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It had been a grueling semester. Tellie Maddox had her history degree, but she was feeling betrayed. He hadn't shown up for her graduation exercises. Marge had, along with Dawn and Brandi, her two daughters. None of them were related to Tellie, who was orphaned many years ago, but they were as close to her as sisters. They'd cared enough to be here for her special day. J.B. hadn't. It was one more heartbreak in a whole series of them in Tellie's life that J.B. was responsible for.
She looked around her dorm room sadly, remembering how happy she'd been here for four years, sharing with Sandy Melton, a fellow history major. Sandy had already gone, off to England to continue her studies in medieval history. Tellie pushed back her short, wavy dark hair and sighed. Her pale green eyes searched for the last of her textbooks. She should take them to the campus bookstore, she supposed, and resell them. She was going to need every penny she could get to make it through the summer. When the fall semester began, in August, she was going to have to pay tuition again as she worked on her master's degree. She wanted to teach at college level. No chance of that, with just a bachelor's degree, unless she taught adult education as an adjunct member of staff.
Once she'd thought that one day J.B. might fall in love with her and want to marry her. Those hopeless dreams grew dimmer every day.
J. B. Hammock was Marge's brother. He'd rescued Tellie from a boy in the foster home where she'd been staying since her mother's death. Her mother had been the estranged wife of J.B.'s top horse wrangler, who'd later moved out of state and vanished. Tellie had gone to a foster home, despite Marge's objections, because J.B. said that a widow with two children to raise didn't need the complication of a teenager.
All that had changed with the attempted assault by another foster child in care with the same family. J.B. heard about it from a policeman who was one of his best friends. He swore out a warrant himself and had Tellie give a statement about what had happened. The boy, only thirteen at the time, was arrested and subsequently sent to juvenile hall. Tellie had slugged the boy when he tried to remove her blouse and sat on him until the family heard her yelling. Even at such a young age, Tellie was fearless. It had helped that the boy was half her size and half-drunk.
J.B. had jerked Tellie right out of the foster home the night the boy was arrested. He'd taken her straight to Marge for sanctuary. Marge had loved her almost at once. Most people did love Tellie. She was honest and sweet and generous with her time, and she wasn't afraid of hard work. Even at the age of fourteen, she'd taken charge of the kitchen and Dawn and Brandi. The sisters were nine and ten at the time respectively. They'd loved having an older girl in the house. Marge's job as a Realtor kept her on the road at all sorts of odd hours. But she could depend on Tellie to keep the girls in school clothes and help with their homework. She was a born babysitter.
Tellie had doted on J.B. He was very rich, and very temperamental. He owned hundreds of acres of prime ranch land near Jacobsville, where he raised purebred Santa Gertrudis cattle and entertained the rich and famous at his hundred-year-old rancho. He had a fabulous French chef in residence, along with a housekeeper named Nell who could singe the feathers off a duck with her temper at ten paces. Nell ran the house, and J.B., to an extent. He knew famous politicians, and movie stars, and foreign royalty from his days as a rodeo champion. He had impeccable manners, a legacy from his Spanish grandmother, and wealth from his British grandfather, who had been a peer of the realm. J.B.'s roots were European, despite his very American cattle operation.
But he did intimidate people. Locally he was known more for chasing Ralph Barrows off his place on foot, wielding a replica fantasy sword from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Barrows had gotten drunk and shot J.B.'s favorite German shepherd for growling at him and barking when he tried to sneak into the bunkhouse in the small hours of the morning during roundup. Drinking wasn't allowed on the ranch. And nobody hurt an animal there. J.B. couldn't get to the key to his gun cabinet fast enough, so he grabbed the sword from its wall display and struck out for the bunkhouse the minute his foreman told him what was going on. The dog recovered, although it limped badly. Barrows hadn't been seen since.
J.B. wasn't really a social animal, despite the grand parties he threw at the ranch. He kept to himself, except for the numerous gorgeous women he squired around in his private jet. He had a nasty temper and the arrogance of position and wealth. Tellie was closer to him than almost anyone, even Marge, because she'd taken charge of him when she was fourteen and he went on a legendary drunk after his father died. It was Tellie who'd made Marge drive her to J.B.'s place when Nell called in a panic and said that J.B. was wrecking the den and the computers. It was Tellie who'd set him down, calmed him and made cinnamon coffee for him to help sober him up.
J.B. tolerated her interventions over the years. He was like her property, her private male. Nobody dared to say that, of course, not even Tellie. But she was possessive of him and, as she grew older, she became jealous of the women who passed through his life in such numbers. She tried not to let it show. Invariably, though, it did.
When she was eighteen, one of his girlfriends had made an unkind remark to Tellie, who'd flared back at her that J.B. wouldn't keep her around for much longer if she was going to be rude to his family! After the girl left, J.B. had it out with Tellie, his green eyes flaming like emeralds, his thick black hair almost standing up straight on his head with bad temper. Tellie didn't own him, he reminded her, and if she didn't stop trying to possess him, she'd be out on her ear. She wasn't even part of his family, he'd added cruelly. She had no right whatsoever to make any claims on his life.
She'd shot back that his girlfriends were all alikelong-legged, big-breasted, pretty girls with the brains of bats! He'd looked at her small breasts and remarked that she certainly wouldn't fit that description.
She'd slapped him. It was involuntary and she was immediately sorry. But before she could take it back, he'd jerked her against his tall, lean body and kissed her in a way that still made her knees weak four years later. It had been meant, she was sure, as a punishment. But her mouth had opened weakly under his in a silent protest, and the tiny movement had kindled a shudder in the muscular body so close to hers.
He'd backed her up against the sofa and crushed her down on it, under the length of him. The kiss had grown hard, insistent, passionate. His big, lean hand had found her breast under her blouse, and she'd panicked. The sensations he caused made her push at him and fight to get free.
She jerked her mind back to the present. J.B. had torn himself away from her, in an even worse temper than before. His eyes had blazed down at her, as if she'd done something unforgivable. Furious, he'd told her to get out of his life and stay out. She was due to leave for college the same week, and he hadn't even said goodbye. He'd ignored her from that day onward.
Holidays had come and gone. Slowly tensions had lessened between them, but J.B. had made sure that they were never alone again. He'd given her presents for her birthday and Christmas, but they were always impersonal ones, like computer hardware or software, or biography and history books that he knew she liked. She'd given him ties. In fact, she'd given him the same exact tie for every birthday and every Christmas present. She'd found a closeout special and bought two boxes of identical ties. She was set for life, she reasoned, for presents for J.B. Marge had remarked on the odd and monotonous present, but J.B. himself said nothing at all. Well, he said thank-you every time he opened a present from Tellie, but he said nothing more. Presumably he'd given the ties away. He never wore one. Tellie hadn't expected that he would. They were incredibly ugly. Yellow, with a putrid green dragon with red eyes. She still had enough left for ten more years
"Are you ready, Tellie?" Marge called from the door.
She was like her brother, tall and dark-haired, but her eyes were brown where J.B.'s were green. Marge had a sweet nature, and she wasn't violent. She had a live-wire personality. Everybody loved her. She was long widowed and had never looked at another man. Love, she often told Tellie, for some people was undying, even if one lost the partner. She would never find anyone else as wonderful as her late husband. She had no interest in trying.
"I just have a couple more blouses to pack," Tellie said with a smile.
Dawn and Brandi wandered around her dorm room curiously.
"You'll do this one day, yourselves," Tellie assured them.
"Not me," Dawn, the youngest, at sixteen, replied with a grin. "I'm going to be a cattle baron like Uncle J.B. when I get through agricultural college."
"I'm going to be an attorney," Brandi, who would be a senior in the fall at seventeen, said with a smile. "I want to help poor people."
"She can already bargain me into anything," Marge said with an amused wink at Tellie.
"Me, too," Tellie had to admit. "She's still got my favorite jacket, and I never even got to wear it once."
"It looks much better on me," Brandi assured her. "Red just isn't your color."
A lot she knew, Tellie thought, because every time she thought about J.B., she saw red.
Marge watched Tellie pack her suitcase with a somber expression. "He really did have an emergency at the ranch," she told Tellie gently. "The big barn caught fire. They had fire departments from all over Jacobs County out there putting it out."
"I'm sure he would have come, if he'd been able," Tellie replied politely. She didn't believe it. J.B. hadn't shown any interest in her at all in recent years. He'd avoided her whenever possible. Perhaps the ties had driven him nuts and he'd torched the barn himself, thinking of it as a giant yellow dragon tie. The thought amused her, and she laughed.
"What are you laughing about?" Marge teased.
"I was thinking maybe J.B.'s gone off his rocker and started seeing yellow dragon ties everywhere."
Marge chuckled. "It wouldn't surprise me. Those ties are just awful, Tellie, really!"
"I think they suit him," Tellie said with irrepressible humor. "I'm sure that he's going to wear one eventually."
Marge started to speak and apparently thought better of it. "Well, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting," she said instead.
"Who's the flavor of the month?" Tellie wondered aloud.
Marge lifted an eyebrow. She knew what Tellie meant, all too well. She despaired of her brother ever getting serious about a woman again. "He's dating one of the Kingstons's cousins, from Fort Worth. She was a runner-up for Miss Texas."
Tellie wasn't surprised. J.B. had a passion for beautiful blondes. Over the years, he'd escorted his share of movie starlets. Tellie, with her ordinary face and figure, was hardly on a par to compete with such beauties.
"They're just display models," Marge whispered wickedly, so that her daughters didn't hear her.
Tellie burst out laughing. "Oh, Marge, what would I do without you?"
Marge shrugged. "It's us against the men of the world," she pointed out. "Even my brother qualifies as the enemy from time to time." She paused. "Don't they give you a recording of the graduation exercises?"
"Yes, along with my diploma," Tellie agreed. "Why?"
"I say we get the boys to rope J.B. to his easy chair in the den and make him watch the recording for twenty-four straight hours," she suggested. "Revenge is sweet!"
"He'd just go to sleep during the commencement speech," Tellie sighed. "And I wouldn't blame him. I almost did myself."
"Shame on you! The speaker was a famous politician!"
"Famously boring," Brandi remarked with a wicked grin.
"Notice how furiously everybody applauded when he stopped speaking," Dawn agreed.
"You two have been hanging out with me for too long," Tellie observed. "You're picking up all my bad habits."
They both hugged her. "We love you, bad habits and all," they said. "Congratulations on your degree!"
"You did very well indeed," Marge echoed. "Magna cum laude, no less! I'm proud of you."
"Honor graduates don't have social lives, Mother," Brandi pointed out. "No wonder she made such good grades. She spent every weekend in the dorm, studying!"
"Not every weekend," Tellie muttered. "There was that archaeology field trip."
"With the geek squad." Dawn yawned.
"They weren't all geeks," she reminded them. "Anyway, I like digging up old things."
"Then you should have gotten your degree in archaeology instead of history," Brandi said.
She chuckled. "I'll be digging up old documents instead of old relics," she said. "It will be a cleaner job, at least."
"When do you start your master's degree work?" Marge asked.
"Fall semester," she replied, smiling. "I thought I'd take the summer off and spend a little time with you guys. I've already lined up a job working for the Ballenger brothers at their feedlot while Calhoun and Abby take a cruise to Greece with the boys. I guess all those summers following J.B. and his veterinarian around the ranch finally paid off. At least I know enough about feeding out cattle to handle the paperwork!"
"Lucky Calhoun and Abby. Wow," Dawn said on a sigh. "I'd love to get a three-month vacation!"
"Wouldn't we all," Tellie agreed wistfully. "In my case, a job is a vacation from all the studying! Biology was so hard!"
"We don't get to dissect things anymore at our school," Brandi said. "Everybody's afraid of blood these days."
"With good reason, I'm sorry to say," Marge mused.
"We don't get to do dissections, either," Tellie told her with a smile. "We had a rat on a dissecting board and we all got to use it for identification purposes. It was so nice that we had an air-conditioned lab!"
The girls made faces.
"Speaking of labs," Marge interrupted, "who wants a nice hamburger?"
"Nobody dissects cows, Mom," Brandi informed her.
"We can dissect the hamburger," Tellie suggested, "and identify the part of the cow it came from."
"It came from a steer, not a cow," Marge said wryly. "You could use a refresher course in Ranching 101, Tellie."
They all knew who'd be teaching it at home, and that was a sore spot. Tellie's smile faded. "I expect I'll get all the information I need working from Justin at the feedlot."
"They've got some handsome new cowboys working for them," Marge said with sparkling eyes. "One's an ex-Green Beret who grew up on a ranch in West Texas."
Tellie shrugged one shoulder. "I'm not sure I want to meet any men. I've still got three years of study to get my master's degree so that I can start teaching history in college."
"You can teach now, can't you?" Dawn asked.
"I can teach adult education," Tellie replied. "But I have to have at least a master's degree to teach at the college level, and a PhD is preferred."
"Why don't you want to teach little kids?" Brandi asked curiously.
Tellie grinned. "Because you two hooligans destroyed all my illusions about sweet little kids," she replied, and ducked when Brandi threw a pillow at her.