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been in on this, and then we ride out to Blue s place over in the
valley. Since they re not at the GWR Ranch or Dirk s Circle Three
Ranch, they ve got to be staying at Blue s. There s what nine of us?
That s nine against three, and you fellas are a damned site better at
killing than you are at being cattlemen, so I m liking those odds. Tim
smiled, and for the first time since he found out about the station
manager being visited by Ben, Dirk, and Blue, he felt a surge of
confidence. Until a minister officiated his marriage to Ella, he had to
choose his actions with extreme caution.  We ll all follow the Rule of
the Three S s, and everything will be fine. Just fine.
 What s that rule? Peg Leg asked.
 Shoot, shovel, and shut up.
Peg Leg smiled.
* * * *
 I really can t believe that you d ride off like that when there are
bad men rustling our cattle, Rosamond said, her tone shrill.  You
ought to consider yourself a lucky woman that Tim doesn t just find
himself another woman. A woman who appreciates him! He doesn t
have to do all this work for the T-3, you know.
While writing a check for two hundred dollars, Ella made a face.
 I m not entirely certain Tim s in great demand, she said, keeping
her tone indifferent.  Besides, what would he do for money if he ends
his engagement to me? I m his meal ticket, Mother. Yours, too, for
that matter.
 I don t like your tone, Ella. I don t like it at all.
Ella carefully ripped the check out of the ledger. She placed the
bank draft on her desk rather than hand it directly to her mother.
146 Brandi Maxwell
When she at last lifted her gaze, she didn t feel so much as a flicker of
respect for her mother.
 Will that be all? she asked dismissively.
It pleased Ella to watch Rosamond s jaw drop open. The
passionate days and nights she spent with her men (it gave her
enormous pleasure to think of them as such) not only broadened her
sense of what it meant to be feminine and gave her more sexual
satisfaction than she dreamed was possible, they elevated her
confidence in every aspect of her life to unprecedented levels.
She simply wasn t afraid of the bitter, old woman anymore. And
with each tick of the clock, the promise she made to her father to
follow her mother s wishes seemed more like a promise her beloved
father wouldn t want her to keep. After all, hadn t he always been
devoted to her happiness? And hadn t Ben, Dirk, and Blue brought
her exquisite happiness and so much more?
Rosamond rose to her feet, her face suddenly pale. There was
hatred in her eyes.  I don t like your tone. She picked up the check.
 And I don t like your attitude.
Leaning back in her chair, Ella remained seated.  I guess it s
fortunate for me, then, that I don t give a damn what you do or don t
like.
Rosamond strode out of Ella s office. Ella remained in her chair, a
smile touching her lips. It was the finest victory she had over her most
vitriolic nemesis. She had little time to savor victory, however,
because hardly had Rosamond left her office before Tim walked in.
 Just where the hell have you been? he demanded.
 I had business in Fargo. It surprised Ella how easy it was now to
lie to her fianc. She shrugged indifferently.  It was something that
just couldn t be avoided, and it took a lot more time than I
anticipated. She looked him in the eyes.  And I do wish you
wouldn t just come barging into my office like this. I didn t even
know you were in the house.
Tim cocked his head to the side, scrutinizing her a bit more
Ella s Desire 147
carefully. Ella could tell he didn t like her lack of deference. She liked
the fact that he didn t like it.
 You re going to be my wife. You should have cleared it with me
before you left.
While it was true that for quite some time Ella  cleared all of her
decisions with Tim before acting on them, those times were now all
behind her. Since the inclusion of Dirk, Blue, and Ben into her life,
virtually everything changed. For the better.
Tim sat in the chair facing her desk. Ella would have preferred
that he remain standing while she sat, but she decided against telling
him so. In that moment, Ella realized she did not hate her fianc. She
pitied him a little, but she neither loved him nor hated him. She
tolerated him in the manner of an adult accepting a young child s
inability to understand life s complexities.
 I need a check, and I need it now.
Ella smiled.  No, you want a bank draft, and you want it now.
There s a difference between wants and needs.
She saw a muscle flicker in Tim s jaw.  Don t try to rile me, Ella.
You might just succeed, and then maybe you wouldn t be so pleased
with yourself.
Ella didn t want fear to show in her eyes, but she knew it did
because a moment later, Tim smiled. He was the kind of man who
liked seeing fear in women.
 Sure, you remember the time I slapped you, don t you? he
asked, his face granite-hard.  That s a good thing to remember.
You re my fiance, and I love you, but as soon as we re married,
there will be some changes made around here. I ve been busting my
ass running the T-3 Ranch, and I deserve something for that. I deserve
a big something for that.
In a voice not nearly as authoritative as she had hoped, Ella said,
 You promised me you d never do that again. We...we made a
promise to never even talk about it again.
He had once slapped her on the side of the head so hard that she
148 Brandi Maxwell
nearly dropped to her knees, rendered only half-conscious with a
ringing in her ears. She didn t carry any mark from the assault other
than the ones she carried on her soul. She told her mother she was
going to call off the engagement, but Rosamond said that she had
been disrespectful and that any man worthy of running a ranch the
size of the T-3 would have acted similarly.
Ella looked at Tim, and as she looked at him, she could feel her
mother s presence as though she stood behind him, giving him
guidance.
 How much do you want? The words came out more woodenly
than Ella would have liked. She wanted to be strong, but she wilted
under Tim s glare too many times in the past to make a clean break
from bad habits.
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