By: Diana Palmer


It had been a grueling semester. Tellie Maddox had her history degree, but she was feeling betrayed. He hadn’t shown up for her graduation exercises. Marge had, along with Dawn and Brandi, her two daughters. None of them were related to Tellie, who was orphaned many years ago, but they were as close to her as sisters. They’d cared enough to be here for her special day. J.B. hadn’t. It was one more heartbreak in a whole series of them in Tellie’s life that J.B. was responsible for.

She looked around her dorm room sadly, remembering how happy she’d been here for four years, sharing with Sandy Melton, a fellow history major. Sandy had already gone, off to England to continue her studies in medieval history. Tellie pushed back her short, wavy dark hair and sighed. Her pale green eyes searched for the last of her textbooks. She should take them to the campus bookstore, she supposed, and resell them. She was going to need every penny she could get to make it through the summer. When the fall semester began, in August, she was going to have to pay tuition again as she worked on her master’s degree. She wanted to teach at college level. No chance of that, with just a bachelor’s degree, unless she taught adult education as an adjunct member of staff.

Once she’d thought that one day J.B. might fall in love with her and want to marry her. Those hopeless dreams grew dimmer every day.

J. B. Hammock was Marge’s brother. He’d rescued Tellie from a boy in the foster home where she’d been staying since her mother’s death. Her mother had been the estranged wife of J.B.’s top horse wrangler, who’d later moved out of state and vanished. Tellie had gone to a foster home, despite Marge’s objections, because J.B. said that a widow with two children to raise didn’t need the complication of a teenager.

All that had changed with the attempted assault by another foster child in care with the same family. J.B. heard about it from a policeman who was one of his best friends. He swore out a warrant himself and had Tellie give a statement about what had happened. The boy, only thirteen at the time, was arrested and subsequently sent to juvenile hall. Tellie had slugged the boy when he tried to remove her blouse and sat on him until the family heard her yelling. Even at such a young age, Tellie was fearless. It had helped that the boy was half her size and half-drunk.

J.B. had jerked Tellie right out of the foster home the night the boy was arrested. He’d taken her straight to Marge for sanctuary. Marge had loved her almost at once. Most people did love Tellie. She was honest and sweet and generous with her time, and she wasn’t afraid of hard work. Even at the age of fourteen, she’d taken charge of the kitchen and Dawn and Brandi. The sisters were nine and ten at the time respectively. They’d loved having an older girl in the house. Marge’s job as a Realtor kept her on the road at all sorts of odd hours. But she could depend on Tellie to keep the girls in school clothes and help with their homework. She was a born baby-sitter.

Tellie had doted on J.B. He was very rich, and very temperamental. He owned hundreds of acres of prime ranch land near Jacobsville, where he raised purebred Santa Gertrudis cattle and entertained the rich and famous at his hundred-year-old rancho. He had a fabulous French chef in residence, along with a housekeeper named Nell who could singe the feathers off a duck with her temper at ten paces. Nell ran the house, and J.B., to an extent. He knew famous politicians, and movie stars, and foreign royalty from his days as a rodeo champion. He had impeccable manners, a legacy from his Spanish grandmother, and wealth from his British grandfather, who had been a peer of the realm. J.B.’s roots were European, despite his very American cattle operation.

But he did intimidate people. Locally he was known more for chasing Ralph Barrows off his place on foot, wielding a replica fantasy sword from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Barrows had gotten drunk and shot J.B.’s favorite German shepherd for growling at him and barking when he tried to sneak into the bunkhouse in the small hours of the morning during roundup. Drinking wasn’t allowed on the ranch. And nobody hurt an animal there. J.B. couldn’t get to the key to his gun cabinet fast enough, so he grabbed the sword from its wall display and struck out for the bunkhouse the minute his foreman told him what was going on. The dog recovered, although it limped badly. Barrows hadn’t been seen since.