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It wasn't that long ago Theresa Metcalf shot her brother dead and put him in the ground so the evil in him wouldn't touch another soul.
She'd loved Rusty as a boy, but her brother had had too much of his father, Frank Metcalf, in him. Rusty had become an outlaw—perhaps one too many beatings could do that to a young child. She'd been more fortunate than the brother who'd become a desperado; her father's wrath hadn't tainted her in quite the same way.
Rusty is dead by your hands, Theresa, she thought solemnly, the memory of that fateful night never far from her mind. But Theresa Metcalf no longer existed, she reminded herself. She'd left Turner Hill in California one month after the shooting and the awful scandal that followed. She'd changed her name and her whole identity, leaving behind her old life as notorious Rusty Metcalf's reclusive sister.
Her dear childhood friend Laura Larson had coaxed her to come to Hayworth, Texas, to replace her position as caregiver to ailing cattle baron Hoyt Hayworth. Laura, her only true friend in the world, was with child and could no longer tend to his needs. Laura had vouched for her with Hoyt Hayworth, gaining her the employment. And she began living a lie—as Tess Morgan, a family friend of Laura's from Oklahoma.
Three months into her care for Hoyt, he'd sent for a preacher to marry them. That was just like Hoyt— pale in color, weak of heart, but his mind as sharp as a bull's horn. He'd given her little choice in the matter, relying on her compassion to grant an ill man's final wish.
She'd buried her husband on their third-month anniversary. Now she faced the enormity of her role here inHayworth with trepidation at best, becoming known in the town Hoyt had built nearly by his own hands as Tess Morgan Hayworth, owner of the Double H ranch and the wealthiest woman in north Texas.
When someone thumped on the front door like a starving wolf behind a chicken coop, Tess left her bedroom window, where she'd been watching a glorious scarlet sunset melt into the horizon. She picked up her widow-black skirts and sashayed down the stairs. Glancing at the small Swiss clock that sat upon the hall entry—one of the few items she'd taken with her from Turner Hill—she realized the hour and wondered who would be calling this late.
The cook had already cleared away the dinner dishes and was nowhere in sight, and the large, finely furnished ranch house remained eerily quiet. Even when Hoyt had been alive and they'd all crept around for fear of disturbing him, there hadn't been this silence, the deep, down-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach loneliness that surrounded her daily.
She'd been left pretty much on her own since she'd buried her husband. She had no callers. No one came by to offer condolences. No one visited to share a cup of tea and reminisce about the man she'd known for less than a year.
"Greta?" she called out once she reached the foyer, but even the cook that had been with the family since the first log had been split and the first horse had been shod on the property didn't like taking orders from Hoyt Hayworth's new young widow. Though Tess suspected the cook could hear the knocking, she also knew she'd decided to deliberately not answer the door.
The thumping continued, and when Tess reached the door she pulled it open quickly. "Yes?"
She stared into dark, emotionless eyes. The man looked a great deal like Hoyt but for his younger years. Tess drew breath into her lungs in a sharp gasp.
"Yes, I'm Tess Hayworth," she said.
He stared at her, his scrutiny revealing an arrogance that Tess had seen before in men she wished she'd never met. His gaze traveled from her eyes to her mouth. He cocked his lips into a smirk before his gaze roamed her throat to her chest.
Tess inhaled. The man arched his brow and continued his lazy assessment. When he looked back up again, his gaze moved to the thick auburn hair she'd knotted up high on her head and then to the few curls that had escaped, falling onto the sides of her cheeks. She waited with patience to hear the introduction from his lips, but instead of announcing his identity, he laughed.
The mocking tone of his laughter cut through her like a sharpened knife. She was reminded of her father and the hardened lines around his mouth, the twist of his features when something displeased him.
"You're Clint," she stated without hesitation. Tess didn't doubt her evaluation for a second. He was the spitting image of a younger, more virile Hoyt Hayworth. Only, unlike her husband, the man at her door had cold, dark eyes and a set scowl on his handsome face. He wore rugged clothes, a tan buckskin shirt that clung close to his upper body and dark trousers that hugged his lower body, leaving no doubt at his power and strength. He didn't bother taking off his black felt hat, making his manners sorely lacking, as well.
"And you'd be my stepmother." The mocking was still there, in his voice and in the stance of his body. "I got to admire you. You managed to nab the old codger before he died. You're a rich woman now, aren't you, Widow Hayworth?"
Clint strode past her and entered the house.After all, it was his house now, too. She'd been told in no uncertain terms by Hoyt's attorney at law, David Heaton, that Tess would share ownership of the Double H ranch with Hoyt's son. Her heart pounded at the notion. She'd known of Clint Hayworth, of course. Hoyt had spoken of him when he'd gotten into sentimental moods. But from what she'd been told, the son hated the father too much to return home while he was still alive.
"You're late, Clint. We had the reading of the will already. I'm sorry you didn't see fit to visit your father before he died."
Clint glanced around the house he hadn't seen for more than ten years as if taking note of things that had changed since he'd lived there. "My father was dead to me years ago. His passing is only a formality."
Tess shut the door and cringed at the harshness of his words. "That's a cruel thing to say."
He snorted and a strangled laugh came through. "Lady, you don't know the meaning of cruel."
Tess could certainly argue that point. She hadn't been raised in a big, comfortable ranch house with servants and family who'd loved her. Instead, she'd been a victim of a hurtful man who had taken out his own failures in life on his two young children. Rusty had taken most of the beatings, but Tess had been wounded in body and spirit, as well.
She approached him as he helped himself to a drink from the smooth mahogany sideboard in the parlor. He poured two fingers of whiskey into a crystal tumbler and took a long drink.
"You don't know me."
He glanced at the remaining whiskey in his glass, then up at her with cool eyes. "I know your kind."
Indignant now, Tess moved to the sideboard, her black satin gown rustling in the quiet room as she faced him. "What kind is that?"
"You're a gold-digging whore who married for a bundle and then put your husband in the ground, probably from too many nights in your bed. Hell, I bet you danced on his grave when no one was looking. Can't say as I blame—"
She slapped his face, the sound echoing through the silence.
Without regret for the impulsive move, Tess stepped back. "I know cruel when I hear it," she said, narrowing her eyes, her entire body shaking.
His face flamed with anger for an instant, then he relaxed and put on a smile before finishing his whiskey. Almost as an afterthought, he said, "You've got gumption, lady. I'll say that."
Yes, she had gumption. She'd been on the receiving end of cruelty her entire life. And Hoyt had made her understand that she was strong enough to fight it. Her husband had helped her see that the minute she'd picked up that gun and shot her brother she'd rebelled against the kind of evil that could bring her down. She'd saved two lives that day. With Hoyt's help, she'd begun to forgive herself, and slowly the guilt that had haunted her dreams eased.
Tess vowed to never allow a man to intimidate her again, especially one who made unwarranted accusations. Surely Hoyt deserved better from his son. "You come here and make assumptions about my relationship with your father when you haven't been home in ten years? You don't know anything about him—or me. You may have reasons to hate him, but I know the kind of man he was."
"Yeah," he said, "so do I." He stepped close, and she breathed in the scent of the road on him and the warm night's air.
"My father was a ruthless snake who drove decent people from their homes and livelihoods. He didn't much care who he stepped on to build his wealth. And once he built this town, it wasn't enough. Nothing and no one was ever enough for him."
She shook her head vehemently. "No, that wasn't Hoyt at all," she declared, refusing to believe a bitter son's accounting of his father. Hoyt had been a tough businessman and he'd taught her some of the finer points of running a ranch the size of the Double H, but she'd never believe the harsh image Clint Hayworth portrayed of his father. "He was kind and giving and he cared for—"
"How old are you?" he interrupted. His gaze traveled up and down her body, lingering for a long moment on her breasts. He flicked his eyes up, and she noted a hot gleam of desire he didn't attempt to conceal.
Much to her dismay, that look unnerved her. She blinked. "What difference does it make?"
She set her fists on her hips. "I'm twenty-one."
He nodded as if she'd just confirmed the obvious.
"My father always had to have the best of everything, the most beautiful, the most expensive. And you cost him, didn't you? He paid with his life."
Angry, Tess resented the claim that she might have caused Hoyt's death. Clint had spit out accusations about her that had no basis in fact, but this one was so far from the truth it made her nerves quake. "I tried to save his life for months. But where were you? You didn't know he was sick, taking his last breaths. You didn't know your father hoped you'd return home to forgive him for whatever he'd done to you. He wanted to make amends. Now it's too late."
He shrugged. "Doesn't matter."
Tess sighed with resignation. She wasn't up for the argument tonight. She'd gone through the past two months in agony when she'd realized that Hoyt was truly going to die, then dealing with the pain of losing the only man who'd ever been truly good to her. "What do you want?"
The stony look in Clint's dark eyes held contempt. "I want what's legally mine."
"You're entitled to your half."
He shook his head. "Not good enough. I want the entire spread."
She bit her lip and drew oxygen deep into her lungs. She'd been told the exact terms of the will and there was no mistake. "Maybe you haven't spoken with Mr. Heaton yet. Half the ranch is mine now. Your father taught me how to—"
"I've spoken to Heaton. I know what's mine. I'll buy you out."
"You want to buy me out?" She hadn't considered Clint even coming home for the reading of the will, much less wanting to buy out her share of the ranch. She'd commissioned the attorney to track Hoyt's son down to inform him about his father's death, but as far as she knew, Mr. Heaton had never gotten a response back. "Why?"
"You don't belong here."
It was a simple statement. One that brought back hurtful memories of all the towns she'd hoped to call home as a young child, of all the friends she'd hoped to make. But Frank Metcalf made enemies of the kindest of people and he'd been driven out of one town after another. She'd never known what it meant to stake roots and build on something. "And you think you belong here?"
"Hell, no. I'm selling the ranch and all the holdings." Tess tried to ignore the searing shock to her system. Holding her composure, she stared at him. She'd promised Hoyt she'd never sell the ranch. She'd do everything in her power to keep his legacy alive. Though she'd come to the Double H as an employee, marrying Hoyt had changed all that. She'd never wanted riches, opulence or the status that went along with it, but she'd always wanted to fit in. Hoyt, though ailing and weak, had made her feel she belonged here. From the moment she walked into his home she'd felt welcomed and trusted. After time, she'd confided in him who she really was, and he hadn't blinked an eye when she'd revealed her sordid past. He'd treated her with compassion and understanding.
She owed Hoyt for that. She'd keep the promise she'd made him. Not even Clint's intimidating presence would change her mind.
She stared at the man with deep-set scorn on his face. "I'm sorry, but that's not possible."
Then she lifted her skirts and walked out of the room in such a way that would make Queen Victoria of England proud.
Posted June 21, 2011
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