Heartbreaker by Linda Howard

  “You’re going with me,” he said, his voice steely. “This is Saturday; it’ll be Monday before I can take care of the bill. There’s no way in hell I’m going to leave you here. God Almighty, you don’t even have water!”

  Michelle pushed her hair from her eyes. “I have water. I’ve been drawing it from the old well.”

  He began swearing again and turned from the closet to the dresser. Before she could say anything her underwear was added to the growing pile on the bed. “I can’t stay with you,” she said desperately, knowing events were already far out of her control. “You know how it’ll look! I can manage another couple of days—”

  “I don’t give a damn how it looks!” he snapped. “And just so you understand me, I’m going to give it to you in plain English. You’re going with me now, and you won’t be coming back. This isn’t a two-day visit. I’m tired of worrying about you out here all by yourself; this is the last straw. You’re too damned proud to tell me when you need help, so I’m going to take over and handle everything, the way I should have in the beginning.”

  Michelle shivered, staring at him. It was true that she shrank from the gossip she knew would run through the county like wildfire, but that wasn’t the main reason for her reluctance. Living with him would destroy the last fragile buffers she had retained against being overwhelmed by him in every respect. She wouldn’t be able to keep any emotional distance as a safety precaution, just as physical distance would be impossible. She would be in his home, in his bed, eating his food, totally dependent on him.

  It frightened her so much that she found herself backing away from him, as if by increasing the distance between them she could weaken his force and fury. “I’ve been getting by without you,” she whispered.

  “Is this what you call ‘getting by’?” he shouted, slinging the contents of another drawer onto the bed. “You were working yourself half to death, and you’re damned lucky you weren’t hurt trying to do a two-man job! You don’t have any money. You don’t have a safe car to drive. You probably don’t have enough to eat—and now you don’t have electricity.”

  “I know what I don’t have!”

  “Well, I’ll tell you something else you don’t have: a choice. You’re going. Now get dressed.”

  She stood against the wall on the other side of the room, very still and straight. When she didn’t move his head jerked up, but something about her made his mouth soften. She looked defiant and stubborn, but her eyes were frightened, and she looked so frail it was like a punch in the gut, staggering him.

  He crossed the room with quick strides and hauled her into his arms, folding her against him as if he couldn’t tolerate another minute of not touching her. He buried his face in her hair, wanting to sweep her up and keep her from ever being frightened again. “I won’t let you do it,” he muttered in a raspy voice. “You’re trying to keep me at a distance, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you do it. Does it matter so much if people know about us? Are you ashamed because I’m not a member of your jet set?”

  She gave a shaky laugh, her fingers digging into his back. “Of course not. I’m not one of the jet set.” How could any woman ever be ashamed of him?

  His lips brushed her forehead, leaving warmth behind. “Then what is it?”

  She bit her lip, her mind whirling with images of the past and fears of the future. “The summer I was nineteen…you called me a parasite.” She had never forgotten the words or the deep hurt they’d caused, and an echo of it was in her low, drifting voice. “You were right.”

  “Wrong,” he whispered, winding his fingers through the strands of her bright hair. “A parasite doesn’t give anything, it only takes. I didn’t understand, or maybe I was jealous because I wanted it all. I have it all now, and I won’t give it up. I’ve waited ten years for you, baby; I’m not going to settle for half measures now.”

  He tilted her head back, and his mouth closed warmly, hungrily, over hers, overwhelming any further protests. With a little sigh Michelle gave in, going up on her tiptoes to press herself against him. Regrets could wait; if this were all she would have of heaven, she was going to grab it with both hands. He would probably decide that she’d given in so she could have an easier life, but maybe that was safer than for him to know she was head over heels in love with him.

  She slipped out of his arms and quietly changed into jeans and a silk tunic, then set about restoring order out of the chaos he’d made of her clothes. Traveling had taught her to be a fast, efficient packer. As she finished each case, he carried it out to the truck. Finally only her makeup and toiletries were left.

  “We’ll come back tomorrow for anything else you want,” he promised, holding the lamp for the last trip down the stairs. When she stepped outside he extinguished the lamp and placed it on the table, then followed her and locked the door behind him.

  “What will your housekeeper think?” she blurted nervously as she got in the truck. It hurt to be leaving her home. She had hidden herself away here, sinking deep roots into the ranch. She had found peace and healing in the hard work.

  “That I should have called to let her know when I’d be home,” he said, laughing as relief and anticipation filled him. “I came here straight from the airport. My bag is in back with yours.” He couldn’t wait to get home, to see Michelle’s clothing hanging next to his in the closet, to have her toiletries in his bathroom, to sleep with her every night in his bed. He’d never before wanted to live with a woman, but with Michelle it felt necessary. There was no way he would ever feel content with less than everything she had to give.

  Chapter Seven

  IT WAS MIDMORNING when Michelle woke, and she lay there for a moment alone in the big bed, trying to adjust to the change. She was in John’s house, in his bed. He had gotten up hours ago, before dawn, and left her with a kiss on the forehead and an order to catch up on her sleep. She stretched, becoming aware of both her nakedness and the ache in her muscles. She didn’t want to move, didn’t want to leave the comforting cocoon of sheets and pillows that carried John’s scent. The memory of shattering pleasure made her body tingle, and she moved restlessly. He hadn’t slept much, hadn’t let her sleep until he’d finally left the bed to go about his normal day’s work.

  If only he had taken her with him. She felt awkward with Edie, the housekeeper. What must she be thinking? They had met only briefly, because John had ushered Michelle upstairs with blatantly indecent haste, but her impression had been of height, dignity and cool control. The housekeeper wouldn’t say anything if she disapproved, but then, she wouldn’t have to; Michelle would know.

  Finally she got out of bed and showered, smiling wryly to herself as she realized she wouldn’t have to skimp on hot water. Central air-conditioning kept the house comfortably cool, which was another comfort she had given up in an effort to reduce the bills. No matter what her mental state, she would be physically comfortable here. It struck her as odd that she’d never been to John’s house before; she’d had no idea what to expect. Perhaps another old ranch house like hers, though her father had remodeled and modernized it completely on the inside before they had moved in, and it was in fact as luxurious as the home she had been used to. But John’s house was Spanish in style, and was only eight years old. The cool adobe-colored brick and high ceilings kept the heat at bay, and a colorful array of houseplants brought freshness to the air. She’d been surprised at the greenery, then decided that the plants were

  Edie’s doing. The U-shaped house wrapped around a pool landscaped to the point that it resembled a jungle lagoon more than a pool, and every room had a view of the pool and patio.

  She had been surprised at the luxury. John was a long way from poor, but the house had cost a lot of money that he would normally have plowed back into the ranch. She had expected something more utilitarian, but at the same time it was very much his home. His presence permeated it, and everything was arranged for his comfort.<
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  Finally she forced herself to stop hesitating and go downstairs; if Edie intended to be hostile, she might as well know now.

  The layout of the house was simple, and she found the kitchen without any problem. All she had to do was follow her nose to the coffee. As she entered, Edie looked around, her face expressionless, and Michelle’s heart sank. Then the housekeeper planted her hands on her hips and said calmly, “I told John it was about damned time he got a woman in this house.”

  Relief flooded through Michelle, because something in her would have shriveled if Edie had looked at her with contempt. She was much more sensitive to what other people thought now than she had been when she was younger and had the natural arrogance of youth. Life had defeated that arrogance and taught her not to expect roses.

  Faint color rushed to her cheeks. “John didn’t make much of an effort to introduce us last night. I’m Michelle Cabot.”

  “Edie Ward. Are you ready for breakfast? I’m the cook, too.”

  “I’ll wait until lunch, thank you. Does John come back for lunch?” It embarrassed her to have to ask.

  “If he’s working close by. How about coffee?”

  “I can get it,” Michelle said quickly. “Where are the cups?”

  Edie opened the cabinet to the left of the sink and got down a cup, handing it to Michelle. “It’ll be nice to have company here during the day,” she said. “These damn cowhands aren’t much for talking.”

  Whatever Michelle had expected, Edie didn’t conform. She had to be fifty; though her hair was still dark, there was something about her that made her look her age. She was tall and broad shouldered, with the erect carriage of a Mother Superior and the same sort of unflappable dignity, but she also had the wise, slightly weary eyes of someone who has been around the block a few times too many. Her quiet acceptance made Michelle relax; Edie didn’t pass judgments.

  But for all the easing of tension, Edie quietly and firmly discouraged Michelle from helping with any of the household chores. “Rafferty would have both our heads,” she said. “Housework is what he pays me to do, and around here we try not to rile him.”

  So Michelle wandered around the house, poking her head into every room and wondering how long she would be able to stand the boredom and emptiness. Working the ranch by herself had been so hard that she had sometimes wanted nothing more than to collapse where she stood, but there had always been a purpose to the hours. She liked ranching. It wasn’t easy, but it suited her far better than the dual roles of ornament and mistress. This lack of purpose made her uneasy. She had hoped living with John would mean doing things with him, sharing the work and the worries with him…just as married couples did.

  She sucked in her breath at the thought; she was in his—still his—bedroom at the time, standing in front of the open closet staring at his clothes, as if the sight of his personal possessions would bring him closer. Slowly she reached out and fingered a shirtsleeve. Her clothes were in the closet beside his, but she didn’t belong. This was his house, his bedroom, his closet, and she was merely another possession, to be enjoyed in bed but forgotten at sunrise. Wryly she admitted that it was better than nothing; no matter what the cost to her pride, she would stay here as long as he wanted her, because she was so sick with love for him that she’d take anything she could get. But what she wanted, what she really wanted more than anything in her life, was to have his love as well as his desire. She wanted to marry him, to be his partner, his friend as well as his lover, to belong here as much as he did.

  Part of her was startled that she could think of marriage again, even with John. Roger had destroyed her trust, her optimism about life; at least, she’d thought he had. Trust had already bloomed again, a fragile phoenix poking its head up from the ashes. For the first time she recognized her own resilience; she had been altered by the terror and shame of her marriage, but not destroyed. She was healing, and most of it was because of John. She had loved him for so long that her love seemed like the only continuous thread of her life, always there, somehow giving her something to hold on to even when she’d thought it didn’t matter.

  At last restlessness drove her from the house. She was reluctant to even ask questions, not wanting to interfere with anyone’s work, but she decided to walk around and look at everything. There was a world of difference between John’s ranch and hers. Here everything was neat and well-maintained, with fresh paint on the barns and fences, the machinery humming. Healthy, spirited horses pranced in the corral or grazed in the pasture. The supply shed was in better shape than her barn. Her ranch had once looked like this, and determination filled her that it would again.

  Who was looking after her cattle? She hadn’t asked John, not that she’d been given a chance to ask him anything. He’d had her in bed so fast that she hadn’t had time to think; then he’d left while she was still dozing.

  By the time John came home at dusk, Michelle was so on edge that she could feel her muscles twitching with tension. As soon as he came in from the kitchen his eyes swept the room, and hard satisfaction crossed his face when he saw her. All day long he’d been fighting the urge to come back to the house, picturing her here, under his roof at last. Even when he’d built the house, eight years before, he’d wondered what she would think of it, if she’d like it, how she would look in these rooms. It wasn’t a grand mansion like those in Palm Beach, but it had been custom built to his specifications for comfort, beauty and a certain level of luxury.

  She looked as fresh and perfect as early-morning sunshine, while he was covered with sweat and dust, his jaw dark with a day’s growth of beard. If he touched her now, he’d leave dirty prints on her creamy white dress, and he had to touch her soon or go crazy. “Come on up with me,” he growled, his boots ringing on the flagstone floor as he went to the stairs.

  Michelle followed him at a slower pace, wondering if he already regretted bringing her here. He hadn’t kissed her, or even smiled.

  He was stripping off his shirt by the time she entered the bedroom, and he carelessly dropped the dirty, sweat-stained garment on the carpet. She shivered in response at the sight of his broad, hair-covered chest and powerful shoulders, her pulse throbbing as she remembered how it felt when he moved over her and slowly let her take his weight, nestling her breasts into that curly hair.

  “What’ve you been doing today?” he asked as he went into the bathroom.

  “Nothing,” Michelle answered with rueful truthfulness, shaking away the sensual lethargy that had been stealing over her.

  Splashing sounds came from the bathroom, and when he reappeared a few minutes later his face was clean of the dust that had covered it before. Damp strands of black hair curled at his temples. He looked at her, and an impatient scowl darkened his face. Bending down, he pried his boots off, then began unbuckling his belt.

  Her heart began pounding again. He was going to take her to bed right now, and she wouldn’t have a chance to talk to him if she didn’t do it before he reached for her. Nervously she picked up his dirty boots to put them in the closet, wondering how to start. “Wait,” she blurted. “I need to talk to you.”

  He didn’t see any reason to wait. “So talk,” he said, unzipping his jeans and pushing them down his thighs.

  She inhaled deeply. “I’ve been bored with nothing to do all day—”

  John straightened, his eyes hardening as she broke off. Hell, he should have expected it. When you acquired something expensive, you had to pay for its upkeep. “All right,” he said in an even tone. “I’ll give you the keys to the Mercedes, and tomorrow I’ll open a checking account for you.”

  She froze as the meaning of his words seared through her, and all the color washed out of her face. No. There was no way she’d let him turn her into a pet, a chirpy sexual toy, content with a fancy car and charge accounts. Fury rose in her like an inexorable wave, rushing up and bursting out of control. Fiercely she hurled the
boots at him; startled, he dodged the first one, but the second one hit him in the chest. “What the hell—”

  “No!” she shouted, her eyes like green fire in a face gone curiously pale. She was standing rigidly, her fists clenched at her sides. “I don’t want your money or your damned car! I want to take care of my cattle and my ranch, not be left here every day like some fancy…sex doll, waiting for you to get home and play with me!”

  He kicked his jeans away, leaving him clad only in his briefs. His own temper was rising, but he clamped it under control. That control was evident in his quiet, level voice. “I don’t think of you as a sex doll. What brought that on?”

  She was white and shaking. “You brought me straight up here and started undressing.”

  His brows rose. “Because I was dirty from head to foot. I couldn’t even kiss you without getting you dirty, and I didn’t want to ruin your dress.”

  Her lips trembled as she looked down at the dress. “It’s just a dress,” she said, turning away. “It’ll wash. And I’d rather be dirty myself than just left here every day with nothing to do.”

  “We’ve been over this before, and it’s settled.” He walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, gently squeezing. “You can’t handle the work; you’d only hurt yourself. Some women can do it, but you’re not strong enough. Look at your wrist,” he said, sliding his hand down her arm and grasping her wrist to lift it. “Your bones are too little.”

  Somehow she found herself leaning against him, her head resting in the hollow of his shoulder. “Stop trying to make me feel so useless!” she cried desperately. “At least let me go with you. I can chase strays—”

  He turned her in his arms, crushing her against him and cutting off her words. “God, baby,” he muttered. “I’m trying to protect you, not make you feel useless. It made me sick when I saw you putting up that fence, knowing what could happen if the wire lashed back on you. You could be thrown, or gored—”

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