Authors: Texas Destiny
An unexpected warmth suffused her as though she’d wandered too close to a roaring blaze. She balled her hands into tight fists to stop her fingers from trembling, from reaching toward a face that fascinated her with the history it revealed. Houston’s marred features left no doubt that he’d fought in the war. She wondered if Dallas’s countenance revealed as much.
“Was Dallas wounded during the war?” she asked.
Houston tugged on the brim of his hat, bringing the shadows home. “Nope.”
She chastised herself, wondering if she’d ever remember how quickly talk of the war distanced Houston. Although he sat across from her, she sensed that he was retreating. She wanted desperately to keep him near.
“Does Dallas play?” she asked, grateful to see the stiffness roll out of Houston’s shoulders as he leaned forward.
“With all he has goin’, I don’t imagine he has time.”
“Don’t the two of you ever play?”
He reached toward a piece, then pulled back his hand without touching or moving the disk. “No.”
He scrutinized the board with such intensity that Amelia wished she had planned to lose. With a sigh, he moved a piece forward, placing it so she had no choice but to jump over and claim it. She was certain he intended to forfeit his piece in order to gain two of hers, but she didn’t think it would be enough of a sacrifice for him to win. She somehow knew that her winning would also be her loss.
She slipped her fingers beneath the board and quickly tossed it off the stump.
“What the—” He glared at her with obvious displeasure.
Amelia smiled sheepishly. “I thought I might lose.”
“You knew darn good and well that you weren’t gonna lose.”
He reached for the board, and Amelia wrapped her fingers around his arm. He stilled, the muscles beneath her fingers tensing. “It was only a game. You’re supposed to have fun when you’re playing a game.”
“I was havin’ fun,” he said gruffly.
He nodded, but the muscles beneath her hand didn’t relax.
“Then let’s play again.” She settled into place while he set up the game. She allowed him to have five moves before she dumped the board over.
“Dang it!” he roared.
“You weren’t having fun,” she said.
“I sure as heck was. I was gonna win that time.”
She smiled sweetly. “No, you weren’t.”
“You’re aggravating, you know that?” he said as he collected his board and pieces.
“Does Dallas smile more often than you do?” she asked.
“Everyone smiles more than I do.” He laid the board on the stump and put the pieces into place. “Go ahead and move.”
Amelia leaned forward and placed her elbow on the stump of the tree, cradling her chin in her palm. “Why don’t you smile?”
He averted his gaze, and Amelia studied his perfect profile, imagining how he might have looked if a portion of his face hadn’t been torn to shreds when he was a young man. Women would have fallen over themselves to gain his attention. They might have said he was handsome as sin.
He certainly had the temperament of the devil.
“You feel up to riding?” he asked.
His words startled her. The shadows were lengthening. “You want to travel at night?”
He drew his gaze back to hers. “No, I just want to show you somethin’ if you feel up to riding. Of course, you’ll have to ride on the horse with me.”
She glanced at Sorrel and the saddle on the ground. She hadn’t ridden in years, not since her father had died. A horse wasn’t nearly as wide as the seat of a wagon. She wouldn’t be able to avoid the accidental brushing of thighs or elbows. She wouldn’t be able to ignore the closeness of Houston’s body. Her mouth went dry with the thought, her heart pounding. He wanted to share something with her. No matter how small, friendship was built on sharing. “What are you going to show me?”
“If I could describe it, I wouldn’t have to show you.”
She rose from the log. “Then I’d like to see it.”
A few minutes later, he led Sorrel over to her and lifted her onto the saddle. She clung to the pommel as he slipped a booted foot into the stirrup and threw a leg over the back of the horse.
Reaching around her, he took hold of the reins. “Relax,” he ordered. “You’ll make the horse nervous.”
“I am relaxed,” she squeaked, nestled between his thighs, her shoulder bumping against his chest.
“Yeah, and I was having fun playing checkers,” he said in a low voice as he prodded the horse forward.
The gently rolling plains stretched out before them. She glanced over her shoulder, but Fort Worth was beyond her vision, a piece of her past now. Her future lay ahead.
Sorrel plodded up a steep rise. When they reached the crest of the hill, Houston brought the horse to a halt, dismounted, and gazed toward the horizon.
“See where the sun touches the land?” he asked in a reverent voice.
“That’s where you’ll be living.”
Amelia admired the tranquil splendor of the distant site. Lavender and blue hues swept across the sky, reached down, and melted into the green horizon.
“See all the people?” he asked.
Too late she realized his question required no answer. She glanced down. The dark depths of his eye held a profound sadness, and the purpose of his question struck her hard with its intensity. She looked back at the majestic land, the scattered trees, the vast emptiness.
“Who will you talk to, Miss Carson?” he asked.
“I’ll talk with my husband.”
“And when he’s not there?”
“I don’t know what Dallas told you in his letters, but you’re heading into a loneliness so deep that it hurts the heart.”
“Only if you let it, Mr. Leigh.”
Houston didn’t know if he’d ever heard words spoken with so much determination or if he’d ever seen anyone look as serene as Amelia did. The breeze blew wisps of her hair over her face, and her lips curved into a smile.
“I think it’s beautiful,” she said quietly.
“You have no idea what you’re heading toward.”
“No, I don’t. But I know what I’ve come from. And I have no desire to return to it.” Turning her head slightly, she glanced down at him and gave him a rueful smile. “You were right this morning when you said I didn’t want to view the world as you do. You see only the emptiness. I see a place that’s waiting to be filled with dreams.”
allas? Dallas, I’m scared.”
But Houston was afraid. The clouds passing across the midnight sky reminded him of ghosts, and he imagined that he could hear their tortured cries in the rushing waters of nearby Chickamauga Creek. He drew the blanket up to his chin, but it didn’t stop his shivering.
“Dallas, I’m scared about tomorrow.” His harsh whisper echoed around him, more frightening because his pa had told him that Chickamauga meant “river of death” in Cherokee.
Lying on the pallet beside him, Dallas rolled over and mumbled, “I ain’t gonna hold you, but you can scoot a little closer to me if you want. Just don’t let anybody see you doin’ it.”
Houston inched over until he could feel the warmth of Dallas’s body, but not the solidness of his touch. He didn’t want his father to find him sleeping right beside his brother.
“What if I die?” Houston whispered.
“You won’t. Just stay by my side. I won’t let nothin’ happen to you.”
“Give you my word.”
Amelia awoke to an anguished wail that ripped through her dream into her heart. With trembling fingers, she turned up the flame in the lantern.
Her blood pounded at her temples; her breath came in short gasps. She took a deep breath to steady herself. In her dream, she and a man she wanted to believe was Dallas—but who had looked remarkably like Houston—had been walking through a field of clover. His arm had been around her, and she had felt safer than she had felt in years. She didn’t think the cry had come from her.
She slipped off the cot and eased into her night wrapper, drawing it tightly around her as though it had the power to ward off her fears.
She tiptoed across the tent, guided her fingers through the tent flap, and peered through the small opening her narrow fingers created. She could see Houston hunkered down before the fire, wearing his duster, his hat drawn low over his brow as though he had plans to ride out.
She widened the opening in the tent. “I thought I heard a cry,” she said, her voice quivering.
He visibly stiffened. “It was just an animal. Go back to sleep.”
His rough voice didn’t ease her doubts. He reached for the pot of coffee. As he poured the coffee, he trembled with such intensity that the brew sloshed over the sides of his tin cup.
Amelia pulled her wrapper closer, gathering her courage within its folds. Leaving the tent, she padded across the campsite and knelt beside Houston.
“I said to go back to bed,” he said gruffly.
“Do you think we’re in danger?”
He gripped the handle of the pot so tightly that his bones were visible against his skin. Reaching out, Amelia covered his hand, her palm cradling his knuckles. He jerked at her touch, but he didn’t attempt to pull away.
She rubbed her hand over his, surprised to find his so cold. Slowly he relaxed, his fingers loosening their grip on the handle. She eased the pot away from him and set it near the fire.
He wrapped his hand around the tin cup. She was amazed that the cup didn’t dent with the strength of his grip.
“When I was a child,” she said quietly, “I used to have nightmares, and I would pray that I would grow up fast so that the nightmares would go away.” She gently placed her hand on his arm, hoping to gain his attention. Ignoring her, he focused his gaze on the fire and clenched his jaw tightly. “When I grew up, I learned that nightmares don’t go away. They just become more terrifying because we understand so much more.”
She worked the tin cup from his grip, held his hands, and willed him to look at her. He continued to stare into the fire. “Do you want to talk about your dream?”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed because you were frightened by a dream.”
He broke free of her hold and surged to his feet. “Frightened by a dream? Woman, I’m afraid of life!”
“Do you think you’re alone—”
“Yes! Goddamn it! I’m alone!”
Houston regretted his outburst as soon as he saw the stricken expression fall across Amelia’s lovely face. She looked as though he’d taken his fist to her. He’d had moments in his life when he’d felt small, but he’d never felt this small or this ashamed. Lord knew, he’d done plenty that he could be ashamed of.
He took a step toward her, his hands moving like a windmill in a slow breeze. He didn’t know what to do with them. He didn’t want to frighten her, but he was afraid she might grab his hands if he held them still, and he’d end up wrapping his arms around her just so he’d have a tether to hang onto so he’d feel safe. Only a woman shouldn’t make a man feel safe. A man was supposed to protect a woman. “Amelia—”
She tilted her head slightly, the wounded expression retreating until she smiled so sweetly that he thought his heart might shatter. Every word he’d ever known rushed out of his head.
“I remember the first time I slept alone,” she said softly, her voice drifting on the calm breeze as she shifted her gaze to the fire. “The bed was so large. The night so dark. I thought surely both would devour me. And the sounds. I heard a door creak and a board moan. I felt so incredibly alone.” She wrapped her arms around herself and began to rock back and forth. “My father died during the war. And my sisters. Allison and Amanda.”
The serenity of her gaze fascinated him. His hands had settled into a stillness as her voice floated toward him. She had a hell of a way of distracting a man. Her remembrances had lulled his memories back into oblivion, his shakes and sweats going along with them. She glanced up at him.
“My mother liked names that began with A. My father’s name was Andrew, and I often wondered if that was why she married him.”
“That’s not a very practical reason for marrying someone,” he said.
“Is my reason for marrying your brother practical?”
He stepped closer to the fire, wishing he could attain her composure. She always seemed at peace, relishing each moment as it came. Resting on the balls of his feet, he cautiously bent his knees until his gaze was only slightly higher than hers. “I don’t know your reason.”
“Because I hate being alone.” She closed her eyes. “And because I want to share someone’s dream.”
“Don’t you have your own dream?”
She opened her eyes and smiled mischievously. “A question?”
Lord, he loved the glimmer in her eyes as though she’d trapped him, and he wasn’t altogether certain that she hadn’t. He lowered his gaze to the fire and watched the orange and red flames writhing in a contorted waltz.
had no right to ask.” But damn, he wanted to know everything about her, about her dreams, her reasons for traveling such a great distance to marry his brother.
“I dream of not being hungry. I dream of being warm.”
He shifted his gaze to her. The smile had left her face.
“I dream of regaining something of what I lost during the war: a family, a promise that tomorrow will come, and that it will be worth living, savoring, and remembering.”
“And you think Dallas will give you all of that?”
Her lips tilted up. “Another question. I’m impressed.”
He wanted to look away, but her eyes held him captive. At that moment, with those green eyes boring into him, Houston almost had an overwhelming desire to search for his own dreams. “You don’t have to answer it.”
She scooted closer to him. “I think I do. No, I don’t think he will
me my dreams, but I think we’ll work together to gain them. I’ve always believed that dreams were meant to be shared. Where’s the joy in reaching for something if you have no one to see you capture it?”
He had no idea. He’d stopped reaching long ago.
She laid her hand on his arm. “I don’t expect you to answer that.”
“That’s good because I wouldn’t know how.”
She laughed, tilted her head back, and looked at the canopy of stars. “Oh, the sky is beautiful tonight. I almost envy you sleeping outside.”
“It has its moments.” Just as she did. Sweet moments, gentle moments. Moments that filled him with awe.
She smiled softly. “I should stop pestering you and let you go back to sleep.”
He unfolded his body as she rose gracefully to her feet and turned away from the fire.
“Oh, look. I can see the shadow of a moth that’s flying inside the tent. Isn’t it pretty?” The smile eased off her face. “I can see the moth’s shadow,” she said in a hushed voice, “and everything inside the tent.”
Houston stiffened as her gaze streaked to his pallet. With his saddle at one end, it didn’t take much imagination to figure out which way he’d been lying or what had been in his line of sight.
Her gaze flew back to the tent, then to the pallet before she snapped accusing eyes his way. “I can see everything. Everything. Have you been watching me each evening?”
Sweet Lord, he wanted to speak but anything he could have uttered would have condemned him. As it turned out, his silence condemned him.
As she drew back her hand, he forced himself to give her an easy target. The blow came, jerking his head to the side.
She stormed into the tent, the flap momentarily billowing and slapping after her. Her shadow reflected as much hurt and anger as he imagined she felt. Then the shadow disappeared into the darkness as she extinguished the flame in the lantern.
Houston felt as though all the light had suddenly gone out of his life. He broke out in a cold sweat as his gaze swept over the camp. He’d told her he was alone, but until this moment he didn’t know the true meaning of the word.
She’d shut him out of her life with a single breath. She’d ask no more questions of him, of that he was certain. He should have been relieved. Instead, he thought he might keel over and die. With trepidation, he neared the tent. “Miss Carson?”
A thick heavy silence was her reply. For some reason, he thought he’d feel a sight better if he could hear her sobbing o
throwing things around.
“Miss Carson, you need to step outside and slap me again. The side you hit is mostly dead. You need to hit the other side of my face so I can feel it like I should.”
He could hear nothing but the heavy pounding of his heart. He could see nothing but a vast emptiness filling the coming days. Dear God, what words could atone for what he’d done?
“Miss Carson, I know what I did was wrong. It was shameful, and I regretted it even as I did it, but dear Lord, woman, I swear to God, I’ve never seen a sweeter shadow than yours … and that’s all I saw. Just your shadow.”
“Without clothes! Washing up! Enjoying a few moments of freedom!”
Sweet Lord, yes, and he’d enjoyed her moments of freedom most of all, but he didn’t think she’d appreciate hearing that at this moment.
“Miss Carson, if I could undo what I’d done, I would. But I can’t. If you just knew how beautiful—”
“I don’t want to hear it, Mr. Leigh. Just leave me alone.”
“You have every right to be upset—” He heard a sob. He’d been wrong. Hearing a noise was worse than hearing the silence.
“Miss Carson, I’d do anything on God’s green earth to make this up to you. I’d pluck out my eye—”
A light flared inside the tent, and the flap flew open. She stood before him, her eyes rimmed in red, and he could see the faintest trail of tears along her cheeks. In all his life, he’d never loathed himself more.
She sniffed. “Do you mean it? Would you do anything?”
He glanced at her hands, expecting to see the knife she no doubt planned to use to remove his remaining eye. But her hands held nothing but the cool night air.
He swallowed hard. “Yes, ma’am. Anything.”
She folded her arms beneath her breasts and swept out of the tent like a queen granting her least favorite subject an audience. She held her chin high with a dignity unlike any he’d ever seen. Dallas had been right to refer to her as the Queen of the Prairie.
She spun about and looked down her nose at him—as much as she was able, considering the top of her head didn’t reach the height of his shoulder.
“You may sleep in the tent tonight.”
Although her words had come softly, she’d spoken them with the force of a hissing snake. His gut clenched. He wasn’t exactly sure where she was headed with this train of thought, and he wasn’t certain that he wanted to know, but she appeared to be waiting on him to respond.
“You may sleep in the tent,” she repeated slowly as though he hadn’t a lick of sense, and he was beginning to think that he might not have any sense at all. “Undress. Wash up. Do whatever it is men do before they go to sleep.” She dropped to the log, placed her elbows on her thighs, cupped her chin, and smiled sweetly. “And I’ll watch.”
“Are you out of your mind?” he roared.
“You said you’d do anything. Well, Mr. Leigh, you have just heard my idea of anything.”
He glared at the tent. The goddamn moth was still flying around. If he stepped into that tent, his first order of business would be to murder that pesky critter. He glanced at the woman sitting on the log. “No, ma’am, I can’t do it.”
“Why not? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
“It ain’t the same at all. I’ll know you’re watching.”
She came off the log like vengeance sweeping through hell. “And you think my
knowing made what you did acceptable?”
No, it didn’t make it acceptable at all. “What if I gave you a real pretty apology with some fancy words—” “No.”
“If I don’t do this, you’re gonna stay mad, aren’t you?”
Good Lord, based on the delivery of that one simple word, she’d stay angry until they reached the ranch … and maybe beyond that. He’d be traveling through hell when he was just getting used to being near heaven.
His stomach was knotted so tightly that he didn’t know if he could even walk into the tent. But it was the tear shimmering in the corner of her eye that decided him. The firelight caught it, and he could see himself as she must see him: a man who had shattered her trust.
Without another word, he flung back the tent flap and stormed inside, allowing the flap to fall behind him, encasing him in the golden haze that filled the tent.