Authors: Texas Destiny
Dear God, but she was lovely, like a spring sunrise tempting the flowers to unfurl their petals. Her pale lashes rested on her pink-tinged cheeks. Her lips, even in sleep, curved into the barest hint of a smile.
He had spotted her right off, as soon as she’d arrived at the door of the railway car. Beneath that godawful ugly hat, the sun had glinted off hair that looked as though it had been woven from moonbeams. The smile she had given the porter as he’d helped her down the steps—even at a distance—had knocked the breath out of Houston.
He still wasn’t breathing right. Every time he looked at her, his gut clenched as though he’d received a quick kick from a wild mustang.
She wasn’t at all what he’d expected of a heart-and-hand woman. He’d expected her to look like an old shirt, washed so many times that it had lost its color and the strength of its threads. He knew women like that. Women who had traveled rough roads, become hard and coarse themselves, with harsh laughter and smiles that were too bright to be sincere. Women who knew better than to trust.
But Amelia Carson did trust. She was a heart-in-her-eyes woman. Everything she thought, everything she felt reflected clearly in her eyes. In her green, green eyes.
The warm depths reminded him of fields of clover he’d run through as a boy. Barefoot. The clover had resembled velvet caressing his rough soles. For a brief moment, he actually relished the thought of holding her gaze.
His brown eye could serve as the soil in which her green clover took root.
What an idiotic notion! The next thing he knew he’d be spouting poetry. He shuddered at the thought. Wearing flowers and spouting poetry. His pa would have tanned his hide good for either one of those unmanly actions.
He watched her sleep until the final rays of the sun gave way to the pale moonlight. He shivered as the chill of the night settled over him. Standing, he reached across the woman and folded the blankets over her. A warmth suffused him, and he imagined drawing the blankets over her every night for the rest of his life.
Only that privilege belonged to his brother. Houston had witnessed the document Dallas had drawn up, something as close to a marriage contract as he could arrange without the “I do’s.” For all practical purposes, Amelia Carson belonged to Dallas.
Which was as it should be. Dallas had spent a month thumbing through the tattered magazine he’d found when they’d driven the cattle to Wichita, Kansas, in the spring of seventy-five. Houston knew desperation for a son had driven Dallas to write his first letter to Amelia.
He could only wonder what had compelled her to reply, to accept his brother’s offer of marriage. He settled back in the chair. It wasn’t his place to wonder about her. He didn’t have to like her. He didn’t have to talk to her. He didn’t have to be nice to her. He just had to get her to the ranch … and by God, that was all he planned to do.
Through a waking haze in which dreams still lingered in the corners of her mind, Amelia snuggled beneath the blankets, relishing the comfort of the soft bed. She had no recollection of drawing the blankets over herself, but she welcomed their protection against the chill permeating the room.
Complacent and rested, like a kitten that had spent the better part of the day lazing in the sun, she stretched languorously, inhaled deeply, and froze.
The aromas of bacon, coffee, and freshly baked bread teased her nostrils. Slowly she opened her eyes, expecting the harsh glare of the afternoon sun to streak across her vision. Instead, the soft glow of early-morning light cast its halo over the furnishings, directing most of its attention on a small cloth-covered table set in the middle of the room. The sunlight shimmered over an assortment of covered dishes.
Amelia’s mouth watered at the same time that alarm rushed through her. She hadn’t heard anyone come into the room.
Unexpectedly, she detected another scent, much fainter than the food causing her stomach to rumble, fainter, and yet in an odd way more powerful. Leather and horses.
She spotted saddlebags leaning against a chair near the bed. Cautiously, moving only her eyes, she allowed her gaze to sweep over the room.
Her heart stilled when she noticed the long shadow stretching across her bed. The shadow of a man. She bolted upright and jerked her gaze over her shoulder.
His left shoulder pressed against the wall, Houston Leigh stood beside the window watching her. The sunlight took a moment to outline a portion of his tall, lean frame before completing its journey into the room.
Amelia threw off the blankets and scrambled out of bed, her knees almost hitting the floor before she jumped upright. She pressed a trembling hand to her chest, the rapid thudding of her heart vibrating beneath her fingers. “Mr. Leigh, it’s morning.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he acknowledged with a slow drawl that did nothing to calm her erratic heart.
“You must think me terribly rude. I only meant to sleep for a moment—”
“Didn’t think you were rude at all. Just figured you were tired. Figure now you’re probably hungry.” He inclined his head slightly in the direction of the table.
“You did this?” she asked as she cautiously neared the table.
He lifted one shoulder in a careless shrug. “Needed to make up for yesterday. Dallas would have my hide if he knew how I treated you yesterday.”
“Does he anger easily?”
“He’s not a man you want to rile.” He settled his hat into place. “Enjoy your meal.”
He had picked up the saddlebags, slung them over his shoulder, and walked halfway across the room, his hat pulled low on the left side before Amelia realized he was leaving. “Aren’t you going to join me?”
“I’ve already eaten.”
“Then just keep me company.” He hesitated, and she knew she should let him leave, but she was incredibly tired of being alone. “Please.”
His answer came in the form of a movement toward the table as he removed his hat and draped the saddlebags over the back of a nearby chair.
Amelia rushed to take her seat. He took the chair opposite her, turned it slightly so she had a clear view of his profile, and stared at the hat he held on his lap.
Houston searched the farthest recesses of his mind, but he couldn’t locate anything worth commenting on. He thought about telling her that her hair was falling down on the left side, but he was afraid she’d hop up and straighten it, pulling it back into that coil she was wearing the day before. He liked the way it looked now, drooping as it was. He secretly hoped it might work its way free and tumble down her back.
Dallas would, of course, prefer to see every strand pulled back and held in its proper place. The man was a stickler for orderliness, but Houston had always thought a woman’s hair should flow around her as freely as the wind blew across the prairie.
He thought about describing Dallas’s ranch, but she’d see it soon enough, and he didn’t have the skill with words to do the place justice. A discussion of his own place probably wouldn’t interest her. It was a pretty piece of land, but it would never bring a man wealth or glory.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything?” she asked.
“I’m sure,” he replied, cursing his gut for jumping into his throat at the sound of her voice. All he had to do was sit still while she ate and give her no reason to bring up her breakfast. The sight of his face had made him bring up his meals a few times in the beginning, but that was years ago when the wounds were still raw … and the guilt still festering.
Amelia tore off a piece of warm bread and lathered it with butter, quietly studying the man sitting across from her. His gaze remained fixed on his hat, his brow furrowed as though he were desperately searching for something just beyond reach.
“How did you and your brothers come by your names?” she asked before she bit into the bread with enthusiasm.
“Our parents lacked imagination. They just named us after wherever it was they were living at the time we were born.”
“I suppose you’re grateful that they weren’t living in Galveston when you were born.”
He seemed to contemplate her answer for a moment, as though she’d made her comment in all earnestness. His jaw tensed. “I reckon I would be if I’d ever thought about it.”
She had hoped for a smile, a chuckle, a laugh, but Houston Leigh appeared to be a man who did not give into lighthearted banter or teasing. That knowledge saddened her. Everyone needed smiles and laughter to replace the absence of sunshine in a stormy life. She hoped the brothers didn’t share this stern outlook on life. “Do you think Dallas will want to carry on the family tradition and name our children after towns in Texas?”
“I’m not sure what names he favors.” He shifted in his chair and brought one foot up, resting it on his knee.
Amelia chewed slowly on the bacon and eggs, savoring the flavors, wondering how she could gather all the information about her future husband that she didn’t have. Letters could only reveal a man’s thoughts. She did not know his smile, the sound of his laughter, or the way emotions might play across his features. She was incredibly curious about every aspect of him and his life. “Dallas mentioned Austin quite often in his letters.”
Houston gave a brusque nod. “He’s right fond of Austin. You’ll like him, too. He’s the sort people take to right away.”
As he spoke of his younger brother, a trace of warmth flowed through his voice, reminding her of snuggling before a fire on a cold winter’s night. She wanted to keep the flames flickering. “I don’t remember how old Austin is.”
“Then he’s spared any memories of the war.” “I doubt that.”
Amelia set her fork down. “But he would have been so young. Surely he doesn’t remember—”
Houston slid his foot off his knee, and it hit the floor with a resounding thud. He shifted in the chair. “I’d rather not talk about the war, if you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind,” she said softly, aware that she’d lost the warmth in his voice, in his manner. He clenched his jaw as though he were fighting desperately to remain where he was. She could feel the tension radiating around him, palpable in its intensity. Although more than ten long years had passed, the war still continued to rip through people’s lives. “Do you think Dallas will try to break that mustang again when his leg heals?”
He scooted up in the chair, then slid back. “I let it go,” he said in a voice so low she wasn’t quite certain she heard him correctly.
“I beg your pardon?”
He grimaced slightly. “I set the horse free.” “
He slowly waved his large hand through the air as though it were a curtain billowing in a spring breeze. “The horse had a heavy, wavy mane and tail. That marks it as tricky and dangerous. Figured Dallas would eventually kill the horse or it would kill him.” He sighed. “So I set it free.”
“You said he wasn’t a man you wanted to rile. Didn’t that rile him?”
“He was still laid up in bed. I was long gone by the time he discovered what I’d done.”
“So you’ll have to deal with his anger once you return to the ranch.”
“I’m hoping your presence will distract him, and he’ll forget about the horse.”
Amelia cleared her throat. Houston shifted his gaze to her, and she lifted an eyebrow. “So, shortly after I meet your brother in person, I’ll learn whether or not he values me more than he does a horse?”
Horror swept over his face. “I didn’t mean—”
“I know you didn’t,” Amelia said, smiling as she carefully folded her napkin and placed it on the table. “I’ve finished eating.”
Houston bolted from the chair. “Good. I’ll have someone send up some hot water for a bath. It’ll be some time before you’ll have that luxury.”
He crammed his hat on his head, adjusting it to the lopsided angle to which she’d grown accustomed. He slung his saddlebags over his shoulder and walked to the door in long strides that complemented his height.
“Is Dallas as tall as you?” she asked.
He halted, one hand on the doorknob. “Taller.”
He opened the door and hesitated. “I’ll be back in about an hour. Then we’ll go get the last of the supplies.” He slipped into the hallway, closing the door behind him.
Amelia shoved away from the table, walked to the washstand, and glanced in the mirror. She groaned. Her hair had come loose and was sticking out like the raised fur on an angry cat.
Little wonder Houston Leigh had avoided looking at her.
She heaved a deep sigh of longing. A warm bath. The purchase of a few supplies. Then she would begin what she was certain would be the most important journey of her life.
lutching Dallas’s letters to her breast, Amelia sat in front of the window and watched as the sun chased the early-morning shadows away from the dusty street. Gathering her courage had never seemed quite so difficult.
Soon Houston would come for her, and she had to be ready to travel toward a dream.
She had read each of Dallas’s letters after her bath. He was not a man given to flowery prose, yet she always found beauty within his simple words. During the time they had corresponded, she had come to know the man behind the letters well enough that she had not hesitated to accept his offer of marriage.
She pressed his letters to her lips. Already, she fostered a hint of affection for Dallas Leigh. Surely, love could not be far behind.
The rapping on her door came as softly as the pale sunlight easing through her window.
Taking a shaky breath, she placed the precious letters in her carpetbag, picked up her hat, and walked to the mirror. Ignoring the bobbing bird, she worked a hatpin through the narrow brim. Although it would probably be at least another three weeks before she met her betrothed, she hoped he would recover quickly enough to meet them before the end of the journey.
She anxiously crossed the room, wrapped her trembling fingers around the doorknob, and pulled open the door. Her apprehension receded as she looked at the profile of the man standing in the hallway.
The damp ends of his black hair dragged along the collar of his duster. He smelled of soap, and she realized he’d indulged in a bath as well. She supposed the journey would hold no luxuries for him, either.
“Ready?” he asked in a low voice.
“As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.” She stepped into the hallway as he walked into the room and retrieved her bag.
She could think of nothing to say as the click of the closing door echoed along the hallway, effectively drawing to a close one phase of her life. She averted her gaze from the tall man standing beside her. She didn’t want him to see the doubts darting in and out like a naughty child searching for mischief: One moment they were gone and the next they were playing havoc with her emotions. She placed her palm over the watch she’d safely stored within a hidden pocket in her skirt. She imagined she could hear its steady ticking as it patiently marked the passing moments until she placed her gift into Dallas Leigh’s hand, a hand she was certain was as large and as bronzed as his brother’s.
“We’d best get goin’,” Houston said.
Breathing deeply, she once again forced her qualms to retreat. “Yes, I suppose we should. Do you have many supplies to purchase?”
In silence, she followed him out of the hotel and onto the boardwalk. His strides weren’t as long or as hurried as they’d been the day before. Enjoying the leisurely pace as she walked by his side, Amelia studied the clapboard buildings, the men hunched over as they drove wagons down the street, and the horses carrying riders toward destinations unknown to her. Anticipation thrummed through the warming breeze. Savoring the excitement, she hoarded the images, knowing a time would come when she’d share them with her children, her first impressions of a town that had brought her closer to her destiny.
She was so absorbed in her musings that she nearly bumped into Houston when he came to a dead halt in front of a dress shop.
He glared at the simple plank of wood as though it were a despised enemy. Considering his previous hurry to be on his way to the ranch, she thought his time would be better spent picking up the supplies he needed. She was on the verge of suggesting he move on when he took a deep breath and shoved open the door. Bells tinkled above his head, and he cringed.
“Get inside,” he said in a low voice.
Baffled by his choice of stores, Amelia strolled into the small shop ahead of him. When she thought of supplies, she thought of canned goods, cooking utensils, and an assortment of odds and ends that a person would usually purchase at the mercantile or general store. She wondered if he had a wife for whom he wished to purchase some clothing. She knew very little about Houston, but it warmed her to think she might be traveling with a man who would be somewhere he obviously didn’t want to be in order to obtain a gift. She imagined his wife would be as dark as he was, small, and quiet. Very quiet.
A buxom woman with bright red hair threw aside the curtains behind the counter and waltzed into the room. “I thought I heard my little bells,” she exclaimed in a voice hinting at a French ancestry. Her hands fluttered over the counter. “I am Mimi St. Claire. Proprietor and expert dressmaker.”
Amelia watched as Houston clenched and unclenched his hand before reaching up to remove his hat.
“Oh, my,” Mimi St. Claire squeaked, pressing her hand above her bosom. She laughed nervously. “You took me unawares, sir. Shadows one moment, none zee next. What can I do for you?”
“She needs to be outfitted,” Houston said in a taut voice.
“Outfitted?” Mimi questioned.
Houston gave a brusque nod.
Stunned, Amelia stared at the man. “You don’t mean to purchase clothes for
“Dallas told me to get you everything you needed before we headed back.” “
These are the supplies?”
She wrapped her fingers around his arm and pulled him away from the counter, seeking a small measure of privacy.
“You can’t purchase me clothes,” she whispered. He stared at her hand as though he couldn’t quite figure out how it had come to be on his arm. She snapped her fingers in front of his eye, gaining his attention, and tightened her hold on his arm for emphasis. “You can’t purchase me clothes,” she repeated.
He shifted his gaze back to her hand. “Dallas is purchasing the clothing.”
With a sigh, she released his arm. “He already purchased the tickets for my journey. I don’t feel comfortable having him spend more of his hard-earned money on me. What if he changes his mind about marrying me?”
Houston’s Adam’s apple slid slowly up and down. “He won’t change his mind.”
She tilted her head slightly. “You don’t think so?”
“I’m not a man who lies.”
But he was a man easily offended, if the tone in his voice was any indication. One brother who was easily angered, another who was easily offended. She would have to learn to deal with both.
Fingering the collar of her worn bodice, she glanced with longing around the dress shop. “I suppose one—”
“I couldn’t possibly accept five.”
Ignoring her, he directed his attention to Mimi St. Claire, who was leaning over the counter, straining to hear every word. She didn’t bother to appear embarrassed at her actions, but simply straightened her back and wrapped a loose strand of red hair around her finger.
“She needs five outfits,” Houston said. “Make a couple of them fancy for entertaining. We need them today.”
Mimi’s eyes widened. “Five? Today?” She patted her chest and smiled brightly. “Sit in zee chair, and I’ll show you what I have already sewn.”
With a whirl, Mimi disappeared behind the curtains as Houston walked to the corner. Instead of sitting in the chair with the delicate spindly legs that looked as though they could easily snap beneath his weight, he pressed his left shoulder against the wall.
Clasping her hands tightly together, Amelia walked across the small shop. “I can’t possibly accept five—”
She sighed deeply. “Don’t I have a say in this matter?”
He took a long slow nod. “As long as you say five.”
She narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing the man standing before her, trying to determine if he was teasing her. His lips curled up not at all, his eye didn’t glint with mischief. If anything, he seemed more serious than before.
“Mademoiselle!” Mimi St. Claire stuck her head between the drawn curtains. “Quickly, come in here. We must show zee gentleman zee clothes.”
As Amelia passed through the waving curtains, Houston set her bag on the floor and slipped his hand inside his duster pocket. He heard Mimi St. Claire’s deep-throated chuckle. Amelia’s gentle laughter quickly followed, reminding him of spring rain, soothing and sweet, the kind of rain that a man simply removed his hat to enjoy as it washed over him.
Her touch had been as soft as her laughter, but he’d felt the determination in her fingers. He’d been surprised when the warmth from her small hand had penetrated the material of his duster and shirt to fan out over his skin.
He strained to hear their voices, but could decipher none of the hushed words. He wondered if Dallas had explained in his letters that Amelia would have no woman with whom she could whisper secrets. Tightening his hold on his hat, he wondered if Amelia knew she was traveling toward godawful loneliness.
She stepped between the curtains, wearing a yellow dress that had ruffles and bows sewn over it. She glanced his way with uncertainty.
Mimi St. Claire came out and waved her hand in a circle. “Turn, turn so he may see all of it.”
Amelia pivoted on the balls of her feet. The dress had more ruffles in the back than in the front. Houston imagined if a strong wind blew through, it would carry Amelia Carson and that frilly dress across the plains like the petals of a dandelion.
Dallas would like that dress. He’d like it a lot. Too damn bad he’d broken his leg.
Shaking his head, Houston thought he saw relief fill Amelia’s eyes. “You got something that looks like the earth?” he asked.
Mimi St. Claire’s face puckered as though she’d just bitten into a lemon. “Zee earth?”
She grabbed Amelia’s arm, and they disappeared behind the curtain. When next Amelia emerged, she wore a dark brown dress that perfectly matched the hat with the bird. Houston hated it.
“I didn’t say dirt,” he grumbled. “Something that looks like the earth. Something like clover.”
“Clover?” Mimi asked. “You want green?”
Houston nodded slightly, not really certain what he wanted, just certain he’d know when he saw it.
Mimi rolled her eyes. “Trust men to speak in riddles. Why could he not just say green?”
She pulled a smiling Amelia back behind the curtain. Houston wondered how often Amelia would smile in West Texas, when the sun beat down on her, the dust rose up to choke her, and the nearest neighbor was a day’s ride away on a fast horse.
He wished he could ignore her laughter coming from the back room, but he embraced the melodious sound as easily as his fingers stroked the delicate embroidery threads buried deep within his pocket. He no longer had a reason to keep the cloth on his person. He’d identified himself. He could give the embroidered linen back to her or stuff it into his saddlebags. Instead he found himself constantly rubbing the only soft thing in his life.
And staring at the curtain, waiting impatiently to see Amelia again, the sparkle in her eyes, the way her lips curled up as though she found this whole situation amusing.
The curtain billowed out and she slipped through, wearing a dress the shade of clover. It had no frills, no bows, no lace, no ruffles. Simply made, it hugged her curves as a lover might.
Warily studying him, she turned slowly, keeping her gaze on him until she was forced to snap her head around. “You don’t like it either?” she asked.
“I like it just fine,” he said as he settled his hat on his head and picked up her bag. “Get it and anything else you want. Take your time. I’m gonna fetch the wagon.”
He ignored her crestfallen expression and walked out of the shop, the door rattling behind him. He’d hurt her feelings again, but this time he’d had no choice. If he’d stayed in that room, he would have crossed that wooden floor and trailed his finger along the delicate column of her ivory throat.
Just one finger, just one touch, just one sweet moment … but buried deep within his own personal hell, he knew he had no right to claim any sweet moments, especially from the woman pledged to his brother.
Breathing heavily, he came to a staggering stop and dropped his chin to his chest. After years of wanting and waiting, he finally had the opportunity to prove himself. He had only to deliver Amelia Carson safely and
into Dallas’s arms.
He’d never realized how heavy a burden trust was.
Amelia stared at the door, willing the man who’d just stormed through it to return. One moment he seemed interested in her wardrobe, and the next, he was walking out as though he couldn’t escape fast enough.
“He does not like zis one either?” Mimi asked, irritation laced through her voice.
“No, he did like this one. It’s me he doesn’t like.”
Mimi threw up a hand in a dramatic gesture. “Nonsense! He adores you.”
Amelia walked into the back room. “Actually, I’m a burden to him.”
Mimi began unbuttoning the back of the dress. “Oh, little one, I think you must not be wise in zee ways of love. A man sees a woman as a burden only if he thinks he cannot please her.”
“All he has to do is escort me to his brother’s ranch. How hard can that be?”
“That, little one, depends on zee journey. For you, it will be easy. Your heart belongs to another, yes?”
With the hope that she would indeed give her heart to Dallas shortly after meeting him, Amelia nodded.
“When a heart belongs to no one, zee journey is never easy.” With a flourish, Mimi spun around. “Now, let’s see what else I have that looks like zee ground!”
An hour later, Amelia breathed a deep sigh of relief and walked out of Mimi’s shop wearing her own clothes. She would save the new clothing until they neared the ranch.
“Did you get five outfits?” a deep voice asked.
Amelia spun around. Within the late-morning shadows, Houston leaned against the wall.
“Yes, she just needs you to pay for them, and she’ll wrap them up. Although I can’t imagine what I could possibly want with so many clothes.”
He shoved away from the wall. “Dallas figures other women will come farther west once you get there. He thinks he’ll be the king of West Texas.” He held her gaze. “You’ll be his queen.”
“Is he that successful?”
“He’s got a good start, he’s smart, and he’s not a man to let anything stand in his way.”