no one to talk to these days, with the girls away from home and Gabe so business oriented. And," she added quietly, "I'm hardly ever at the ranch these days myself. I've been in Europe for the past seven months."
Maggie had gone to boarding school with the girls, Audrey and Robinthe same school, in fact, that Becky was in now.
"Audrey is living with a man in Chicago," Janet said, exasperated. She flushed a little at Maggie's pointed stare. "Yes, that's what I said. Isn't it outrageous? I know it's the in thing to do these days, but honestly, Maggie, I had to stop Gabriel from getting the next train up there. He was all for putting a bullet in the man. You know Gabe."
Maggie nodded. Yes, that was Gabe all right. His answer to most things was physical. She trembled a little with inner reaction to hima reaction that had always been there, but one she'd never really understood.
"I talked him out of it, but he's still simmering." She shuddered delicately. "I just hope Audrey has the good sense to stay away until he cools down. He'd have them married at gunpoint."
"Yes, I don't doubt it. How's Robin?" she added with a smile, because she liked Janet's younger daughter.
"She's still trying to be an oil rigger." Janet shook her head. "She says it's what she wants to do."
"Times have changed, Janet." Maggie laughed. "Women are taking over the world."
"Please don't say that in front of Gabe," the older woman murmured dryly. "He doesn't like the modern world."
"Neither do I, at times." Maggie sighed. She stared at Janet. "Is he still ranching?"
"With a vengeance. It's roundup time, darling." Janet laughed. "He doesn't speak to anyone for days during roundup. He's hardly even home anymore. He has board meetings and buying trips and selling trips and seminars, and he sits on the boards of God knows how many corporations and colleges and banks Even when I'm home, he never listens to me."
"Does he know about Becky and me?" she wondered aloud.
"I've mentioned your mother over the years," Janet said. "But no, I don't suppose I've had a lot to say about you. He's so touchy when I mention women, I've given up trying. I did find this lovely girl and I brought her out to the ranch to meet him." Janet flushed. "It was terrible." She shook her head. "Since then, I've decided that it's better if I let him lead his own life. So I don't mention anybody to him. Especially eligible women, she added with a pert laugh.
Maggie shook her head. "Well, he'd never have to worry about me. I'm off men for life!"