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Heavy hoofbeats resounded through the house, sending spirals of fear shooting through Helena. Her heart started to race. Had the Ghost Warriors finally decided to move on Shamrock? She stood and dropped her needlework as her housekeeper rushed in, her eyes wide with fear.
The horses thundered by along the ranch road, but one rider advanced rapidly on the house. Helena grabbed the loaded shotgun she kept leaning against the fireplace, then moved to the front window. Cautiously, she nudged the curtain aside with the double barrel and peered out.
Anger flooded through her. Or was it really desperate, foolish hope? In the blink of an eye her emotions flipped back to anger.
"Brendan?" she whispered. He'd said he would never set foot on Shamrock. Typical. His word meant everything to him except with her.
He seemed to hesitate, one foot on the step up to the porch.
So, he remembers his vow. "Never is a very long time, isn't it, Brendan?" she whispered, then cursed his contrary soul. She liked to relax on the porch in the evenings, and didn't want to picture him there. Before he decided to go ahead and invade that special space, Helena threw open the door and marched toward her estranged husband.
He slowly eased his booted foot back to the ground. His emerald eyes were unreadable in the shadow cast by the wide brim of his black Stetson. He glanced down at the shotgun as he pushed the hat back on his head. His left eyebrow arched annoyingly as he looked up, snaring her gaze with the power he still held over her.
He stared for a long, uncomfortable moment, opened his mouth, then closed it, as if unsure what to say.
She managed to look away from his eyes. Oh, how he could make her want himmake her care. Even after he'd left her alone during the darkest days of her life.
When she forced herself to look back, those eyes that had captured her heart and made it his, sparkled with mischief and flicked for a split second back to her shotgun. "And here I was thinkin' you might be glad to see me," he quipped in his slight, musical Irish accent.
She might be glad. She was glad, damn him. But she'd had three years of pain and practice at hiding her feelings. She had her pride, too. She stiffened her spine. He'd never know what she still felt for him. Never.
"W-why? Why would you think I'd be glad to see you?" she asked, and looked down at the gun in her hands. No matter how many times she'd threatened it, she would never want to shoot him. Accidentally or otherwise. She took a moment to break the gun open and gather her composure.
Steadier now, she said, "I seem to recall you telling me you'd never set foot on Shamrock. I believe it was outside the title office, after we signed the papers for the ranch."
Helena turned to her housekeeper, who'd followed her to the porch. "It's all right, Maria. You can go back inside."
Maria shot a black look Brendan's way, "You are sure?"
Helena nodded, then glanced back at her husband. "Is there something other than rejection and scorn I'm to read from what you said that day, and what you've done the last three years?"
"Things change." He looked suspiciously as if he was choosing his words as carefully as she was. Then his whole countenance changed. He looked serious suddenly. Weighed down, even. "I've bad news. The raiders struck again. Belleza this time. Don Alejandro, the shepherds and their wives were all killed. Señora Varga and her daughter brought the don's body to town for burial."
Helena swayed and grabbed a porch column. "How on earth did Farrah and Elizabeth survive? The renegades don't leave survivors, do they?"
"They'd been in town," he explained. "They heard the commotion in time for Miss Varga to get off their ranch road. She hid her mother and the carriage, but Miss Varga, bein' who she is, snuck to the hilltop over-lookin' the homestead. Thinkin' she could help, apparently."
He shook his head. Grimaced. "She saw them kill her da and was smart enough to know it was too late to help anyone down there. Some of the men from town are out there buryin' the dead. Quinn's gone on by here with a posse, chasin' wild geese again. He's hopin' to track the raiders to their hideout this time 'round."
"I thought the governor sent you here to stop these Ghost Warriors. Why aren't you with Sheriff Quinn and the posse?"
"Because they're wastin' their time. The raiders'll disappear into the hills. Mark my words. When the sun sets, all Quinn and the rest will have are tired mounts and saddle-sore behinds."
She took a step back. It hurt too much to see Bren. Talk to him. She wanted him to go away. Far away, so she'd have a chance to heal from the new wounds his presence here caused. "Well, uh, thank you for bringing me the news. I'll look in on the Vargas tomorrow.
Where will they be?"
"The hotel. The house is gone. Burned. You'd have seen the smoke but the wind's to the east today. I didn't stop by just to tell you about Belleza. I'm movin' here." At her gasp, he qualified his statement. "Into Shamrock's bunkhouse."
"If you're of a mind to try stoppin' me," he interrupted, "remember under the law I've a right to move all the way into your bedroom if I want. And remember, too, it was you who wanted this marriage and this ranch."
Holding tight to her control and her expression, Helena put a hand on her hip. "I don't care where you lay your head. I stopped caring long ago. But if you set foot on this porch, let alone in my bedroom, I'll blow a hole in you big enough to read the front page of the Sentinel through."
She'd started to turn away, so she could go slam the door in his arrogant, beautiful face, when he took hold of her arm. He'd always had the most incredible way of touching her. It spoke of an abundance of leashed power behind his gentle touch. She couldn't control the tremor that rushed through her.
Then he said, "As far as the townsfolk and ranchers will know, I'm at Shamrock to stay, and livin' with you."
In shock, she stared at him, her mouth working like a hooked trout. "Why would they think that?" she finally muttered.
"Because it's what I want them to think."
"Then I'll let them all know you're only here to Why are you here? Why did the posse ride onto Shamrock at all?" she demanded, her anger growing to the size of her pain.
Brendan, his eyes hooded, once again seemed to choose his words carefully. "I tracked the raiders across your northern border. Word is Shamrock doesn't run cattle up there unless there's a drought. They seem to feel safe takin' that route. They've done it twice that I know of. Now that they've moved to bigger places, Shamrock has to be near the top of their list. I want to catch these bastards in the act, and as you're a citizen, and I took an oath to protect the citizens of Texas, I'm here to protect you."
That certainly stated in no uncertain terms where she stood with him. "You took an oath to love, honor and keep me, but that didn't stop you from leaving."
Fire entered his gaze. "I took that oath at gunpoint. It was your poor wronged princess act that had my own sister holdin' the pistol, and forcin' those promises out of me. And you said you'd honor and obey. You broke your vows the minute you got hold of your inheritance.
Did you think I'd be able to hold my head up when folks learned the money for Shamrock came from you?"
She gripped the shotgun until her knuckles turned white. "Joshua bought the bank, so the bank account had both our names on it. Who'd have known?"
Brendan and his pride! It had ruined her life. She stared down at his hand on her arm, then up into those cold green eyes, refusing to remember the way he used to look at her. "You gave up any right to touch me the moment you rode off and left me to deal with hundreds of acres of land alone. I built Shamrock from the ground up, each day hoping you'd be back. One day I realized I'd stopped hoping. From that time forward, Shamrock's success was for me and me alone. You have no place here."
When he let go of her like a man afraid of losing his fingers, she knew he'd believed her lie.
"At the land office that day all I'd wanted to do was give you the life I thought you deserved." She went on as if nothing had changed, because, though he no longer held her arm, he still held her heart. She was afraid he always would, and that made her furious. She wished she could hate him, but so far, she could only pretend.
How could his touch make her want so many things he'd never give her? "I was wrong, but not about buying the ranch. I was wrong about what you deserve. You deserve exactly what you've got, Ranger Kane. No place to call home, and whores warming whichever one of their beds you've paid to spend the night in."
He raised that annoying eyebrow and grinned. "Unlike you, at least I'm warm."
Helena's heart clutched at his admission. She wanted to slap that grin off his face, but instead lifted her chin and managed another lie. "What makes you think I'm always alone in mine? Did you really think I'd wait for you to get over your childish snit and decide to honor your vows?"
Brendan's grin faded and his eyes went cold. "Then why haven't you filed for divorce? I've clearly deserted you."
"Because, you ninny, you had to be gone for three years. It would have been three years in June. But now, one month shy of freedom, you've put it about town that you've moved here. That means when you decide to go off again, the waiting period starts all over. Three more years of my life gone to a man who cares only for himself and his precious pride. Once again you've stepped in with a unilateral decision to destroy my future."
"Unilateral? Me? It was you who went ahead, like a spoiled princess, and plunked down the coin to buy the land you wanted. Have you ever done an honest day's work? Do you understand how hard others have had to labor for what you were handed?"
Helena's blood pounded in her head and drained from her face. She'd be damned if she'd tell him just how much hard work on Shamrock had cost her. She wouldn't go there. She couldn't. But she was sick to death of him tarring her and her father with the same brush as the man who'd all but forced Brendan into the mines. Her father had been an honorable man. "Handed? My father took a chance and invested a minor inheritance in all the right places. Handed? That man meant the world to me! He was all I had after my mother died. Oh, you're so right. All I had to do to get my hands on his money was watch as he was gunned down in the street, then be left alone in the world with Franklin
Gowery as a guardian. I earned every cent of what I inherited in the tears I shed that day and every day since. Go away, Brendan. I'll take my chances with the renegades. They'll just kill me. Not cut out my heart and leave me alive and bleeding."
"You're nothing to me. Do you hear? Get off my land. You don't want it. You don't want me. And I sure as hell don't want you around reminding me of the mess I made of my life because I believed you loved me as much as I once loved you." This time she made it inside and slammed the door. But her home offered no solace and never had.
She was done.
She'd put Shamrock up for sale and go back East. And she'd never love another man. Men just dragged you from hotel to hotel, with only adults to fill your life, then left you alone in the world with not a friend to your name. Or else claimed they loved you, only to toss that love back in your face.
Helena sank to the floor and, instead of howling out her pain, stuffed the ends of her shawl in her mouth to muffle her cries. Tears poured down her face. Oh, she was done with him this time.
Brendan watched the door slam. Jaysus, the woman knew how to hurt him. He nearly took the one step up onto the porch to follow, but turned away and grabbed Harry's reins instead, heading for the bunkhouse. Nothing would come of trying to talk to her now. But he wasn't leaving. Not with the carnage he'd seen at Belleza. Whoever the animals were, he was going to find them and see them hanged. Every last mother's son of them.
He rode to the barn to get Harry settled before heading over to the bunkhouse to find out if there was even room for him there. As he dismounted, he looked farther up the ranch road and saw Sean Mallory, Shamrock's foreman, step out of the cottage he shared with his wife and children. Winchester in hand, Mallory stood staring his way. Brendan ground-tied Harry and walked to the cottage.
"Kane," the foreman said as he approached. "What brings you around?" He didn't sound welcoming. Loyal, Brendan thought. That was good. Helena was in good hands, as he'd heard.
"Belleza was hit. Twelve dead, Alejandro Varga included. His wife and daughter were in town, thank the good Lord. The wives of the shepherds weren't as lucky."
Mallory winced and glanced back at the cottage. "I wondered when they'd move on to one of the bigger spreads. We saw Quinn ride through with a posse.
"We tracked them across Shamrock's northern boundary. I know you don't run the cattle up there, for the most part. Got any idea who else might know that?"
"It isn't a closely guarded secret, if that's what you mean. But no Comanche would know it unless they've been watching us for years."
Brendan paused and frowned. No one was supposed to know he was hunting anyone other than a band of renegades. He and Ryan Quinn had decided to keep their suspicions to themselves, even though it really ate at his gut. Brendan hated that everyone was so damned willing to believe ill of the Comanche. True, the tribe deserved the reputation, but they'd gone down in defeat and were buttoned up on the reservation. Yet all the men conducting these raids had needed to do was scalp their first victims, and everyone ignored all the inconsistencies marking these attacks as other than the work of the tribe.
By going along with the popular view, Brendan and the sheriff hoped they'd lure the ones responsible into making a mistake born of overconfidence. Brendan knew Quinn was new to being a lawman, but he was doing a passable job and was in no way stupid enough to spread their plan about.
So who had let the cat out of the bag about white men being suspect? "What makes you think it's not Comanche?" Brendan asked carefully, eying Helena's foreman with suspicion.
"You know my brother-in-law is foreman at the Rocking R," Mallory said. "He told me their fence was downed and they've lost a few head over the cliff edge up where the R and Shamrock meet up with the canyon that separates both spreads from Avery's Bar A. There were also tracks across that back edge of the spread that disappeared into the canyon. So I went looking up there. Our fences were downed, too. And there were tracks from shod horses. Now there's been another attack and there're more tracks. Can't be a coincidence. I think the fences being downed is supposed to discourage both spreads from running cattle up there. Less chance of our men spotting something odd.
"If you add the tracks to Avery being the only one who's bought land off those who were raided, he's looking mighty guilty."