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The party was getting noisier by the minute.
Lacy Jarrett Whitehall watched it with an air of total withdrawal. All that wild jazz, the kicky dancing, the bathtub gin flowing like water as it was passed from sloshing glass to teacup. She wasn't really as much a participant as she was an onlooker. It made her feel alive to watch other people enjoying themselves. Lacy hadn't felt alive in a long time.
Many of the neighbors were elderly people, and she suffered a pang of conscience at what, to them, must have seemed like licentious behavior. The Charleston was considered a vulgar dance by the older generation. Jazz, they said, was decadent. Ladies smoked in public and sworeand some actually wore their stockings rolled to just below the kneecap. They wore galoshes, unfastened, so that they flapped when they walked hence the name given to the new generation: flappers.
Shocking behavior to a society that had only since the war come out of the Victorian Age. The war had changed everything. Even now, four years after the armistice, people were still recovering from the horror of it. Some had never recovered. Some never would.
In the other room, laughing couples were dancing merrily to "Yes, We Have No Bananas" blaring from Lacy's new radio. It was like having an orchestra right in the room, and she marveled a little at the modern devices that were becoming so commonplace. Not that any of these gay souls were contemplating the scientific advances of the early twenties. They were too busy drinking Lacy's stealthily obtained, prohibition-special gin and eating the catered food. Money could almost buy absolution, she mused. The only thing it couldn't get her was the man she wanted most.
She fingered her teacup of gin with a long, slender finger, its pink nail perfectly rounded. The color matched the dropped-waist frock she was wearing with its skirt at her knees. It would have shocked Marion Whitehall and the local ladies around Spanish Flats, she thought. Like her friends, she wore her hair in the current bobbed fashion. It was thick and dark and straight, and it curved toward her delicate facial features like leaves lifting to the sun. Under impossibly thick lashes, her pale, bluish-gray eyes had a restlessness that was echoed in the soft, shifting movements of her tall, perfectly proportioned body. She was twenty-four, and looked twenty-one. Perhaps being away from Coleman had taken some of the age off her. She laughed bitterly as she coped with the thought. Her eyes closed on a wave of pain so sweeping that it counteracted the stiff taste of the gin. Coleman! Would she ever forget?
It had all been a joke, the whole thing. One of brother-in-law Ben's practical jokes had compromised Lacy, after she'd been locked in a line cabin all night with Cole. Nothing had happened, except that Cole had given her hell, blaming her for it. But it was what people thought happened that counted. In big cities, the new morals and wild living that had followed World War I were all the rage. But down in Spanish Flats, Texas, a two-hour drive from San Antonio, things were still very straitlaced. And the Whitehalls, while not wealthy, were well known and much respected in the community. Marion Whitehall had been in hysterics about the potential disgrace, so Cole had spared his mother's tender feelings by marrying Lacy. But not willingly.
Lacy had been taken in by Marion Whitehall eight years ago, after Lacy's own parents died on the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by the Germans. Lacy's mother and Cole's had been best friends. Lacy's one remaining relative, a wealthy great-aunt, had declared herself too elderly and set in her ways to take on a teenager. The Whitehalls' invitation had been a godsend. Lacy had agreed, but mostly because it allowed her to be near Cole. She'd worshipped him since her wealthy family had moved to Spanish Flats from Georgia when Lacy had been just thirteen to be near her great-aunt Lucy and great-uncle Horace Jacobsen, who had retired from business after making a fortune in the railroad industry. Great-uncle Horace had, in fact, founded the town of Spanish Flats and named it for the Whitehall ranch, which had sheltered him in a time of desperate need.
He and Lacy's great-aunt had been a social force in San Antonio in those days, but it was Spanish Flats Ranch, not Great-uncle Horace's towering Victorian mansion that had fascinated Lacy from the beginningas did the tall cattleman on the ranch property. It had been love on first impact, even though Cole's first words to her had been scathing when she'd ridden too close to one of his prize bulls and had almost gotten gored. That hadn't put her off, though. If anything, his cold, quiet, authoritative manner had attracted her, challenged her, long before she knew who he was.
Coleman Whitehall was an enigma in so many ways. A loner, like his old Comanche grandfather who'd taken him over in his youth and showed him a vanished way of life and thought. But he'd been kind to Lacy for all that, and there were times when she'd glimpsed a different man, watching him with the cowboys. The somber, serious Cole she thought she knew was missing in the lean rancher who got up very early one morning, caught a rattlesnake, defanged it and put it in bed with a cowboy who'd played a nasty practical joke on him. The resulting pandemonium had left him almost collapsed with laughter, along with the other witnesses. It had shown her a side of Cole that she remembered now for its very elusiveness.
Despite his responsibilities at home, the lure of airplanes and battle had gotten to Cole. He'd learned to fly at a local barnstorming show, and had become fascinated with this new mode of transportation. The sinking of the Lusitania had brought his fighting blood up, and convinced him that America would inevitably be pulled into war. He'd kept up his practice at the airfield, even though his father's death had stopped him from joining the group of pilots in the French Escadrille Americaine, which became the exclusive Lafayette Escadrille.
When America did enter the war in 1917, a neighboring rancher had taken responsibility for the ranch and womenfolk in his absence, keeping the land grabbers away with financial expertise. Meanwhile Lacy and Katy and Ben and Marion had watched the newspapers with mounting horror, reading the posted casualty lists with stopped breath, with sinking fear. But Coleman seemed invincible. It wasn't until the year after the armistice, when he'd turned up back at the ranch after a few sparsely worded letters, an old flying buddy in tow, that they'd learned he'd been shot down by the Germans. He'd only written that he'd been wounded, not how. But apparently it hadn't done him any lasting damage. He was the same taciturn, hard man he'd been before he'd gone to France.
Well, not quite the same. Lacy treasured the precious few memories she had of Cole's tenderness, his warmth. He hadn't always been coldespecially not the day he'd left to go to war. There had been times when he was so human, so caring. Now, there was a coldness that was alien, a toughness that perhaps the war had created. Not that the family had any real idea of what the war had been like for him on a personal basis; he never spoke of it.
Ben had been too young to fight. With Cole's return, he'd followed after his big brother with wide, dark eyes, all questions and pleas to hear about it. But Coleman wouldn't tell him a thing. So Ben hounded Jude Sheridan. Jude, whom Coleman called Turk, had been an ace pilot with twelve credited kills. He was an easygoing, too-handsome man with a quick temper and a physique that kept young Katy awake nights sighing over him. Turk had filled Ben's ear with bloodcurdling talesuntil Coleman had gotten tired of it and stopped Turk from encouraging his young brother.
That was about the same time that he'd had to stop Katy from tagging along after the tall, blond flyer who'd become his ranch foreman. Turk was good with horses, and he had a shocking reputation with women. But that was something Katy wasn't going to find out, Cole had informed her coldly. Turk was his friend, not a potential conquest, and Katy had better remember it. Even now, Lacy could see the heartbreak on the slender, green-eyed girl's face as Cole blasted her dreams away. He'd even gone so far as to threaten her with firing Turk altogether. So Katy had withdrawnfrom her brother, from her familyand had gone wild with the new morality. She'd bought outrageous clothes; she began to use makeup. She went to parties in San Antonio and drank outlawed bathtub gin. And the more Coleman threatened her, the wilder she got.
About that time, Ben had turned his attention to Lacy. It had been embarrassing, because she was twenty-three and Ben only eighteen. Coleman teased him about it when he got wind of it, which only added to the frustration. One night, Ben lured Cole and Lacy to a line cabin and locked them in. He went home to bed, and by the time they were discovered the next morning, they were hopelessly compromised. So Coleman did the expected thing and married her. But he resented her, ignored her, put a wall between them that all her efforts hadn't dented. He refused to let her close enough to give their marriage a chance.
There had been an attraction between them for a long timea purely physical one on his partthat had found its first expression the day he'd left for the war. Despite the promise of that long-ago embrace, he hadn't touched Lacy since he'd been home again, not until after the wedding. The tension between them had reached flash point after an argument in the barn. Cole had backed her up against the wall that rainy morning in the barn and had kissed her until her mouth was swollen and her body raging with unexpected passion. That night, he'd come to her room and, in the darkness, had taken her. But it had been quick, and painful, and she remembered the strength in his lean hands as he'd held her wrists beside her head, not even allowing her to touch him through the brief intimacy while his hard mouth smothered her cries of pain. He'd left her immediately, white-faced, while she cried like a hurt child, and he hadn't touched her again. The next morning, he'd acted as if nothing at all had happened. If anything, he was harder and colder than before. Lacy couldn't bear the thought of any more of his brutal passion and his indifference. She'd packed her bags and gone to San Antonio, to be a companion to her great-aunt Lucy, Great-uncle Horace's widow. Shortly thereafter, the gentle old lady had died. Now Lacy had the house and plenty of money that she hadn't even expected to inherit. But without Cole, she had nothing.
She still shuddered, thinking about the morning she'd left Spanish Flats. Marion had been hurt, Katy and Ben shocked. Coleman had beenColeman. Revealing nothing. Eight months had passed without a word from him, without an apology. Lacy had hated him at first because of the pain he'd inflicted so coldly. But one of her married friends had explained intimacy to her, and now she understood a little. She'd been a virgin, so it wasn't unexpected that her first time had been difficult. Perhaps Cole just hadn't cared enough to be gentle with her. At any rate, if it happened again, it might be less traumatic, and she might get pregnant. She blushed softly, thinking of how wonderful it would be to have a child, even under these circumstances. She was so totally alone. She could never have Cole, but it would have been nice to have his child.
It was such a good thing that she had Great-aunt Lucy's inheritance. Added to the unexpectedly small inheritance her parents had left, it had made it possible for her to live in style and give extravagant parties. Coleman hated guests, and gaiety. Lacy could have done without them, too, if she'd had Coleman's love. Even his affection. But she had nothing, except the contempt that had burned from his dark eyes every time he looked at her. She had money, and he was losing more of his by the day. That had been a point of contention between them from the very beginning. Cole had never gotten over the fact of her wealthand his lack of it. It was an unexpected prejudice in a man who didn't seem to have a bigoted bone in his lean body.
Lacy sipped her gin quietly, her eyes on the clock. Marion had written to say that Cole would be in San Antonio today, on business. She'd asked him to stop by and see Lacy while he was in town. Lovely Marion, always the matchmaker. But she didn't know the real situation. There was nothing more hopeless than the relationship the way it was now. Even if Lacy had thought about asking Coleman for a divorce, as old-fashioned and proper as he was, she knew Cole would never agree to that. It had been his own principles, added to his mother's horror of scandal, that had made him drag Lacy to the altar in the first place after the night in the line cabin, even though he hadn't touched her. Apparently he was content for things to go on as they were; for Lacy to live in San Antonio, while he contented himself with business as usual at Spanish Flats. She laughed bitterly. All her young dreams of marriage and children and a husband to love and cherish her, and this was what she had. Twenty-four years old, and she felt fifty.
Children had been another problem. She'd worked up enough nerve to approach Coleman shortly after their marriage and ask him if he wanted them. She'd thought in her innocence that a child might make their relationship easier. His face had gone a horrible pale shade, and he'd said things to her that she still had trouble accepting. No, he'd told her, he didn't want children. Not with a pampered little rich girl like Lacy. And after a few more insulting words, he'd stormed off in a black temper. She'd never had the nerve to ask him a second time. In her heart, she'd hoped that she might become pregnant after that uncomfortable night in his bed, but it hadn't happened. Maybe it was just as well, because Cole would let no one close to him. She'd tried everything except being herself. It was hard to be herself around Cole, because he inhibited her so much. She wanted to play with him and tease him and make him laugh.