With a mixture of reluctance and curiosity, Rafe Martinez has returned to the Circle C ranch. He certainly hasn’t come to mourn the loss of Big Tom Crane, the powerful ranch owner who drove him away eleven years ago. No, Rafe has come to the man’s funeral for one reason: to see Tom’s daughter, Jeanne—the woman he once loved passionately, and left brokenhearted. But when he meets Jeanne’s ten-year-old son, the startling reality hits Rafe hard: He is a father. And he must make amends.
Jeanne Crane has spent many years as a single mother, but the blazing torch she carries for her first—and only—love has never dimmed. Nor has her shame and heartache over the way Rafe disappeared. So when he suddenly returns, the memories of the passion they once shared as young lovers, and the sting of his betrayal, leave Jeanne torn apart by conflicting emotions. With the happiness of their child at stake, Jeanne and Rafe must lay the past to rest if they are to have a future together.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
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Half the people gathered in the family cemetery had come to pay their last respects to a true son of Texas. The other half had come to make damn sure that Big Tom Crane was dead.
Rafe Martinez parked his ’63 Corvette Stingray in the only available space in the ranch yard, between a Ford F-150 pickup brandishing a gunrack in the back window and a flashy pink Cadillac flaunting a pair of long-horns on the front grille. He thought about gunning the motor—just once, for old time’s sake—then thought again and switched off the ignition.
Eleven years in exile had transformed him, but it certainly hadn’t tamed him. The thick black hair skimming his white shirt collar was still too long by any cattleman’s standards; the matte-metal shades resting on his cheekbones raised more than one eyebrow; and that small silver stud glittering in the lobe of his left ear was a real shocker.
Those remnants of rebellion aside, Rafe had a style all his own. In the land of Stetsons and Western-styled suits, he went bareheaded and wore European-cut clothes that emphasized his broad shoulders, trim waist, and long runner’s legs. A hand-painted silk tie replaced its traditional string counterpart; woven ramie suspenders took the place of a gaudy gold or silver belt buckle. The expensive watch on his wrist told him the time and told everyone else he’d arrived.
His single concession to Lone Star fashion was a pair of hand-stitched black lizard boots. Not only did the soft leather pamper his long, narrow feet, but the extra two inches the heels added to his lean six-foot frame would give him a better view of the gringos’ bald spots when they respectfully removed their hats.
Rafe took off his sunglasses and put them in his breast pocket, then got out of his car and joined the solemn procession across the gravel lane to the grave. He walked with confidence, each movement flowing naturally into the next, as befitted both a successful attorney and a rising star on the political scene.
A state senator, famous for courting the Hispanic vote and then promptly forgetting his promises, went out of his way to shake Rafe’s hand. More jobs for minority contractors on the Alamo Sportsdome, the Anglo legislator pledged with sweaty-palmed desperation. And an appointment to the aquifer task force for the person of Rafe’s choosing.
It was a classic case of too little too late. His countenance as hard and full of mystery as the face of an Aztec lord, Rafe extricated his hand. He silently renewed his vow to see the senator defeated in next year’s primary.
But primary day was a long way off, and he had business to tend to now. Sun dapple and shadows enveloped him when he passed through the open, ornate gates that cordoned off the cemetery where Big Tom would be laid to rest beside his long-deceased wife, Laurrinda.
If nothing else, Rafe thought as he crossed the soft carpet of spring grass, it was a flawless day for a funeral.
The Hill Country had shed its January dullness and draped itself in April’s brilliance. Live oaks and pecan trees sported tender green leaves. The birds wore their brightest plumage. Bluebonnets and Blackfoot daisies blanketed the broad-topped hills as far as the eye could see.
The ranch house, a Victorian monstrosity within sight of the family cemetery, resurrected memories of a sweeter spring when virile juices had pumped through Rafe’s body and young love had blossomed in his heart. The bitter winters that followed had seared his pride and scarred his soul. They had also strengthened his resolve to prove himself. And prove himself he had. Beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, his own included.
Rafe had left his San Antonio law office at nine that morning and driven the forty miles northeast with the Corvette’s windows open and its powerful engine purring like a cat with a bellyful of cream. He reached his highway exit in record time. Or maybe it only seemed that way because he was running on gasoline these days instead of his glands.
The road he took then—originally a bison path, later an offshoot of the thousand-mile camino real—had been paved at some point since his departure. No matter. He knew its curves as intimately as he’d known those of the girl who used to wait for him at trail’s end.
Like Rafe, the state of Texas had undergone tremendous change in recent years. Crude-oil prices had dropped to a depressing low in the unlamented eighties. As had consumer demand for well-marbled steaks. On the bright side, at least to his way of thinking, language barriers had diminished. And Hispanics had demolished long-standing hurdles in San Antonio politics by taking intermittent control of city hall and the county courthouse.
Only the Circle C had remained unchanged, he realized immediately upon his arrival. Except for the necessary improvements, the sprawling ranch looked virtually the same as when he’d left it—a wire-fenced stronghold that had weathered everything from Comanche Indian attacks to a crippling downturn in the economy.
It remained to be seen how well it would weather Rafe’s return.
Noticing that the mourners had formed a wide arc around the grave, he deliberately but politely worked his way to the front.
A municipal court judge whose ruling he’d appealed just last week nodded silently to him. Cattle ranchers who’d bent many an elbow with Big Tom eyed him suspiciously, while cowhands who’d ridden for the brand with Rafe tipped the brims of their hats in a welcome-back salute. The barons’ diamond-bedecked wives gaped at him in stunned surprise; their designer-dressed daughters gave him the once over … twice.
Rafe’s face was as smooth and cool as the marble desktop in his office, and he let no one and nothing deter him as he took his place and assumed the traditional pose of funereal respect—feet spraddled about six inches apart, and the palm of one hand clasping the back of the other over his lower abdomen.
He wanted to see the woman who stood on the opposite side of the polished bronze casket. And he wanted her to see him.
Jeannie … He almost said her name aloud when he spotted her clinging to the arm of the longtime ranch manager, Rusty Pride. Beside her stood a dark-haired boy of about ten who looked vaguely familiar, behind her a man whom he didn’t recognize but who hovered over her with husbandly concern.
The old hurt rushed back, sharpened on the whetstone of that long-ago betrayal.
Rafe tried to staunch the flow of memories, to forget the past and focus on the present. But they’d merged before his very eyes, in the vision of elegance standing little more than an arm’s length away.
A faille-trimmed, floppy-brimmed black straw hat covered Jeannie’s head, but Rafe remembered how her hair caught sunbeams and threw them shining back to the sky. Angel hair, he’d called it then.
The shaped jacket and slim skirt of her silk suit showcased a figure that had more than fulfilled its womanly promise. Pearl earrings shone discreetly at the juncture of her delicate jawline and gracefully arched neck. A faint iridescence shimmered from the sheer black stockings sheathing her slender legs. The leather pumps that shod her feet completed the portrait of feminine perfection.
She turned to run a comforting hand over the boy’s hair, smoothing down a cowlick in the process, and Rafe got a glimpse of her face beneath her swooping hat brim. A beautiful face, even in grief. She turned still more, absently scanning the half-moon of mourners on the other side of the grave, and their gazes met and held.
A moment of shocked awareness sizzled between them.
“Let us pray,” the minister said, opening his black psalter to begin the simple Protestant service.
Everyone bowed their heads … except Rafe and Jeannie.
The minister’s monotone drifted above the silent gathering as the blue-eyed boy from the barrio and the golden-haired girl from Bolero stared at each other across the flower-covered coffin.
How was it possible that, even in death, her father could keep them apart?