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Chapter One

Texas, 1903

She could see him there, on the ridge above her small place, looking down at her, which was how she always pictured him, anyway – looking down on most everyone, and not just because of his height.  He was on that big deep chestnut stallion he preferred, the one it was rumored about town would only allow himself to be ridden by him.

It took everything she had not to stick her tongue out at him, placing her thumbs in her ears and flapping her fingers up and down while she did so.  It felt almost as good to just think about doing that, although she never would.  When she rolled her eyes at him, or tsked under her breath, Serena was always extremely careful to make sure that Landon “Mack” McAdam couldn’t see it.  Although he was a relatively successful and upstanding member of the community, from what appeared to be a wealthy family, at least to her, her experience of him had been quite different from everyone else’s, it seemed, and she didn’t trust him as far as she could throw him.

Besides, since the accident she’d had trying to get the highest rail replaced on the barely standing fence, twisting and turning wasn’t so much of an option as an obligation she’d rather avoid whenever possible.

Instead, she turned back to the rows of corn, cabbage, pumpkins, radishes, onions and potatoes she’d worked and sweated over for the past long, hot months, reaching down slowly and painfully to viciously wrestle a stubborn weed from the rich soil – careful to keep her upper body as still as possible so as not to stir up the pain - that seemed more interested in promoting their health than that of any of the vegetables she’d planted.  There were far more – and far healthier – weeds in this garden – despite her daily efforts at combating them – than there was edible produce!

Perhaps Landon had paid the Earth off so that it wouldn’t produce enough food to feed her this winter, and then she’d be forced to do what he’d been angling for her to do since she could remember:  sell him this small spit of land and disappear from his life, no longer a thorn in his side reminder of his own father’s unscrupulous behavior.  She wouldn’t have put it past him.

Despite how much Serena professed to loathe the man, however, and she did revile him with nearly every iota of her being, there was still something about him that drew her eyes to him every time he was in the same vicinity, no matter how much she scolded herself about doing so.  The third time she found herself craning her neck around, fit to snap it off, expecting to find him silhouetted against the fading sunset, he wasn’t there.  She turned back to her weeds with a defeated sigh, hating herself for her weakness around him and taking it out on the well deserving encroachers.

“You should put your bonnet back on.  With such fair skin, you’ll be burnt to a crisp in no time.”

She started at his voice and nearly fell back into the zucchini at the sharp pain in her side, barely able to right herself without groaning, but damned if she was going to do so in front of him.  Serena could feel her cheeks stain an unbecoming bright red that clashed hideously, she knew, with the red-gold of the long, wavy hair she had wrestled this morning into its usual perfunctory bun at the base of her neck.  The bonnet in question was several sizes too big for her; it was one she had furtively snatched from the lost and found box at church and it adamantly refused to reside on top of her head no matter how tightly she tied its strings, probably as a direct result of how she had illicitly appropriated it.  She would have sworn she was going to choke herself to death with how ruthlessly she’d reined it in against her throat this morning before stepping foot into the daylight, but the first time she’d put her head back – even before she’d made it to the garden – it fell down her back, leaving her creamy white skin at the mercy of the harsh sun.

Damn and blast, she hated it when he was right, but she none the less resisted the urge to try to reach back to wrangle the offending garment back on her head.  The last thing she wanted to do – even if she ended up with heat stroke – was to give Landon McAdam the idea that she might do what he’d told her to do.

No matter how much that traitorous little voice inside her wanted to – indeed, ached to.

Besides, all that jerking around to do so would be much too close to agonizing and she wouldn’t compromise herself like that while he was around.

Instead, she remained exactly where she was, stubbornly pulling weeds as if he wasn’t much too close behind her and setting her on edge like no one else in her life ever had.

“Did you hear what I said?”

She drew a slow, deep breath, hoping it would calm her, but that never worked, although despite her nerves she was proud of the fact that her voice didn’t shake in the least.  “I heard you, Mr. McAdam.”  Even if she had wanted to – and she did, she realized with a start – she couldn’t just rise up and go nose to nose with him.  Not with the way her ribs felt.  She’d gotten down here by pretty much just collapsing down onto her knees, but she’d already resigned herself to the idea that she was probably going to have to crawl back into the house at the end of the day, or at the very least to the most sturdy of the bottom rungs of the fence some distance away in order to get some assistance in getting up.

Unaware of what she was thinking, Mack watched that slight back as she bent and plucked, his body reacting in that awkwardly predictable way in her presence, so much so that he thought he ought to take off his hat and hide it, although she didn’t seem very interested at looking at him – as always – so he thought he could probably get away with it.  Hell, he chided himself, he should have doffed it when he came into her presence, but then Serena didn’t inspire much in the way of gentlemanly manners in him.  What she aroused in him – besides flat out anger - were the much deeper and more disturbing physical manifestation of desire, one he had – for the first time in his life – not been able to control with the ruthless will of his applied to every other are of his life.

No, she’d always had the ability to push him to the brink without ever having said or done a thing, and the fact that she always seemed to be doing her best to avoid him only served to make her that much more attractive to him, stirring up every hunter’s instinct he’d ever had – and he was a damned good one, whether the prey was animal or human.

He’d done his best to ignore the challenge she’d presented, and, except for that one slip up, he thought he’d done a pretty good job.  He’d barely laid a hand on her really, and that was good, considering that, technically, he guessed, they were very near to step-brother and sister.  Not that he’d ever allowed himself to feel that way towards her.  That would have been beyond obscene.  What he felt for her had nothing whatever to do with being her pseudo-sibling.

The fact that his father intended to marry her mother was some sort of weird aberration, something that Landon knew, deep in his soul, should never have been allowed to happen.  His lips set in a grim line as he remembered that whole debacle – his mother, horrified at the idea that her husband of nearly thirty years had left them and was just going to up and divorce her in order to marry white trash the likes of Velma Miller, clinging to him as if he was the only solid thing in her world, and the hands now looking to him as if he was boss now that Randall McAdam had finally shed himself of the place.

And they were right.  The one smart thing his father had done before stepping foot off the family ranch was to turn over control of the majority of it to his only son and heir.  Landon himself was torn about what Randall had done.  His mother was in high dudgeon, sobbing loudly and fit to soak the front of his shirt about how his father had done her wrong, and what was to become of her now.  It certainly didn’t take something as serious as this to get her to fly into a fit of hysterics, which seemed to be the state she preferred.  Landon knew that he hadn’t so much as lost a father as he’d gained a whiney, weepy, helpless carbuncle in the form of his self-centered mother, as well as an almost flat out dying ranch.

He had been trying – unsuccessfully up to that point – to convert the ranch from cattle to oil.  He’d done everything he could to convince his father that that was the best direction in which to go since it seemed they were much less than successful at raising beef.  He knew it wasn’t his fault, but Landon hated to fail at anything, and he knew that if his father had just let him make some of the changes he’d wanted to – even if they stayed in the cattle business - that he could have turned their fortunes around.

But Randall wasn’t about to let his upstart son go plowing ahead with any of his newfangled innovations.  Instead he set about bleeding the ranch as close to dry as possible, spending the healthy inheritance from his father, despite what Landon had shown him about the surveys he’d had done that showed that there was a very high possibility that there was oil beneath all of those cows’ hooves that would be much more valuable than the animals themselves ever would ever be.

Landon had spent his own money – of which he had very little to spare - on those surveys not so long ago, hoping he could change his father’s mind, not realizing that the older man’s attentions were no longer on the ranch at all but rather on a pretty little barmaid at the Broken Bottle Saloon in downtown Sagerville, a few miles from their home in West Texas.

He had been the one to find the envelopes his father had left for himself and his mother, after sneaking away in the middle of the night like the coward that he was. including the paperwork placing the responsibility for the day to day operation of the ranch squarely on his shoulders.  Not that he objected, of course.  He intended to take full advantage of his father’s absence – however long it lasted - to do everything his father hadn’t allowed him to as quickly as possible.  But although he had all of the responsibility, he had none of the rights, because Randall slyly retained ownership of the land, as well as saddling him with the wife he hadn’t been that interested in since weeks after their wedding.

No filly could hope to retain Randall’s wandering attention for very long – and his interest in his wife, which had been so heated and passionate before they married, lasted a little longer than some of his other romantic entanglements but not nearly as long as others.

The letters were very blunt and contained not one hint of guilt or remorse about what he was doing.  Landon hadn’t known why he was so surprised at that, but he was.  He’d found his father in the arms of a loose woman at a church picnic when he was five, for crying out loud, behind a big oak tree mere yards from where his mother sat, naively waiting for Randall to come eat the picnic lunch she’d brought.  He knew better than to expect his father to behave himself in any manner that befitted a grown, responsible man.

Despite the unkind blow, though, Landon managed to keep the ranch afloat – barely – as he forged ahead with his vision, drilling for oil at various judiciously selected spots while spending each evening listening to his ever more depressed – and depressing – mother sink even deeper into a morass of self-pity and self-indulgence, often refusing to come out of her room and, when she did so, spending all of her time moaning about how Randall had shamed her perpetually throughout their marriage by turning to other women, but that this was the last straw.

She often threatened – obliquely, of course – that she would kill herself, and Landon, in unkind moments, almost wished that she would.  It certainly would make things easier on him.  Not that he was going to put up with any of her melodramatic tendencies.  Landon had often wondered if things would have gone better between his mother and father if the latter had taken the time to apply the flat of his hand to Georgia’s behind, even just a few times, to let her know just who it was that was the boss in their relationship, but then he’d realized that Randall didn’t care enough about his wife, or their relationship, to do that, and that that was probably the root of the problem.

And so it was left to him, apparently, to deal with her flights of fancy and flair for the melodramatic.  The first time his mother had mentioned – in what had been a beautiful parlor turned office downstairs before his father’s ineptitude with money and tendency to spend it anywhere but where it might result in making more of it – that she might do away with herself, Landon had calmly risen from the well worn settee and crossed to what was now his desk drawer, retrieving his Colt 45, making sure it was loaded, then handing it to her, saying calmly, “It’ll be more effective if you put the barrel in your mouth before you shoot, although you’ll be leaving us with quite a mess to clean out of the upholstery – not that that would be any of your concern.”

His mother – as he’d expected – was absolutely horrified and wouldn’t even take the gun from his hand, at which point Landon told her that he would not tolerate such histrionics in his house, and that the next time he heard her threatening to commit suicide, she had better damned well go through with it or she’d find her bags packed and on the verandah within minutes.

More – and much louder - weeping and wailing resulted from that pronouncement, of course, after which Georgia thought to decry that, in Randall’s absence, she was the owner of the house and that he had no right to set such policies. 

Landon, who had found his way behind his father’s big, impressive desk, barely looked up from the ledgers he was studying, access to which his father had long denied him.  “Would you like me to leave, too, Mother?  I have to warn you that Melly will go, too.  Can you run the ranch – hell, even the house – without us?”  Their housekeeper, Melly Simpson, had taken care of generations of McAdams, literally, but her devotion to Landon in particular was the sole reason why she hadn’t left minutes after Mr. Randall had.

Truly horrified at the thought of actually having to do some sort – any sort – of work, Georgia’s mouth clamped shut on a high pitched wail with an audible click.  She retreated to her room some minutes later, and Landon counted himself lucky to have gotten off so easily.

He had managed to keep body and soul together for more than a year by scrimping and saving every penny he could in order to put it into wildcatting on his own land.  The surveys he’d had done had come back saying that there was a high probability that there was oil, but that was still no guarantee, a tenet that was brought home to him as nearly all of the wells came up dry.

Luckily, he had a good head for business in general, and had had an excellent education – thanks, surprisingly to his father – including a business degree, which helped him also begin to turn around their ranching business, although on a severely restricted level.  The resultant near poverty set just fine with him – he wasn’t one to require the best of everything, despite the fact that they had been quite well to do while he was growing up.

Unfortunately his mother was another matter.  She had grown up with a silver spoon – and probably the rest of an entire service for twelve – in her mouth, and had lowered her financial standards considerably in joining the McAdam family, who were already extremely well off, especially for West Texas standards.  But their wealth couldn’t hope to stand up to that of the family into which she had been born.  Her family could have bought and sold the Circle M a thousand times over and never felt the pinch in the least, and that was something she never let her husband – or her son – forget.

Not that marrying beneath her had gotten her anything but excommunicate by said family, who needless to say hadn’t attended her wedding to Randall, nor sent gifts, nor acknowledged the birth of their son less than a year later in any way; indeed they never made any attempt to communicate with their only daughter from the moment word of her impending vows reached them.  Georgia refused to accept the chasm she’d created between herself and her family back East, carrying on as if she had just seen them yesterday and their money was still at her disposal, when nothing could have been further from the truth.

If there was one thing that was going to bankrupt him, Mack knew, it wasn’t the expense of drilling and not finding anything day after day, week after week, it was his mother’s reckless shopping.  Although she’d spent a good amount of time shut in her room after Randall had left, she had emerged with an even more fervent need than usual to buy things – to cheer her up, she would say.  Mack had taken to hiding the Sears and Roebuck catalog, but there was a relatively steady stream of merchants and caravans that often stopped at the ranch, and when she’d exhausted them, she did something he hadn’t bargained on:  she took her gumption in her hands and made her way to town, even though “he” was living there with “her’.  She made both pronouns drip with disgust while floating by him on her way out the door to buy material she didn’t need for dresses she wasn’t going to wear.

He finally made it in to town at one point for the simple purpose of closing every line of credit the ranch had except those he needed to keep the ranch running, which, of course, had his mother weeping and wailing yet again.

After a very long while, he’d had a small strike here and there, enough to keep him going – barely – but certainly not the gusher he was looking for by any means.  So he kept on plugging away and foisting off his creditors as best he could until he hit it big.

Meanwhile, Randall was making haste towards dissolving his union with Georgia.  When the divorce papers arrived, that set off another round of boohooing – although she hadn’t mentioned suicide since the day he’d all but put the gun in her hand - but Mack was surprised to see that it didn’t last anywhere near as long as the first round, for which he would be eternally grateful, although he wasn’t quite sure whether his wallet was all that happy.  A radically depressed Georgia stayed in her room, ate little and spent even less.  He could have used a few months of that . . .

Another pleasant surprise was that Randall had sent him the title to the ranch – all except one small part – explaining that he couldn’t envision himself returning for any reason, and mentioning that he preferred less strenuous pursuits, which he intended to explore in town with the delightful Miss Miller, soon to be Mrs. McAdam.

He couldn’t imagine that his father had managed to sock away much money, and Mack wondered just how long this generosity was going to last before Randall came abegging, but while he had it, he was going to run with it.

Although he was delighted that his father had come to his senses – about some things, anyway – and had seen fit to give him full legal control of the land he hadn’t expected to actually inherit until Randall had left this world, he wasn’t at all happy that even a miniscule chunk of it had been appropriated for someone else.  Every inch of that land was his by birthright, and he wasn’t any too happy to see so much as one single tumbleweed going to anyone else.

Especially when he read just exactly to whom he had gifted the property: a Miss Serena Miller, Velma’s daughter, his father had explained.  She was a quiet, cloistered girl who longed for the country from which Velma had apparently uprooted her in bringing her to Sangerville, and for some unknown reason his father wanted her to be happy.  More than likely it was that Randall wanted to absent the girl from whatever obscene arrangement he had with her mother, but the note rang with a sincerity he hadn’t sense from his father in . . . well, ever.

Mack  knew that land; he had been there just a few days ago.  It was a bright, beautiful valley, with a small stream nearby, more verdant and full of life than most of the rest of his land.  There was a tiny, ramshackle cabin – not much more elaborate than a lean-to, really – and a tiny barn in much the same condition, along with some long dilapidated fences and lots of overgrown grasses.  It had been the only parcel his father had bothered to acquire, bought for a very small sum when an old homesteader had kicked the bucket and the lot came up for sale.

Mack couldn’t help it.  He crumpled the paper in his hand, balling it up into his fist.  He had given a piece of his land to his whore’s daughter.  It was almost beyond bearing, especially on top of everything else.

But it wasn’t until he remembered the information that the most recent report had yielded that he became truly enraged.  It was smack dab in the middle of just exactly where all the surveys he had recently had done had revealed that there was an enormous lake of oil.  Oil that, now that it belonged – all legal and proper, it seemed – to the venerable Miss Miller, he would likely never be able to get his hands on, and thus would probably never be able to save the rest of the ranch that his family had built over several generations.

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