Authors: Texas Destiny
“I was … I was greatly relieved.”
“Too many ribbons, huh?”
“Too many birds,” she confessed.
He nodded sagely and smiled. “Think a rattlesnake would have been better?”
“If I had opened that box and seen the head of a rattlesnake, I’m not certain I would have come.”
The smile eased off his face. “Why didn’t you tell me you were doing without? I would have sent money.”
“Your letters were comfort enough.”
His fingers skimmed along her cheek. “Too proud. I could always sense that in your letters. We’re well suited to each other, Amelia, and after waiting so long to finally have you here, two months seems like an eternity. I’ve sent one of my men to find the circuit preacher. Hopefully within the month, we’ll be married.”
She held his gaze. If she could not have a marriage built on a foundation of love, she at least would insist that it be built on trust and honesty. Lies from the past, hers and his, she would forgive and forget. But their future demanded a stronger foundation. “I want your word that you will never again lie to me.”
He clenched his jaw. “You saw Houston today?”
She nodded. “He wouldn’t tell me why he hit you, but I suspect it had something to do with me. I don’t imagine he told you that during the time we were together, he was always respectful of me and loyal to you.”
“No, he didn’t mention that, but I’m beginning to see that’s the way it was.”
“He became my friend, and I’d like to think that I became his. You’re his brother, and yet I don’t understand why you didn’t know he was raising mustangs, why you never went to his home before last night—”
Dallas surged to his feet. “He never asked! Not once. He likes his solitude, and by God, I owe him that if that’s what he wants.”
“But you sent him to fetch me.”
“To protect your reputation. No one would question your reputation knowing you’d traveled with him.”
“Because of his disfigurement?”
Dallas had the grace to blush. “That and his temperament. He keeps to himself, or at least he did until he made this journey.”
She lowered her gaze. He knelt beside her and touched her cheek. “Amelia, I need a wife that people will respect.”
She lifted her eyes to his. “I need a husband who won’t lie to me.”
His fingers curled away from her face as he averted his gaze, staring into the darkness beyond the porch. “I need you, Amelia, and I want you happy.” He shifted his gaze back to hers. “Give you my word that I won’t lie to you again.”
His large palm cradled her cheek, just before his lips touched hers. The kiss was tender, gentle, everything that Houston’s had not been.
Her remaining nights, her remaining days, she would be kissed like this, would feel this warmth with no heat, would feel safe, secure, content. She prayed it would be enough.
He moved his mouth from hers and smiled. “Sweeter than last night’s kiss.”
She rubbed above her lip. “Your mustache tickled.”
“Do you want me to shave it off?” “No!” She touched her hand to his cheek. “It suits you.”
“My father had a mustache.” He shook his head. “I suppose Houston told you that as well.”
“No, he never spoke much about your father.”
“Well.” Dallas stood and rubbed his hands on his thighs. “I thought we’d celebrate your arrival tomorrow evening. Kill the fatted calf. Give you a chance to get to know my men.”
“I want you to invite Houston.”
“He won’t come.”
“Invite him anyway.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the porch beam. “If it’ll please you—”
The low strains of the violin filtered through the air again. The sound almost broke Amelia’s heart.
Dallas turned his head to the side. “What’s that noise? Sounds like somebody dying.”
“Austin is playing his violin. I think he relies on his music to help him handle things that upset him.”
“Why is he upset?”
She sighed deeply. “Houston had a black stallion. Austin rode it this afternoon, and it dropped a foot in a prairie dog hole. He knew the horse was important to Houston, and I think he feels guilty because he had to shoot it.”
“He shouldn’t feel guilty. That’s a hazard that comes from riding out here. You accept it.”
“Maybe you could talk with him. You’re his brother, but he sees you as his father. He wants desperately for you to notice that he’s becoming a man.”
“How do you do that?”
“Make a man tell you what’s on his mind?” She smiled softly. “I care enough to ask.”
Dallas stood within the shadows and listened, truly listened, to the music for the first time in his life. He imagined he could actually feel Austin’s grief hovering around him. When Austin stopped playing, the air was still fraught with the sound, lingering on the breeze. Austin dropped his head back against the beam. Dallas could barely make out his brother’s features in the darkness.
Austin jumped to his feet. “I didn’t know you were here. I wouldn’t have been playin’ if I’d known you were here.”
Dallas heard the terror reflected in Austin’s voice. Good Lord, Dallas expected to strike the fear of God into the men who worked for him, but not his family. He’d never wanted his brothers to fear him the way he’d feared his father.
“Well, then, I’m glad you didn’t know I was here. I’ve never heard anything so … so—”
“On the contrary. I’ve never heard any music that had the strength to strip emotions bare. You’ve got a gift there.” He cursed the darkness because he couldn’t tell if Austin had relaxed his stance. “Ma used to play songs that were low like that, but I don’t guess you’d remember that.”
“Nah, I don’t.”
“That’s her violin.”
Austin lifted the violin closer to his face. “It is?”
“Yep. It was Houston’s idea to keep it. Said he thought you had Ma’s long fingers. Never expected you to play better than she did.”
“Never expected you to think I played good at all.”
“Well, then, I reckon we both surprised each other tonight.”
Austin’s grin shined through the darkness. “Reckon we did at that.”
Dallas stepped closer to his brother. “Amelia told me about Houston’s stallion.”
Austin’s smile disappeared into the night. “I should have been paying closer attention.”
“A man can’t anticipate all that’s gonna happen in life. If we always knew what the next moment would bring, we’d never look forward to it coming.”
“Houston needed that horse.”
“A horse can be replaced. A brother can’t. We’re damn grateful you didn’t break your neck.”
“Houston said we’d go lookin’ for some more mustangs come spring.”
“And you’ll find them.”
“Still, if I’d been paying attention—”
“Don’t get into the habit of looking over your shoulder and thinking about what you should have done. Regrets make one hell of a shaky foundation on which to build a life.”
With the soft light of dawn bathing the morning, Dallas dismounted and walked his horse toward Houston’s corral, wishing he hadn’t given Amelia his word that he wouldn’t lie. He had a feeling she’d question him about inviting Houston, so he was obligated to ask, even though he knew his brother wouldn’t come.
He watched as Houston led the palomino around the corral with a hackamore, a blanket thrown over its back. A saddle straddled the corral railing. Dallas had seen Houston break enough mustangs to know Houston would get the horse accustomed to the weight of the saddle before he gave it the weight of a man. He’d just never realized his brother planned to breed them. He thought his brother would enjoy a measure of success with this venture, and he ignored the pain that came from knowing Houston hadn’t wanted to share his plans.
Dallas rested his arms over the corral fence. If Houston had seen him arrive, he was doing a damn good job of pretending he hadn’t. Dallas held his patience in check, although he had business to tend to and didn’t have all day to stand around while his brother worked.
Houston removed the halter and blanket. He walked to the corral and slipped through the slats, presenting Dallas with his profile. Dallas stared at the horse. “Looks like a good horse.”
“Will be when I’m done with her.”
“How much you want for her?”
“She’s not for sale.”
“You can’t build a business that way.”
Houston crooked his elbow and placed it on the railing. “You can’t build an empire that way, but then I’m not interested in empire building.”
“There’s nothing wrong with empire building.”
“Nothing wrong with it at all if that’s what you want. It’s just not what I want.”
Dallas shook his head, wondering why some men dreamed of great accomplishments while others were content not to dream at all. “I’m having a celebration this evening in honor of Amelia’s arrival. She wanted me to invite you. Consider yourself invited.”
“Tell her I appreciate the invite, but I’ve got other plans.”
Dallas mounted his horse. “I told her you wouldn’t come. Reckon we both know why.”
He prodded his horse into a hard gallop. When he’d left Houston at the hospital, he’d been swathed in bandages. When he’d returned, Houston had been wearing a shirt. He’d never seen him without one since and hadn’t realized how badly his body had scarred.
When Houston’s place was no longer in sight, Dallas slid off his horse, dropped to his knees, and threw up.
Houston hadn’t planned to come.
Celebrations and hordes of people weren’t his style. Even when he helped Dallas herd his cattle north, Houston stayed on the outer fringe of the herd, circled the cattle at night, and kept his own counsel.
When he wasn’t herding cattle, his evenings were spent sitting on a porch, listening to night creatures come to life: the chatter of crickets, the occasional howl of a lonesome wolf. Sometimes, he whittled.
Mostly, he just sat and sought the peace that always eluded him, taunted him just beyond reach. If he thought about the past, the nightmares would come; if he thought about the future, the loneliness eased around him. He’d learned to be content with the present, taking each day as it came.
Damn Dallas for making him yearn for a future different from the one he’d accepted as his due.
Yet, here he stood, his left shoulder pressed against the cool adobe as he watched the men milling around. He could smell the beef cooked over a mesquite fire, the coffee, and the beans.
He could hear the deep-throated guffaws of the men. He could hear the sweet, gentle laughter of a woman. She was walking beside Dallas, her arm wrapped around his. They made a pretty picture: the gallant ranchman, the genteel lady.
Dallas was smiling broadly, looking happier than Houston had ever seen him.
Amelia was as lovely as ever. Wearing the green dress they’d purchased at Mimi St. Claire’s, she looked like a queen.
“Dallas said you weren’t coming.”
Houston jerked his head around and met Austin’s gaze. “Changed my mind.”
“I was afraid maybe you got to thinking about it and decided you needed to be mad at me about Black Thunder.”
“I’ll admit I was saddened to lose him, but he’s bound to have sired a colt or two somewhere. I’ll find him.”
“I’ll help you,” he said eagerly.
“I was counting on that.”
“I won’t let you down this time.”
“You didn’t let me down before.”
Austin looked away as though embarrassed. “I’m gonna get something to eat. You wanna come with me?”
“No, I won’t be staying that long.”
As Austin walked away, Houston turned his gaze back toward Amelia. She saw him, and her face lit up with such wondrous joy that it hurt his heart. He shoved himself away from the wall, his long strides eating up the distance between them. He told himself that he was trying to save Dallas some discomfort, but he knew in his heart that he just wanted to be near Amelia a little sooner.
He’d hurt her feelings yesterday morning, not for the first time, and probably not for the last, yet she’d comforted him when he’d lost his stallion and welcomed him now with a fierce hug before running her hands down his arms and slipping her fingers around his.
“We’re so glad you came.”
“I can’t stay long,” he said, focusing his gaze on Amelia, avoiding looking at his brother, knowing his brother was as grateful as he was that they had a woman to stare at instead of each other. Sometimes, he missed the easy camaraderie he’d shared with Dallas before the war. During the war, they had traveled side by side along different paths that had taken them away from each other.
Dallas cleared his throat. “We’ve got beef to eat.”
“I ate before I came.”
Dallas’s lips thinned, and Houston knew he’d given the wrong answer. He was always giving the wrong answers, doing the wrong things. He’d never been able to please his father, and he sure as hell couldn’t please his brother.
Dusk was settling in, and he thought about heading back home. He’d only have a sliver of a moon by which to travel tonight. It was a good excuse. He’d seen her. She looked happy. That was all he cared about.
A lanky cowboy, whose legs bowed out, approached and removed his hat. “Miss Carson, Cookie said he’d tune up his fiddle if you’d honor us with a dance.”
Amelia blushed prettily and gave a quick glance to Houston, before looking at Dallas.
He smiled with regret. “I can’t dance proper with this healing leg, but that’s no reason for you not to enjoy the music.”
She looked at Houston, and damn it, he knew she wanted him to step in for his brother, but if he didn’t set limits for himself now, he’d forever be stepping in where he shouldn’t.
“I never learned how to dance,” Houston said, grateful he had an honest excuse not to hold her within his arms, wishing he didn’t have any excuse.
Her face fell momentarily before she brightened and spun around. “Well, then, I’m most grateful that you asked me … Skinny, isn’t it?”
The cowboy’s face split into a grin. “No, ma’am. Slim.”
“Oh, yes, Slim. You’ll have to tell me how you came by that name,” she said as she slipped her arm through his and followed him to an area near the corrals.