Authors: Texas Destiny
April 21, 1875
Dear Miss Carson:
I read in your advertisement that you are seeking a husband. If you are still available, I am seeking a wife.
I am in good health, have all my teeth, and consider myself fairly easy on the eyes. I have land, cattle, and a dream to build a cattle empire the likes of which this great state has never seen.
Please write back if you are not yet married, and I will be pleased to bore you with the details.
An honorable man would have looked away. But Houston Leigh had never been an honorable man.
He lay on his pallet beside the fire, the covers drawn over him, his gaze riveted on the tent.
He hadn’t realized until he’d banked the fire and thrown the camp into near darkness that the light from the lantern created shadows inside the tent, shadows visible from the outside.
He could see the woman sitting on the cot reading a letter. Reading with those green eyes of clover that darkened each time she spoke.
She had been reading for some time now. He liked to watch her put one letter away and remove another from the envelope. Her movements were elegant, refined, practiced, as though she often read the letters. He wondered if she was reading the letters Dallas had written her. He wondered exactly what Dallas had told her about his brothers, then he damned himself for caring.
She set the letters on a small table beside the cot, the table that held the lantern. She raised her arms over her head and reached toward the top of the tent.
When she lowered her arms, she began to remove the pins from her hair. He watched as the shadow of her hair tumbled over her shoulders and along her back.
His hands clenched, and he was powerless to look away. She reached into her bag and withdrew her brush. Slowly, she pulled the brush through her hair.
He counted the strokes.
And envied the brush.
And envied his brother, who would have the privilege of watching the woman with no canvas cloth separating them.
A hundred strokes. A hundred long, torturous strokes.
She braided her hair. He thought it a crime to confine something so beautiful. To confine her glorious hair into a braid, to confine a lovely woman to an isolated ranch in West Texas.
Slowly, she peeled away her clothing, every stitch, until nothing remained but the shadow of her flesh. His body reacted to the sight and his hand fisted around the blanket. Sweat beaded his brow, his chest, his throat.
He prayed for a cool breeze to whisper along his flesh and remove some of the heat, but the heat only intensified when she dropped a rag into the bucket and bent over to retrieve it. She tilted her head back, lifted her arms, squeezed the cloth, and let the drops rain over her face, her shoulders … her breasts.
Leisurely, she wiped the cloth along her throat, following the trail of droplets coursing down her body.
Houston imagined he could feel the pulse of her heart, the warmth of her flesh. He imagined it was his hand gliding over her body instead of the cloth, his hand touching her curves, his lips leaving a damp trail over her skin.
Rolling to his side, he brought his knees toward his chest and huddled like a child trying to protect himself from the aching loneliness. A solitary tear slid along his cheek.
He had his horses. He had his solitude. And on nights when the moon was full, he could look across the vast prairie and hear nothing but the lowing of distant cattle, the whisper of the wind, and the promise of tomorrow.
And if there were moments like this one, when he wished for more, he had but to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the still waters of a pond to remember that he deserved less.
So much less.
melia awoke to the scent of strong coffee permeating the air. She had a feeling it would be as thick as molasses on a winter’s day. Grimacing slightly, she rolled off the cot. Every muscle, every bone she possessed protested her movements.
Standing, she pressed her fists into the small of her back and stretched backward. She wondered if she would be better off walking part of the day. Sitting in a jostling wagon was hard on the body.
Using the remaining water from last night, she quickly washed her face, then separated the strands of her braid, brushed her hair, and swept it into a coil. She glanced at her clothing, wishing now that she’d taken the time to wash it while they were near a creek. She had no idea if they would have water every night.
She carefully placed all her belongings into her carpetbag, folded the blankets that had covered the cot, and put out the flame in the lantern. It was a childish thing, really, to sleep with a flame burning beside her.
Cautiously, not certain what she would find beyond the tent this morning, she slipped her fingers between the tent opening and peered through the small slit. She could see Houston crouched before a boulder, a razor in his hand. He had set a jagged mirror no larger than the palm of her hand on the rock so it rested against the tree. He tilted his head slightly and slid the razor up his throat, scraping away the shaving lather and his morning beard.
Amelia withdrew from the opening, and with excitement thrumming through her veins, she snapped open her bag and reached inside. She withdrew her mirror, a large hand mirror that had belonged to her mother.
She rushed out of the tent, grateful that at last she had a way to thank him for all he’d done for her: the tent, the fire, the meals, the warm water. “Mr. Leigh!”
He turned, a furrow creasing his brow.
“You can use my mirror,” she said ecstatically as she thrust it toward him.
Waving his hand through the air, he jumped back as though she had offered him a snake. “God Almighty, get that away from me!”
Amelia hugged the mirror against her chest. “But it’s so much larger than yours. I thought it would make shaving easier.”
“I don’t even know why I bother to shave,” he mumbled as he picked up the small mirror and dropped it into a box along with the rest of his shaving gear. “Do whatever it is you need to do to be ready. Coffee and biscuits are by the fire. We’ll be leavin’ right after breakfast.”
Tears filled her eyes as she watched him rush out of the camp as though his life depended on it. She pressed the mirror closer to her chest. She wondered if he used the smaller mirror so he wouldn’t have to see all of his face at the same time, if in small pieces, perhaps he could pretend he wasn’t disfigured.
He’d only been fifteen when he had been wounded. She tried to imagine how devastating it would have been for a fifteen-year-old boy to awaken from battle to discover that a portion of his face had been ravaged by enemy fire. An older man who had learned not to place much value in appearances might have adjusted, but a young man who had yet to court and marry might have withdrawn from the world.
Every conversation they had shared—with the exception of one—had begun when she had asked a question. She had assumed that he considered her a burden. Now, she wondered if perhaps he simply had no experience at socializing. He always looked as though he was searching for something. Could he possibly be searching for something to say?
She held out her mirror and studied her reflection. She wasn’t prone to vanity, but she couldn’t imagine avoiding the sight of her face. She thought of him tugging his hat brim down, leaning against walls, and standing in shadows. She had a feeling Houston Leigh carried other scars that were visible only to the heart.
Houston knelt beside the creek, habit forcing him to stir up the water before he leaned over to fill the canteens. Still waters could throw a man’s reflection back at him.
He dropped to his backside, closed the canteens, and rubbed his hands over his face. He owed her another apology. His reaction to her kindness had frightened her. He’d seen it in those eyes of clover that reflected her heart as openly as a book. They had been filled with joy when he’d turned around, and he’d walked away leaving them filled with despair.
He felt as though he’d just squashed a beautiful butterfly for doing little more than innocently landing on his shoulder.
He closed his eye against the memory of last night. He owed her an apology for that as well, even though she had no way of knowing what had transpired by the campfire after she had walked into the tent. How did a man apologize for taking advantage of a situation without causing more harm?
One way or another he needed to make amends. His lustful thoughts had no place on this journey.
He picked up a stick and drew an “A” in the mud. He traced the right side until the groove was deep and water began to seep into it. Then he carved the “D” and stared at his brother’s brand, emblazoning the sight in his mind and on his heart.
He knew that the marriage ceremony that would take place when they arrived at the ranch was only a formality. As far as Dallas was concerned, Amelia had become his wife the day he had joined her initial to his. Houston would do well to remember that.
He tossed the muddy stick aside, forced himself to his feet, and wandered back to camp, his apology tagging along like an unwanted puppy.
He stopped dead in his tracks, his practiced words forgotten as he stared at Amelia walking through the camp, her hand covering her left eye. She tripped over a rock, stumbled, caught her balance, glanced down, her eye still covered, and spoke to the rock as though it were some child who had wandered across her path. “Oh, I didn’t see you.”
She lifted her gaze and continued to roam the small area, her skirt coming dangerously close to the fire.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he bellowed.
She spun around. Her cheeks flamed red as she lowered her hand. “I was trying to see the world as you see it.”
He hunkered down before the fire and poured the remaining coffee over the low flames. “Believe me, you don’t want to see the world as I see it.”
With small hesitant steps, she eased closer to the fire, wringing her hands. He knew he should apologize now, but damn if he could remember the words he wanted to use.
“I’ve noticed that you try to keep … your … your right side facing me. I thought it was because you were trying to spare me the sight of your scars …”
Her words sliced through him like a knife. If he could, he’d spare her his presence altogether. Damn Dallas. All six bullets wouldn’t be enough satisfaction.
“I realize now that your vision is hampered,” she continued.
“I’m like a horse that wears blinders on one side, so just stay to the right of me,” he said gruffly.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
“You didn’t embarrass me. You just came dang close to setting your skirt on fire.”
“Oh.” She gnawed on her lower lip. “At least you don’t have to squint when you aim a rifle.”
His gaze hardened on hers. Sympathy filled those green eyes, along with the tears.
“I was trying to think of a reason why you might be grateful that you lost an eye. I know it’s a silly reason, but sometimes when I’m bothered by something if I can find a reason to be grateful—”
Drawing himself up to his full height, he glared down on her. “Do you know what would have made me grateful, Miss Carson?”
She shook her head slightly.
“If I’d lost both eyes.”
As dusk settled in, Amelia scrubbed her blouse viciously in the warm bucket of water Houston had brought her—in silence. He hadn’t spoken a full sentence since that morning. He’d grunted, yepped, noped, and for the most part left her alone.
They’d set up camp a little earlier than they did yesterday because he wanted to keep them near water as long as possible. He’d shot a hare for the evening meal. Amelia had wanted to crawl into the dirt and hide when he strode into camp with the hare and his rifle. How could she have said what she did this morning? How could she have thought he’d be grateful for the loss of an eye or the scarring of a face that she was certain would have made women swoon with its rugged beauty?
She knew she could apologize a hundred times, but that wasn’t what Houston Leigh wanted … or needed. He needed to be accepted as he was, to learn that he didn’t have to hug walls or view life through shadows of his own making.
Rising, she slapped her blouse over the side of the wagon, smoothing out the wrinkles so the material could dry through the night. She trailed her fingers over Dallas’s brand. She had expected so much more from this trip: laughter, stolen kisses, promises of happiness.
She should leave Houston to mope around in the world he had no desire to share. She should focus her thoughts on Dallas and how she could best make him happy. She wasn’t learning much about him from his brother, but perhaps if she read his letters again, she would discover something she’d missed.
She dumped the water out of the bucket, straightened her back with a sigh, and began walking toward the tent and solitude.
A horse’s whinny caught her attention. Glancing toward the area where Houston had tethered the mules, she stumbled to a stop.
Houston sat on a log, his left side to her so she was not visible to him. He’d laid a checkerboard on a tree stump. Beside his feet lay his folded duster, his hat on top of it.
He was leaner than she’d expected, and yet his shoulders fanned out as he planted his elbow on his thigh and cupped his chin in his palm. He had rolled up his sleeves, and she could see the strength in his forearm. Before him, his horse snorted.
“You sure?” Houston asked.
The horse bobbed her head.
“All right,” Houston replied and moved a black checker piece across the board. He promptly picked up his own red disk and jumped the black one he’d just moved.
The horse whinnied, dipped her head, and nudged the checkerboard off the tree stump.
“God damn! You’re a sorry loser,” Houston whispered harshly.
Laughing, Amelia approached the duo. In one seamless movement, Houston grabbed his hat, settled it on his head, sprang to his feet, and spun around.
“Thought you were washin’ your clothes,” he said from beneath the shadows of his brim.
She took no offense at his actions, but the sadness swept through her. He trusted his horse, but not her. She fought to keep her feelings from showing on her face as she rubbed the horse’s shoulder. “I was, but it doesn’t take long to wash a blouse.” She eyed him speculatively. “I suppose I should have offered to wash your shirt.”
“That’s not necessary. On a cattle drive, a man gets used to having dirty clothes for a while.”
“But we’re not on a cattle drive. I’ll wash your shirt tomorrow.”
He opened his mouth as though to protest, and then snapped it shut.
Amelia pressed her face against the horse’s neck. “I never mentioned that I think your horse is beautiful. I thought she was brown, but sometimes when the sun hits her coat just right, she looks red.”
“She’s a sorrel. Got speed and endurance bred into her, and she’s smart as a whip.”
She studied the man who was watching the horse with obvious affection. She remembered his description of the horse that had broken Dallas’s leg. “You know a lot about horses.”
“I’m a mustanger. It’s my job to know a horse’s temperament. With mustangs, it’s usually easy. Their coloring gives them away. A dun with a black mane and tail is hardy, an albino is worthless, a black is a good horse unless he has a wavy tail and mane.”
“That’s amazing,” she said quietly, more impressed with how much he’d spoken rather than what he’d said. “Do you raise them?”
“Startin’ to. They used to run wild over Texas, but they’re gettin’ harder to find so I’ve taken to breedin’ ’em.”
She rubbed the horse’s muzzle. “What’s her name?”
“Sorrel.” He lifted a shoulder in a careless shrug. “Reckon I got as much imagination as my parents.”
She laughed lightly, delighted with the conversation. Although he still wore his hat, he had relaxed his stance. He appeared to be more at ease with horses than with people. She wondered what would make him comfortable around her, what would have to happen in order for him to leave his hat on the ground. “I play checkers. Probably better than your horse.”
He narrowed his eye. “My horse is pretty good.”
She tilted her chin. “I’m better.”
“You willin’ to put that claim to a test?”
She’d thought he would never ask, but decided against showing too much enthusiasm. She didn’t want to frighten away the easy companionship that was settling in beneath the shade. She simply waltzed to the log where he’d been sitting and tilted up her face, offering the challenge, “Why not?”
He shot across the short space like a bullet fired from a gun, gathered his playing board and pieces, and set them carefully on the tree stump. He playfully shoved Sorrel aside when the horse nudged his shoulder. “This ain’t your game. Get outta here.” Then he dropped down, sitting back on his haunches, and the game began.
Amelia had never seen anyone concentrate so hard on a game. Houston balanced himself on the balls of his feet, his elbow resting on his thigh, his chin in his palm, studying each move she made as though each move were equally important.
She remembered playing checkers with her father before the war. Their games went quickly, and usually ended with both of them laughing, neither of them winning. She was beginning to understand why Houston’s horse had tipped over the board.
“My father taught me to play checkers,” she said. “If I thought I was going to lose, I’d move the pieces when he wasn’t looking. He always pretended not to notice.”
“You say that like you loved him.”
“Of course I loved him. Very much. He was my father. Didn’t you love your father?”
She sensed from the tightening of his jaw that he might have regretted voicing his feelings.
“Your move,” he grumbled.
She promptly removed another one of his pieces from the board and settled in for the long wait as he contemplated his strategy. With his thumb, he tipped his hat off his brow. His attention clearly focused on the game, she was certain he didn’t realize that he’d allowed the shadows to slip away from his face. She welcomed the opportunity to view more than his profile. The black patch was larger than many she’d seen. She supposed that he wanted to leave as few scars visible as he could. Her fingers flexed, and just as she had when she had first met him, she felt an overwhelming desire to touch the unsightly scars with compassion. She imagined holding him to her breast, easing the pain that still lingered within his remaining eye.