Authors: Texas Destiny
He could smell her sweetness surrounding him. He couldn’t identify the scent. It wasn’t horses, or leather, or sweat. It was soft, reminding him of something so far back in his memory that he didn’t know if he could pull it forward. His mother, perhaps, leaning over him, brushing the hair off his brow, telling him not to be afraid.
“You can’t just stand there, Mr. Leigh. You have to wash up!”
Her voice penetrated his memories, reminding him more of his father than his mother. “Don’t just stand there, boy! When the battle starts, you march into the thick of it.”
And he’d marched, while everything inside him had screamed for him to run.
He took a step toward the small bucket and glanced at the water. With no steam rising up, it looked cold, but he’d taken cold baths before.
“All right!” Damn impatient woman. He tore his hat off his head and tossed it onto the rumpled covers of the bed where she’d been sleeping before he’d cried out like a baby. He was tempted to place his palm on the bed and see if it still carried her warmth, but she was watching him now, watching him as he’d watched her. Damn his eye for remaining open when it should have been closed.
Rolling his shoulders, he worked his way out of his duster and laid it beside his hat. He sat on the edge of the cot and discreetly placed his hand near her pillow. His fingers lightly brushed the area, searching for her warmth and finding only the cold.
She wouldn’t be giving off any warmth until he’d done what she asked.
he’d said. In the future, he wouldn’t use
word around her.
He jerked off his boots. Unbuttoning his shirt, he stood, pulled it over his head, and dropped it on his duster.
He turned, presenting the silhouette of his backside to the front of the tent. Praying that she wasn’t circling the tent, he began to unbutton his trousers.
Amelia watched, mesmerized. The shadows were distorted, not nearly as clear as she’d imagined, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d wronged her. Considering the slowness with which he was removing his clothing, she assumed he was beginning to understand that.
With a quickness she wasn’t expecting, he dropped his trousers. She buried her face in her hands. Dallas would no doubt send her back to Georgia if he found out what she’d required of his brother. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t actually see his flesh or the rigid contours that probably ran along his body.
He was standing inside her tent, buck naked. Whatever had she been thinking to require such a thing of him? She had wanted him to experience the humiliation that she’d felt when she’d discovered that he’d been watching her.
Only now mortification swamped her. The warmth flamed her cheeks as her mind brought up images of Houston washing himself. She couldn’t bring herself to look, but in her mind’s eye, she could see the glistening drops of water trailing down his throat, over his chest, along his stomach, traveling down …
She doubled over and pressed her face against her knees, but she couldn’t block out the images. She had always been a dreamer, but no decent woman would conjure up the fantasy swirling inside her head.
Had he been content to stare at her silhouette or had he imagined the drops of water—
“I learned my lesson.”
Amelia screeched and shot off the log, but not before she caught sight of a knee resting above a hairy calf. She hadn’t heard him kneel beside her, but she was listening now, listening hard for his approach as she stood near the edge of the shadows, within the ring of light that the fire created. “I said you were to sleep in the tent,” she reminded the man behind her, grateful she couldn’t see him.
“I don’t think you’re really interested in watching me sleep. I gave you your show. Now, get inside the tent and get some sleep. We’ll be leaving at dawn.”
“That wasn’t the bargain.”
She heard his knee pop and assumed he’d risen to his feet. She was tempted to step beyond the light, to disappear into the night, but she feared the darkness while she was only wary of the man.
“I’m used to sleeping outside. I’m not sure you’ll know what to do if you wake up with a snake coiled on your chest.”
“A snake?” Without thinking, she spun around and found the breath knocked out of her. He stood stiffly beside the fire, his clothes bunched before him offering him some protection from her wandering gaze.
The firelight played over his flesh like a lover’s caress. He had additional scars on his left shoulder, healed flesh that trailed down his chest toward his stomach and finally blended into oblivion. Old wounds the water may have kissed on its journey.
He shifted his stance, and his muscles rippled with the slight movement. He appeared much stronger than she’d imagined. She lowered her gaze as his hands tightened their hold on his clothing. She could see the veins and muscles in his arms straining with the force of his grip.
“Git inside the tent,” he growled in a low, warning voice, “or you’re gonna see a lot more than my shadow.”
With a quick nod, Amelia scurried into the tent.
Houston fought to hold back his laughter. The woman was precious. Bold as brass one minute, ordering him into her tent; timid as a mouse the next, with wide eyes and a blush that just begged a man to touch her cheek.
Dropping to his pallet, he worked his way back into his clothes. Inside his cabin, he did sleep without a stitch of clothing, but not out here where a man
wake up with a snake curled over him.
He hefted his saddle to the other end of his pallet and stretched out, his gaze focused on the mules instead of the tent. He should have done it this way the first night.
He chuckled low, remembering the relief he’d experienced when he’d peered out the tent and seen Amelia crouching on the log, her face hidden. He wondered at what point she’d covered her eyes. Maybe he could have spared himself the cold wash-up. He’d done it so quickly that his body had barely noticed the touch of the cloth. He supposed out of fairness, he should have let the cloth caress his body the way she did when she washed. He should have slowly removed every speck of dust and every remnant of dried sweat until he could have come out of that tent smelling like she did: clean, pure, and tempting.
How could a woman be both pure and tempting? A decent woman shouldn’t wash herself the way Amelia did. A decent woman shouldn’t travel halfway across the country to marry a man she only knew through letters. Maybe Amelia Carson wasn’t a decent woman. Maybe—
Her soft, gentle voice brushed over him like the finest of linen rubbing against his coarse body, sending his thoughts to perdition where they belonged.
Rolling over, he came up on his elbow and met her troubled gaze as she knelt beside his pallet, her hands folded primly in her lap. “Amelia, don’t you think after what we learned about each other tonight that we can call each other by our first names?”
Even in the night shadows, he could see the flush in her cheeks as she lowered her gaze to her clenched hands.
“That’s what I wanted to explain. I didn’t watch for very long so I just … I just didn’t want you to think I was wanton.”
He didn’t know what possessed him to slip his finger beneath her chin and lift her gaze back to his. He could feel the slight quiver beneath her soft skin and hated himself because his weakness—and not hers—had brought them to this moment
“I don’t think that.”
Her green eyes held a depth of sadness. “Dallas might feel differently if he were to find out about tonight.”
“He won’t hear it from me.”
His fingers ached to spread out across her face, his palm to cup her cheek, his thumb to graze her softness, his hand to draw her heart-shaped mouth to his. In all his life, he’d kissed only one woman—a whore whose breath had carried the stench of all the men who had come before him.
He had a feeling that the first time Dallas kissed Amelia, he’d taste nothing but her sweetness … as he should. Dallas had earned the right to nibble on those tempting lips because he’d dared to offer her a portion of his dream.
Houston drew his hand away before his fingers stopped listening to his head and started listening to his erratic heart.
“You’d best go back to bed now,” he said in a rough voice he hardly recognized as his own.
“I don’t like to be inside the darkness, but if I keep the lantern burning, I’ll create shadows.”
“I won’t be lookin’.”
He deserved that hesitancy, that lack of trust. Dallas had told him once that if a man went back on his word one time, his reputation as a man of honor became little more than dust. He’d never known Dallas to break a promise. The strength of his word had laid the foundation for his empire. “I give you my word.”
She pushed to her feet. “Sleep well.”
Nodding, he settled back against his saddle, resisting the urge to watch her walk into the tent, knowing if he did, he might never find the strength to look away.
orning brought with it the glaring sun and harsh reality. Amelia had avoided Houston’s gaze as she had eaten her breakfast. When he had begun packing their belongings into the wagon, she’d come to the stream seeking solace.
It had been one thing to meet Houston’s gaze by the campfire, with more shadows than light, but when no shadows separated them … she couldn’t meet his gaze, knowing what he had seen, what she had seen.
She had issued her challenge last night much as she had often dared her sisters—much as they had dared her—to step beyond the rigid guidelines their parents had set for them. But as imaginative as the dares had been, they had been children’s dares, designed to make hearts race and giggles erupt, designed to strengthen a bond.
Last night her heart had raced, but she’d felt no desire to giggle, to laugh, or to smile. No bond existed between her and Houston that could be strengthened.
She stared at the small stream and listened to the gurgling water. She felt soiled, inside more than out. She wished Dallas had come for her. She wished they would reach the ranch today. She wished she’d never seen the firelight skim over Houston’s bronzed skin.
She dropped to her backside, removed her shoes and stockings, and wiggled her toes in the cold water. It wasn’t enough to wash away the memories of last night, to make her forget how for one insane moment she had envied the firelight.
Lifting her skirt higher, she waded into the stream until the brown water lapped at her calves. Brown like Houston’s gaze, Dallas’s eyes. Brown like fertile soil.
Refusing to acknowledge Houston’s presence by turning around, she glared at the trees lining the opposite bank. Anger swelled anew, anger at herself because she liked the way her name sounded coming from his lips, with his deep timbre wrapped around the sounds. She hoped Dallas’s voice would carry the same resonance.
“You got any plans to look at me or talk to me today?” he asked.
“Perhaps at nightfall. It’s easier with the shadows around us.”
“Then I reckon we’ll wait here till nightfall.”
She clenched her hands. “I thought if I did to you what you had done to me, I would find what you took from me. But trust isn’t gained back that easily.” She pivoted in the water and tilted her face up slightly.
He wasn’t wearing his hat. No shadows kept his gaze from hers. Within the dark depths, she read sorrow, shame, and a profound apology that almost made her weep. “I’m sorry,” she whispered hoarsely.
“No need to apologize. It was all my doing. I have a habit of taking the easy road. It was easier to watch than it was to turn away.” He settled his hat on his head. “The wagon’s loaded. We can leave whenever you’re ready.”
“Just a few—Oh!” The sharp pain came suddenly, without warning. She stumbled back, falling into the cold water.
Houston thrashed through the water, lifted her into his arms, and carried her out of the stream. “What happened?”
“My leg. Something bit me. A fish or something.”
Gingerly he set her on the grassy bank and knelt beside her.
“Close your eyes,” he demanded tersely as he tore the hat from his head. “God damn it! Close your eyes!”
He had only sworn at her once—last night—and normally she would have obeyed anyone who yelled at her with such urgency. But she couldn’t bring herself to move, to act, to do anything but stare at the two puncture marks in her calf and the blood trailing toward her ankle.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Snake,” he replied as he wrapped a strip of leather around her calf before unsheathing the knife he carried at his side. The early-morning sunlight glinted off the steel.
“It’s gonna hurt. I’m sorry,” he said quietly as he sliced the blade across her calf. She clenched her teeth and balled her hands into fists, wishing she could reassure him, but afraid if she opened her mouth to speak, she’d scream.
He dropped the knife. Wrapping his warm hands around her calf, he lowered his mouth to the wound. His jaws worked feverishly as he sucked and spit. Sucked and spit. Over and over.
She touched her finger to the black patch dangling from her calf and shifted her gaze. No strip of leather indented his brow as he worked. His thick black hair fell over his face, and she had a strong urge to brush it back.
“Am I going to die?” she asked quietly.
He jerked his head up, apparently forgetting or unaware that he wasn’t shielding his face from her gaze. Nothing remained of his left eye or cheek. His tangled flesh was stretched taut in places, ridged and heavily scarred in others, as though his ravaged face hadn’t quite known how to repair itself. She wanted to weep for the pain he must have endured, for the wounded child he had once been.
“No,” he said with conviction. “No, you’re not gonna die.”
He scooped her into his arms as though she were little more than a bouquet of flowers, freshly picked. She pressed her face against his chest as he carried her in long strides back to the camp. She could hear the pounding of his heart, so hard, so fast that she was certain he was in pain. He set her down near the cold ashes of their campfire. “I’m still bleeding.”
“That’s all right. Let your leg bleed for a while. I’m going to set the tent back up.”
“Why?” she asked, the panic knotting her stomach.
Gently, he cradled her cheek. She felt the slight trembling in his fingers and placed her hand over his. His Adam’s apple slowly slid up and down.
“You’re gonna get sick,” he said, his voice ragged. “Real sick.”
“I didn’t see a snake,” she said, hopefully.
“He left his mark. Probably a water moccasin, maybe a rattler that close to shore.”
He withdrew his fingers, and a coldness seeped through her. A shudder racked her body.
He tore off his duster and gently slipped it over her shoulders, tucking it in around her. He pulled his shirt over his head and wadded it up. “Here, lie down.”
She curled up on the ground. “I’m tired,” she said, her tongue feeling thick. “Didn’t sleep well last night.”
“You’ll sleep today. I’ll be back for you.”
Before she could reply, he raced to the wagon and began searching through its contents, an urgency to his movements. Her eyelids grew heavy, but she forced them to remain open as she watched him set up the tent beneath the shade of a tree.
His back was lean, tanned, and she wondered if he often worked without a shirt. His muscles reminded her of a stallion’s, sleek but powerful, bunching with an easy grace as he worked.
She closed her eyes and the dizziness assaulted her as the blackness swirled around her. Jerking her eyes open, she fought to ignore the throbbing pain in her calf and concentrated instead on the plainness of the patch that usually covered the harshest of Houston’s scars. Perhaps she would decorate it with tiny flowers before she gave it back to him.
As she reached for it, to examine it more closely, so did long brown fingers. She watched as Houston removed the strip of leather from her leg and tied it around his head, the patch falling into place to cover his loss.
He wrapped a strip of cloth around her wound. Then he lifted her into his arms and carried her into the tent, gingerly setting her on the cot.
“Do you think you can get out of your wet clothes or do you need me to help?” he asked.
She glanced at her nightgown waiting on her pillow. She nodded lethargically, her tongue struggling to form the words. “I … can.”
“Good. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
He disappeared before she could say more. Sluggishly, she worked her way out of her clothes, leaving them heaped on the floor. She slipped on her nightgown before curling up on her side and drifting off to sleep, trusting her life to Houston’s keeping.
Houston scooped the mud out of the bowl and patted it over the swollen flesh on Amelia’s calf, hoping the coolness would reduce the swelling. Damn, he didn’t want to have to cut out part of her muscle. He knew the venom could kill the flesh, the muscle, and in rare instances, the victim.
The thought of her dying caused a hard, painful knot to settle deep in his chest. He was certain she had more questions she wanted to ask, discoveries she wanted to make.
He wanted her to see a sunset from the porch of his cabin, with the far off horizon a distant haze. He wanted to learn to answer her questions with patience.
He wanted to watch her daughter grow up.
For some ungodly reason, he thought she’d give Dallas a little girl instead of the son he craved. He imagined a little girl with Amelia’s golden hair, her green eyes, and her tiny tipped-up nose, running over Dallas’s ranch, wrapping cowhands around her tiny finger. He hoped sometime she’d visit with her Uncle Houston. He’d give her a gentle mare to ride and share his secret place with her where the wildflowers bloomed, the water misted, and the sky was always blue.
And he’d love her. If she was half as sweet as her mother, he’d love her.
He shifted his gaze to Amelia’s face. Dear God, but she was pale. He brushed his mud-caked fingers over his trousers until they felt clean, then he gently wiped away the dewy sweat beading above her upper lip.
He wished he’d been able to spare her the sight of his face uncovered. He’d told her to close hereyes, but she hadn’t obeyed him, and he hadn’t had time to press the issue.
If Dallas had told her to close her eyes, she’d have closed them. His voice carried the mark of authority. If the man said, “Jump!”, every other man within earshot would ask, “How high?”
Hell, Houston hadn’t been able to make those two ragamuffins at the train depot follow his order to leave him alone. Maybe that was the reason he enjoyed working with horses so much. They listened to him.
Amelia’s eyes fluttered open, her green gaze vacant. Damn, he wished the snake had chosen him.
Her lips lifted slightly, and a small spark glinted in her eyes. “No shadow show tonight.”
He swallowed hard, wondering how she could tease him when she was feeling so poorly. “You get to feeling better, and I’ll give you one,” he promised, knowing he’d give her anything, do anything if she just wouldn’t die on him.
Her smile withered away like flowers pulled from the earth and left too long without water. Reaching out, she pressed her palm against his left shoulder, her warmth seeping through his flannel shirt. “Did you get this wound at the same time?”
“Yes. I’m sorry you had to see my face—”
She moved her hand up to palm his left jaw. The scars were fewer there, and he could feel the gentleness of her touch.
“The scars suit you,” she said quietly.
Yeah, the scars suited him. A man should be as ugly on the outside as he was on the inside.
Self-consciously he wrapped his fingers around her hand and placed it on the cot. She tucked it beneath her chin and drew her legs up as she lay on her side, vulnerable as the day she was born. He brought a blanket up to her shoulders, but it could only protect her from the chill of the evening, not the harshness of life. Offering comfort was as foreign to
as giving an apology. He desperately searched the recesses of his mind for some memory to help him.
An image came to him, so powerful that his hands shook. A time when he’d had nothing but pain, fear, and the overwhelming desire to die. Another memory teased the back of his mind. Small hands, a nurse’s hands, rubbing his back, making the pain tolerable with her sweetness. Like most of the young wounded soldiers, he’d entertained the idea of marrying her … until he’d caught sight of his reflection in a mirror.
He placed his hand against the small of Amelia’s back and felt her stiffen beneath his fingertips. “I won’t hurt you,” he reassured her. “Just gonna help you forget.”
Awkwardly, he rubbed his splayed fingers over her back. She had such a small back. He wondered if she’d have the strength to bear Dallas the son he wanted … or the daughter Houston thought she would have.
He stroked her shoulders, stopping just short of the nape of her neck. Touching her flesh, absorbing her warmth appealed to him, appealed to him as it shouldn’t. He had no right to feel her skin beneath his fingers, even if he was only offering comfort.
“My mother used to rub my back when I was sick,” she said quietly, and his fingers faltered.
His thoughts were anything but motherly. “I just thought it might help.”
His hand continued its slow sojourn over her slender back. Touching her in a less than intimate manner warranted a bit of reverence that could best be appreciated with silence: like watching the rising of a full yellow moon or hearing a wolf calling out to his mate.
“Would you mind reading one of Dallas’s letters to me? I always find comfort in his words. They’re in my bag.” Her mouth curved up. “But I suppose you know that.”
He preferred stroking her back to reading, but his desires didn’t seem nearly as important as hers. Opening her bag, he removed the bundle of letters. His fingers felt clumsy as they untied the delicate ribbon that held the letters together.
“Take one from the middle,” she said. “Any one.”
He took the one that looked the most worn, figuring it would be her favorite. He removed the letter from the envelope. “You sure you want me to read it?”
She nodded. He turned up the flame in the lantern and angled the letter so the faint light could home in on his brother’s words. He cleared his throat.
April 6, 1876
My dear Miss Carson,
The wind blew through this afternoon, turning the wheel on my windmill for the first time. The wheel groaned and complained as some men are wont to do, but eventually, it worked hard enough to bring up the water. I enjoyed listening to its steady clack. Hopefully, many a night it will serenade my family to sleep.
Loneliness does not exist for me when I am surrounded by the vast expanse of land and the endless possibilities. I think you would find much here to ease your loneliness—the land, the howling wind, the braying of cattle, the sun, the moon, the stars. When I ride out at night alone, 1 find companionship in all that surrounds me. I tell you this because I do not want you to think that loneliness is responsible for the following words.
I believe a wife and sons would enrich my life beyond measure. And I would do all in my power to enrich theirs.
After a year of corresponding, I am convinced you and I are well suited, and I would be honored to have you as my wife. I shall anxiously await your reply.