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Lorraine Heath (8 page)

BOOK: Lorraine Heath
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“I said yes,” Amelia stated softly.

Houston set the letters aside, picked up the cloth, and wiped her brow. “Yep. Dallas was grinning like a fool for a week after he got your letter.”

Her laughter washed over him as gentle as a spring rain. He couldn’t recall ever making someone laugh … or causing them happiness. A measure of disquiet swept through him. He didn’t want her depending on him for laughter, happiness, or comfort because eventually she’d learn the truth about him: He wasn’t a man that a person could depend on.

He knew Dallas had experienced qualms about sending him to fetch his future wife, but he’d had no choice. He wanted to believe Dallas had sent him because he trusted him and had gained a measure of respect for him, but he knew the truth: Dallas had no one else to send.

Her laughter drifted into silence, and she placed her hand on his arm. “You really can be quite charming.” Her cheeks flushed, and he wasn’t altogether certain it was from the fever. “Dallas will be a good husband, won’t he?”

“The best.” He dropped the cloth in the bowl of water. “I’ll get you some water to drink.”

He started to rise. She reached out, wrapping her fingers around his hand. “Thank you for saving my life.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her the worst was still to come.

Amelia prayed for death when she thought she was going to live, prayed to live when she thought she was going to die. She prayed while she heaved up her breakfast. She prayed when she had nothing left to heave but her body insisted on trying anyway. She prayed when she was shaking from cold and prayed while she was burning with fever.

She prayed Houston wouldn’t leave her. It was the only prayer answered to her satisfaction. He stayed with her throughout her ordeal, lying constantly.

He’d tell her the worst was over when it wasn’t so she wouldn’t give up. He’d tell her the chills were a good sign, then he’d say the fever was good. Using a cool cloth, he’d wipe the sweat from her brow, cheeks, and throat, all the while saying she would be all right in his deep voice.

She decided that she loved that voice, even when it was lying. It had a soothing, calming quality about it. She imagined the horses responded well to it. She wanted to live long enough to watch him train a horse, her horse, the horse he’d promised her when she’d felt certain she would die.

She watched him now as he gently washed the mud from her calf. His brow didn’t furrow as deeply at the sight of the discolored and slightly swollen flesh as it had when he had examined it before. She wondered if anyone had cared for him this tenderly when he had been injured. She couldn’t imagine with all the war casualties that anyone would have found time for a fifteen-year-old boy so badly wounded. She was surprised he’d come through his ordeal.

But he had survived, and she was determined not to let a little snake claim her life.

“Did your father take care of you when you were hurt?” she asked.

He visibly stiffened. He so hated talking about the war, and yet it was such a part of his past and Dallas’s. How could she understand the men she would live with if she didn’t understand their history?

“Our pa was dead by then. Dallas saw after me.

“Dallas seems to have a habit of taking care of people.”

“He has a knack for it. He’d have taken better care of you than I have.”

“I can’t imagine how he could have,” she said as she placed her hand over his. His eye was red rimmed, his face haggard. “You need to sleep,” she said.

“I will as soon as your fever breaks.”

“When will that be?”


Soon could be any moment, any day. Soon could be when death came.

“Tell me something nice,” she said. “Something nice about the place where we’re going.”

He touched the damp cloth to her throat. “Flowers. You’ll see beautiful flowers come spring: blue, red, yellow. Not as pretty as what you sew, but pretty just the same.”

“What else?”

“There’s nothing to block your view of the sunset. You can just watch it sweep across the land, making you feel so small.”

“I am small.”

He lifted a corner of his mouth. “Yeah, you are small.”

Smiling softly, she touched the corner of his mouth. “A smile. I thought I’d die without ever seeing you smile.”

“You’re not gonna die.”

She lifted a brow. “Dallas will have your hide if I do.”

Leaning low, he brushed a strand of hair from her cheek. “Damn right, he will.”

“Can’t let that happen,” she said as she drifted off to sleep.

He had the longest eyelashes she’d ever seen. She’d never noticed before, but as he slept with his face pressed to the cot near her hip, she could clearly see the length and thickness of his lashes. His hair—black as a midnight sky with no stars—curled over his ear, rested against his chin. He needed to shave.

Staring at his profile, she no longer tried to imagine how he might have looked if he’d never been wounded, but she found herself mourning what he might have had. A life that included a wife and children. A smile that would have warmed many a woman’s heart. A laugh that would have rung out strong and true.

She’d never heard him laugh, had only seen a ghost of a smile. He wasn’t hers to care about, but she did care. She wanted to hear him laugh. She wanted him to smile without feeling self-conscious. He had fought to give her back her life. Giving him a smile was a small payment.

She combed her fingers through the thick strands of his hair. It was coarser than hers, as though the wind and sun had battled against it.

He awakened with a jolt. “Your fever broke.”

She smiled softly. “I know. You were sleeping.”

He sat up and stretched his shoulders back. “How do you feel?”


“You’ll be weak for a couple of days.”

“Have you ever been bitten by a snake?”

“Nope, but it happens now and then to men on the trail.”

“Do you take care of the men then?”

“Nope. The cook usually does the doctoring. Think you could eat a little something?”

“I’ll try. Are we going to travel today?”

“Nah, we’ll let you rest for a couple of days.”

“Won’t Dallas worry if we’re not there on time?”

“I don’t think he’ll start to worry unless we’re not there within a month.”

Houston carried her outside during the day to enjoy the sun and carried her back into the tent at night to sleep. He’d taken to sleeping on his pallet, his saddle placed so he was watching the tent. Under the circumstances, he didn’t think she’d mind. She wasn’t giving any shadow shows.

On the morning of the third day after her fever broke, he awoke, his gaze fixed on the tent. With the early light of dawn filtering through the leaves and dancing over the canvas, he couldn’t see any shadows or movements within the tent, but he could envision Amelia clearly, lying on the cot, sleeping soundly. In the past two days, she’d slept more than she’d been awake.

He thought they’d be able to travel today. He supposed he should get up and wake her, but he liked the thought of letting her sleep, letting her wake up on her own, stretching, washing her face, brushing her hair. He would be able to see none of the movements, but knowing they would take place almost made him smile.

She was sweet, so incredibly sweet.

He threw off the blanket, scrambled to his knees, rested his hands on his thighs, and continued to look at the tent. He’d make her some coffee before he woke her. Thicken it with sugar just the way she liked it. He’d warm up some water for her.

He turned and froze. She was sitting on a log, her hands pressed between her knees.

“Good morning,” she said softly.

“You’re awake,” he croaked, grimacing for telling her something she obviously knew.

She smiled, and he lost the ability to draw air into his lungs.

“I wanted to see a Texas sunrise. It was beautiful.”

He sank to his backside, fighting off the urge to tell her that she was more beautiful than any sunrise he’d ever seen. Her braided hair was draped over one shoulder, her face pink from an early-morning scrubbing, her green eyes bright with appreciation. He thought he’d never again be able to look at the sun easing over the horizon without thinking of her, just so, enjoying the start of a new day. To him, a day was just something to be gotten through.

“I guess when you think you’re going to die, you start to appreciate things a little more. What was the first thing you wanted to see after you were wounded?” she asked.

“My ma.” He grabbed his hat and settled it into place. He’d never told anyone that. He’d wanted his ma so badly that he’d felt like a baby.

“But she was too far away to come to you.”

Her eyes held so much understanding that he couldn’t stop himself from dredging up the memories. “Yeah, she was too far away, and she had Austin to care for, so even if she’d known I’d been hurt, she wouldn’t have been able to come.”

“You didn’t tell her you were hurt?”

He shook his head. “Dallas said knowing would just make her worry. After the war ended, we headed home. When we got there, it was so quiet. You could feel in your bones that something wasn’t right …”

His voice trailed off into the dawn.

“What wasn’t right?” she asked, gently prodding him to continue.

Houston shifted his backside over the hard ground. Physical comfort eluded him as easily as peace of mind. He’d never discussed that day with anyone, not even Dallas. Sometimes, he felt a strong need to discuss it with Austin, to see if he remembered, but if Austin held no memories of that time, he didn’t want to give him any. “We found our ma in her bed. She’d been dead for some time. I was glad then that Dallas hadn’t written her about me, that we hadn’t give her more cause to worry.”

“Do you know how your mother died?” she asked.

“Figured she’d taken the fever. Our pa wasn’t one to make friends so no one checked at the farm while we were gone. We don’t know how Austin managed to survive. He was like a wild animal when we found him.”

“Those are the memories you think Austin has of the war?”

“I’ve got no idea what memories he has. If he doesn’t have any, I don’t want to give him mine.”

“So you never talk about it.”

“Nope.” He stood and rubbed his hands along his thighs. “If you’re feeling strong enough, we’ll head out this morning.”

She smiled then, a smile that made his heart ache, a smile that made him wish that, in his youth, he’d traveled a different path.

Chapter Eight

s the wagon rumbled over the uneven ground, Amelia clung tenaciously to the seat. She was regaining her strength with each passing day, and with each passing mile, she grew closer to Houston.

She knew she
have these feelings. She knew she
have these feelings. She had signed a contract stating she would travel west to marry Dallas. She didn’t think he was a man prone to breaking contracts or dismissing them. She had been wallowing in the depths of despair, her world closing in on her, her options dwindling when she’d received his letter of hope. She owed him for lifting her out of the mire into which the war had dropped her, for altering her destiny.

She read his letters each night before she went to sleep, trying to hold an image of the man within her heart, but it was Houston she heard whimper in the hours past midnight, it was Houston she would sneak out of the tent to watch sleeping.

He never seemed truly at rest. As he slept, beads of sweat would coat his face and neck. He would begin to breathe hard as though he were running a great distance.

She told him she awoke early to appreciate the sunrise, but the truth was she enjoyed those moments before dawn when the sun’s feathery fingers would touch his face and his breathing would calm as though in sleep he recognized that he’d survived another night.

Amelia spotted the small log cabin near dusk. Her heart tripped over itself when she saw the few cattle grazing in the fields beyond. “Are we already at Dallas’s ranch?” she asked.

“Nope. Just stopping to look in on some of Dallas’s neighbors.”

“So we’re close.”

“Nope. Out here, anyone you pass along the way is considered a neighbor.” He pulled the wagon to a halt between the house and a weathered barn.

A tall gangly man holding a rifle stepped out of the house. He cupped a hand over his brow and squinted against the setting sun. “Houston, that you?”

“Yep, Dallas told me to stop by.” Houston climbed off the wagon and held his arms up to Amelia.

She scooted over the bench as the man ambled over.

“You got you a woman there?” the man asked.

Houston wrapped his hands around her waist and lifted her to the ground. “Yep. Miss Carson is betrothed to Dallas. He busted his leg. Sent me to fetch her.”

A wide grin split the man’s face. “Well, I’ll be. She a heart-and-hand woman?”


“Dallas sure got himself a pretty one, didn’t he?”

“Reckon he did,” Houston said quietly. “Miss Carson, this here’s John Denton.”

Smiling, Amelia brushed her hand over her dusty skirt and toyed with the brim of Austin’s hat. At the moment she imagined she looked anything but pretty.

“Beth, we got company!” John hollered.

A young, dark-haired woman rushed onto the porch, wiping her hands on her apron. A little girl, with a rag doll draped over her arm, clutched the woman’s skirt and peered around her. “Land sake’s, company. John, don’t just stand there. Invite them in for supper.”

Amelia glanced at Houston. He gave her a brusque nod. “I’ll see to the animals’ needs, then I’ll join you.”

John trailed after Houston as he led the mules to a trough. Amelia strolled to the house.

The woman’s smile grew brighter. “I’m Beth.” She rested her hand on the child’s dark head. “This is Sarah. She’s four years old and into everything.”

Amelia knelt before the child. She had her father’s blue eyes, her mother’s dark hair. “Hello, Sarah. I’m Amelia.”

Sarah held out her doll. “This is Mary Margaret.”

Amelia touched the doll’s cloth arm. “She’s very pretty, just like you.”

Sarah pressed her face against her mother’s skirt and giggled.

“You’ll have to forgive her shyness. We don’t get much company out here.”

Amelia rose to her feet. “I guess that’s something I’m going to have to get used to.”

“I never expected Houston to take a wife.”

“Actually, I’m going to marry Dallas.”

Beth’s eyes widened. “Dallas? Have you met him?”

Amelia shook her head. Beth slapped her hand over her breast. “Handsome as sin.” She eyed Amelia speculatively. “Are you a heart-and-hand woman?”

“I just heard Houston say I was, so I guess I am, although I’m not sure what that is.”

Beth slipped her arm through Amelia’s and led her into the house. “A mail-order bride. Cowboys call us heart-and-hand women because most place their orders from
The Heart and Hand.
That’s where John found me. Our little house might not look like much, but what I have here is a hundred times better than what I had before.”

The furniture looked as though it had all been carefully crafted. The fire crackled in the hearth. The room smelled of freshly baked bread and cinnamon.

Beth reached into a cabinet and brought out wooden bowls, setting them at the square oak table. She picked up Sarah and plopped her into a chair that was taller than the others. “John made all the furniture.”

“It’s lovely.”

“He works hard, trying to keep me happy. I imagine Dallas will do the same for you.”

“I only know Dallas through correspondence. I was hoping to learn more about him as we traveled, but Houston isn’t very talkative.”

Beth looked at her, complete understanding reflected in her eyes. “Oh, Amelia, none of the men out here are. They won’t ask you for the time of day. They figure if you want to share that information, you’ll take out your pocket watch and tell them.”

“Why do you think they are like that?”

Beth brought a pot from the hearth and began to ladle stew into the bowls. “I think it’s because a lot of the men came here after the war to start over. Or they had a past they weren’t particularly proud of. A lot of them change their names, or just go by their first names. No one questions them. That’s why they come out here. If they want to be alone, they’re left alone.”

“And if they don’t want to be alone?”

Beth smiled. “Then they order themselves a bride.” She placed the pot on the table and returned to the hearth, bringing back a black pan that held something that reminded Amelia of a yellow cake.

“Corn dodgers and stew,” Beth explained. “It’s not fancy, but it’s filling and out here the men need something that fills up their bellies.” She looked past Amelia and pointed a finger. “Keep that dust out there where it belongs!”

John and Houston stomped their feet on the porch for a minute before walking in and taking their seats. Amelia sat beside Sarah, across from Houston, who had angled his chair so he sat with the scarred side of his face away from the table.

When Beth took her chair, everyone bowed their heads.

“Dear Lord,” John began, “thank you for bringing company to take the burden of talking off me for a day or so. Amen.”

Grinning, he looked up at Beth. She wagged a finger at him. “You were listening at the door.”

“No, missus, but I’ve been married to you long enough to know poor Miss Carson here is gonna get her ear chewed off afore the evening’s over.”

“Please, call me Amelia.”

He blushed before digging into his stew.

Beth placed her hand over Amelia’s and squeezed. “You’ll have to forgive me,” she said. “As much as I’ve come to love John, I miss a woman’s voice from time to time.”

Amelia cast a furtive glance Houston’s way. He watched her in seeming innocence, but she wondered if Dallas had indeed told him to stop by here or if he was just trying to bring home his point regarding the absence of company in this part of Texas.

“I think you’re delightful,” Amelia said with all sincerity. “And I know what it is to long for a gentle voice.”

Amelia received a good dose of what Houston endured each evening as Beth fired off questions, one after another. She wanted to know about life back East, the journey on the train, and how fashions had changed. She talked about everything but the weather. John commented from time to time, but Houston held his silence on all matters.

When John’s bowl was empty, he leaned back in his chair and asked a question only Houston could answer. “How many head of cattle does Dallas have now?”

Houston glanced up from his stew as though he hadn’t noticed that the majority of the previous conversation had not included him. He had asked no questions, prompted no replies, and caused no soft chuckles. “Around two thousand.”

John released a low whistle. “Have him send word if he needs some help getting ’em to market. I could bring Beth to the ranch and she and Amelia here could visit.”

“I’ll let him know.”

“John, why don’t you drag out the bundle board? We’ll let Amelia and Houston sleep in the bed tonight. You and I can sleep in the loft.”

Amelia’s heart slammed against her ribs. She thought the intimacy surrounding her and Houston as they sat beside a campfire would pale in comparison to the intimacy that would surround them if they slept in the same room, the same bed, beneath the same covers.

John cleared his throat. “I’m not sure that would be proper, Beth. Usually, we pull the bundle board out when the two people are engaged.”

“Don’t be silly. Dallas trusts Houston, or he wouldn’t have sent him to get Amelia. And she must trust him, or she wouldn’t be traveling with him. Nothing will happen in that bedroom that couldn’t happen on the trail.”

John shrugged. “I reckon you got a point there.”

“I appreciate the kindness, but I’ll sleep in the barn,” Houston said.

“Nonsense,” Beth said, slapping her hand on the table for emphasis. “When was the last time you slept in a bed?”

Houston looked as though he’d been trapped which Amelia realized he had been. He couldn’t even claim to have slept in a bed while they were in Fort Worth.

“A while, but I’m used to sleeping on the ground.”

“Then tonight you will sleep in a bed, and we’ll prepare you each a bath. A good hot meal, a hot bath, and a soft bed. I would have sold my soul for those when I was traveling out here. It warms my heart to be able to offer them to you.”

Amelia met Houston’s gaze, and she knew he wanted an honorable way out of the situation, knew she should help him find one. But he had made one sacrifice after another for her on this trip. Surely Dallas would find no fault with her for making this one sacrifice for Houston.

“I truly appreciate your generosity, Beth,” she said quietly. “I would love to have a hot bath.”

Beth slapped her hand on the table in front of her daughter. “Sarah, stop staring. It’s not polite.”

Amelia glanced down at the little girl. She bowed her head, but Amelia could see that her gaze was still trained on Houston.

Houston shoved his bowl back. “It was a fine meal, ma’am. If you’ll excuse me, I need to check on the mules.” He scraped the chair across the floor, stood, and headed out the door.

Beth sighed. “That’s such a shame he had to get wounded like that, but I imagine Dallas sleeps better at night.”

“What do you mean?” Amelia asked.

“It’s not unusual for a mail-order bride to meet someone along the way and never make it to the man who sent for her. Imagine Dallas figured that wouldn’t happen if he made Houston come after you. You’re not going to fall in love with him.”

Houston crossed his forearms over the fence railing. Sorrel snorted and nudged his elbow.

“No apples.” He scratched behind the horse’s ear. Most cowboys wouldn’t be caught dead riding a she-horse, but Houston had discovered he could approach a herd of wild mustangs with more success when he rode a mare. Although wary of a strange horse, a stallion was more likely to accept a female into his domain. He’d viciously fight another stallion. “You’d best get some sleep, old friend. I sure as hell won’t get any tonight.”

The horse nudged Houston’s elbow again and when no apple was forthcoming, she trotted away, leaving Houston to enjoy the solitude he craved.

He knew it wasn’t uncommon for people to offer their bed to visitors, even when the travelers weren’t married. The lack of towns and hotels had resulted in a code of hospitality across the plains that Houston couldn’t help but admire. Still, he wasn’t certain that Dallas would appreciate his neighbors’ generosity. He could only hope that his brother would understand that Beth couldn’t have spoken truer words: Nothing was going to happen in that bed. Nothing at all. Hell, he probably wouldn’t even be able to sleep.

Houston felt someone watching him, the gaze more of a tickle than a stare. He glanced down. Big blue eyes looked up at him. Incredibly innocent. He wished he could give the little girl a smile, but he knew no matter how hard he tried that the left side of his face wouldn’t cooperate, and he’d end up giving her something distorted and uglier than what she was looking at now, something that might frighten her.

“I got a hurt,” she said. She lifted her skirt until her white bloomers came into view along with her scraped knee. “My ma kissed it and made it better.” She released her skirt and pointed her finger. “You got a hurt.”

“Yeah, reckon I do.” Right in the center of his heart.

She scrunched up her face. “I can kiss it and make it better.”

Something inside his chest grew so tight that he thought he might not be able to breathe. She crooked her little finger and wiggled it at him. “Come here.”

Holding on to the railing for support, he bent his knees, squatting until he was as close to her height as he could get. Her eyes grew large and serious. She puckered her tiny lips, bobbed her head forward, then ran off. The brush of her mouth against his cheek had been as faint as the first breath of dawn. Deep inside, he smiled.

Standing a few feet away and slightly behind his left side, Amelia knew that his hampered vision prevented him from seeing her. She also realized with awe that he was smiling. Not on the outside where it would show, but within a secret place where he harbored his fears and his doubts, where she imagined a fifteen-year-old boy mourned the loss of his youth.

She knew that she was wrong to watch him without his knowledge, but she wanted to understand him as much as she needed to understand Dallas. With Dallas, she would have an advantage. She was certain he would talk with her and ask her questions. His brother would hold his hurts, his longings, his dreams close to his heart where no one could share them.

BOOK: Lorraine Heath
8.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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