Authors: Texas Destiny
She turned and walked back to the house, where her bath waited. She hadn’t seen Houston’s smile, but it hovered around him, like a whispered sigh, sweet and unexpected.
Houston sank into the steaming hot water and released a slow, appreciative breath. Beth had draped blankets over the back porch railing to give him a measure of privacy. He could feel the cool night air moving in. In the distance, he could see orange and lavender sweeping across the sky.
A man couldn’t ask for much more than that.
He closed his eye. Amelia had been in the water before him. Although Beth had added more hot water to the tub after Amelia got out, if he concentrated hard enough, he imagined he could smell her sweet scent. Her scent had to be that of a flower, but it wasn’t any flower he knew. He imagined her tiny feet resting against the bottom of the wooden tub where his were now. He imagined the lye soap skimming over her body, touching her before it touched him. It seemed such an intimate image, to have the same water, soap, and air caressing both their bodies.
His mouth went as dry as the West Texas breeze. He was sitting in a tub of water, dying of thirst. He opened his eye. The cake of soap slipped out of his hands, spiraled through the air, hit the porch, and skidded toward the dirt.
Amelia bent down and picked it up.
“What are you doing out here?” he croaked.
She straightened and leaned against the porch railing, her gaze holding his. “I’ve never seen you enjoy anything.”
“I was enjoying the bath.”
“I know.” She smiled so sweetly that he wondered if his thoughts had been visible. He held out his hand. “I need the soap and some privacy.”
She handed him the soap and held up a cup brimming with shaving lather. “The beard doesn’t suit you.”
He rubbed his hand over his rough jaw. “I’ll shave it, then.”
“I’d be happy to shave it for you.”
“I can do it.”
She gnawed on her lower lip. “I’m very experienced at shaving a man’s face. I shaved Mr. Bryant every morning.”
Amelia watched the expressions flitting over his face, and she knew that he wanted to ask, but as always, with rare exception, he held his silence.
She walked forward and knelt beside the tub, her courage faltering as he plunged his hands under the murky water, splashing her with his frantic efforts.
“Woman, I’m not wearing any clothes!”
She’d seen him without clothes, but she saw no reason to remind him of that fact. He’d argue that the circumstances had been different, and she’d have no choice but to agree. Although she had no intentions of dropping her gaze below his bare shoulders, she jerked a blanket off the porch railing and draped it over the tub. “I can’t see anything but your face and shoulders now. I’d like very much to shave you. It’s such a small thing, a way to thank you for caring for me while I was sick.”
He glanced around the porch.
“Beth and Sarah have already gone to bed. John’s closing the barn.”
Watching his throat muscles work, she would have sworn he was terrified. “I won’t hurt you,” she assured him, smiling softly. “I just want to help you forget.”
“You’re using my words,” he grumbled.
“They’re easy to remember. You don’t say very many.”
“You’re aggravating, you know that?”
She smiled warmly at his disgruntled expression and began to swish the brush in the cup, hoping to put them both at ease before night fell, and they found themselves together in the same bed.
“My father owned a plantation before the war.” She had his undivided attention as she brushed the lather over his face and along his throat. “We had slaves, cotton fields, a big house. I had two sisters. No brothers. I was the youngest. Papa’s favorite. I was quite pudgy and he used to call me his little pumpkin.”
He furrowed his brow. “Can’t imagine you pudgy.”
“War changes people.”
His brow relaxed. “Yeah, I reckon it does.”
She set the lather cup down and slipped the razor out of her pocket, giving him time to ask a question, but no question came.
Placing her finger beneath his chin, she tilted his head back. “I told you that Papa died. It was just before the war ended. Mama said he took the fever, but I think he just grieved for the South he loved, the South that was disappearing. My sisters died shortly after he did. Then it was just Mama and me.”
She took a moment to enjoy the sound of the razor scraping over his unmarred jaw. “Mr. Bryant came from the north and paid the taxes on the plantation. He let me and Mama stay on to serve him. We moved to the slave quarters.”
His jaw dropped. She pushed it back up. “You need to keep still so I don’t cut you.”
“He shouldn’t have done that.”
She shrugged. “I’m just grateful he didn’t make us sleep in the fields or turn us out completely. When he planted cotton, we picked it.”
“Me and Dallas used to pick cotton when we were young.”
She sat back on her heels. “You did?”
He nodded. “I didn’t mind it so much, but Dallas hated it. Swore when he got old enough, he’d find himself a job that didn’t involve plowing fields or picking crops. Reckon that’s why he likes cattle.”
She stood and walked to the other side.
“I can finish shaving,” he said, reaching for the razor.
She batted his hand away. “I can do it.” Carefully, she began to shave the area below the patch, to work her way around his scars. “Anyway, eventually, Mr. Bryant let Mama work in the house. When she died, I took over her chores. I tended to his needs when he got too feeble to take care of himself. He was such a proud man. In the end, I grew rather fond of him, even though he was a Yankee.”
She angled her head to study Houston’s face. “Shall I leave the whiskers above your lip so you can grow a mustache?”
“If you want. A man with a face like mine doesn’t put much stock in how he looks.”
But he did care, she realized, thinking back to the day she’d met him. He’d been clean shaven then. The morning they were to leave, he’d bathed and shaved. And he’d brought along his shaving equipment and a tiny mirror so he could keep up his appearance as they traveled. If he had wanted a mustache, he would have grown one without her suggesting it. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “No, I think a mustache would hide your mouth, and you have such a nice-looking mouth.”
In the fading light, she could see the blush creep over his face. Gingerly, she shaved over his lip. A shiver shimmied up her spine when his breath fanned her knuckles.
She wiped the remnants of lather away and trailed her fingers along his smooth jaw, across his chin, and up his cheek until her palm cradled the side of his face, her fingertips resting lightly against the patch. It pleased her that he didn’t grab her wrist and pull her hand away. “Does it still hurt?”
She watched as he swallowed. “Sometimes … when a Norther blows through, it’ll ache.”
Her gaze drifted back to his lips. They looked incredibly soft and out of place on a face as rugged as his. She lifted her eyes and discovered that he was studying her mouth as well. Self-consciously, she licked her lips.
His gaze slowly roamed over her features until they settled on her eyes. “It’ll be dark soon. You’d best get inside. All manner of animals come out at night.”
Withdrawing her hand from his cheek, she rose. “I set some towels by the fire to warm. The breeze can be quite chilling when you’re wet. I’ll get them for you.”
As calmly as she could, her stomach quivering, she strolled away, knowing that she shouldn’t have enjoyed shaving Houston as much as she had, knowing that she shouldn’t wonder if his lips were as soft and warm as they appeared. She made a silent vow that on the morning following her wedding, she’d shave Dallas.
Amelia sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for her sleeping companion. She’d put on a clean blouse and skirt that she’d brought from Georgia. She couldn’t quite bring herself to sleep in her nightgown. She heard a soft tapping and rose to her feet. “Come in.”
The door opened, and Houston peered into the room. “You ready for me to come inside?”
She nodded. With one long stride, he was in the room, looking as uncomfortable as she felt.
“You want the door closed?” he asked.
She nodded again, not certain her voice had come into the room with her.
He set his saddlebags near the door and glanced around the room, looking at everything but Amelia and the bed. Finally, he released a long, slow breath and met her gaze. “I figure we got two choices here. I can either sneak out the window and sneak back in at dawn, or I can sleep on the floor.”
“Or you can sleep in the bed.”
His gaze darted over to the bed.
“I think it would hurt Beth’s feelings if she somehow discovered that you hadn’t slept in the bed.”
“Yeah, well, right now I’m more concerned with your feelings.”
He swept his gaze over to her. “Yes.”
“Well, right now, I’m tired and would love to sleep in a bed. If we keep our clothes on, with the bundle board between us, I see no problem with us sharing the bed.”
A corner of his mouth crooked up. “You don’t think I could crawl over that?”
She angled her chin. “I don’t think you
crawl over it.”
He met her challenge gracefully. “All right. Which side do you want?”
“I’ll take this side next to the table.”
He walked across the room and sat on the side of the bed nearest the window. The rope bed creaked beneath his weight. “Can I take off my boots?”
“And your hat and your coat.”
Amelia took a last glance around the room. Beth’s clothes hung in a wardrobe with no doors. Her wardrobe contained fewer clothes than Amelia’s new wardrobe, but Beth possessed something Amelia didn’t.
“Oh, isn’t this beautiful?” she asked in a quiet voice of reverence as she crossed the room and touched her fingers to the finely detailed white lace covering the silk gown.
“White’s not very practical,” Houston said. “It’d be showing all the dirt before the morning was half over.”
“A woman would only wear it once.”
“Seems like a waste of money then.”
“I suppose, but I guess you’re paying for all the memories it would hold.” “Memories?”
“Yes,” she replied, glancing over her shoulder at the man sitting on the bed, wondering briefly if men held onto memories as women did. “A woman would wear it on her wedding day.”
He furrowed his brow. “What are you gonna wear when you marry Dallas?”
She shrugged and walked to the bed. “Something that we purchased in Fort Worth, I imagine.”
“You should have told me you needed something special.”
She sat on the bed with her back to him and removed her shoes. “I don’t need something special.” She quickly slipped beneath the covers and rolled to her side, her back against the bundle board.
The bed shifted as he stretched out on the other side of the board.
“Do you mind if I keep the lamp burning?” she asked.
“Don’t mind at all.”
“Will it keep you awake?”
“No. I always sleep with a light burning.”
Amelia rolled to her back. “You do?”
“Yep. The light from a campfire or the lamp beside my bed.”
The gruffness of his voice stated more clearly than his words that it had cost him dearly to admit that, to reveal a part of himself that she imagined no one else knew. She hugged herself, hoarding the information he’d shared with her. “Is Dallas’s house like this one?”
“What does it look like?”
He took a long moment to answer. “It’s big.”
“Is it pretty?”
“Dallas thinks so.”
“But you don’t think so.”
He heaved a deep sigh. “I don’t think you can really appreciate it until you’ve seen it.”
“Do you live there?”
“No, I got my own place about an hour’s ride away.”
“Is it big?” she asked.
“No. It’s smaller than this place. Just one room, but it suits me.”
Amelia drew the covers up to her chin and watched the shadows play over the wall as the flame inside the lamp quivered. She could well imagine Houston in a one-room house, tending his horses during the day and watching the stars at night.
“Good night,” she said softly, rolling over to her side.
“If you hear that animal cry out like you did some time back . . just ignore it.”
She had suspected all along that it was his cry she had heard, but the sound hadn’t been that of an animal; rather the wail of someone who was lost.
“Sometimes, I cry out at night, too,” she said softly.
He didn’t reply. She didn’t really expect him to. She allowed the silence to ease in around her. She closed her eyes. The light from the lantern danced across her eyelids, comforting her with its presence. The bed shifted.
Rolling over, she came up on her elbow, only to find Houston had done the same. Their gazes locked, his only slightly higher than hers. She stilled, her breath held. She watched his Adam’s apple slowly slide up and down.
“I … uh … I wanted to thank you for the shave. I’ve never felt anything so fine in my whole life.”
“It was my pleasure. I … I’m going to shave Dallas after we’re married,” she felt compelled to add.
He gave a brusque nod. “He’ll like that. ‘Night.”
“Good night.” She snuggled beneath the covers, trying to forget the feel of Houston’s jaw cradled within her palm. Once she had tried to imagine what his smile might look like. Now she wondered how his mouth would look poised for a kiss.
She squeezed her eyes shut. She had done nothing wrong. She’d simply shaved her fiance’s brother as a way to repay him for his kindness … but her reasoning did little to ease her guilt.
s dawn eased over the horizon, Amelia hugged Beth tightly.
“We’ll try and come in the spring, during round-up,” Beth promised.
“I’ll look forward to it,” Amelia assured her just before she allowed Houston to hoist her onto the wagon. She tightened the ribbons on the bonnet Beth had given her. As the wagon began to roll forward, she turned and waved at the family left behind.
John slipped his arm around his wife. Amelia smiled. Soon she would have a husband to do the same with her. If only he would love her as much as John loved Beth.
Amelia faced forward. “Wasn’t it nice of Beth to give me a bonnet?”
Houston kept his opinion on that to himself. All he could see was the tip of her nose and as cute as it was, it wasn’t enough. He knew the bonnet would protect her from the sun and wind, would keep her face soft, her skin pale. But it didn’t mean he had to like it.
“Will we be meeting any other neighbors?” Amelia asked.
“Not that I know of.”
“How much longer until we’re at the ranch?”
“A good fifteen days.” Or a bad fifteen days, depending on how he looked at it. He’d drop her off at Dallas’s door and head on to his own small place, where he ate alone, slept alone, and dreamed alone.
If he dared to dream. He’d been right in the beginning. Having a woman around made a man long for things he shouldn’t. He’d stayed up all night listening to her even breathing, watching her snuggle beneath the blankets, and wishing that damn bundle board hadn’t been there so she could have snuggled against him.
His stomach tightened as he thought of Dallas’s holding this woman through the night, protecting her from whatever it was that made her sleep with a light burning.
A light seldom kept his own demons at bay. He sure as hell couldn’t keep hers away.
They traveled four days, the land growing flatter, the trees scarcer. Amelia imagined in summer, when the sun baked the earth, that men worshipped the shade they found beneath the few trees scattered about. As Houston had promised, nothing blocked her view of the sunset.
As dusk settled in, she glanced at the scattered trees, the brush, and the withering grass blowing in the breeze, rippling across the land like the sea washing over the shore.
“What can I do to help?” she asked as she followed Houston from the wagon, his arms loaded with supplies while hers remained empty.
“You can gather up some prairie coal.”
A corner of his mouth tipped up. “Cow dung.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“When there’s no wood, we burn cow dung.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t that rather unpleasant?”
“You get used to it.” The corner of his mouth lifted a little higher. “But I’ll gather it up. Why don’t you look in the wagon and decide which can I should open for tonight’s meal?”
She angled her chin. “You’ve done everything since we left Fort Worth. I can handle prairie coal.” She walked back to the wagon, picked up her reticule, and pulled out a white linen handkerchief with tatted edges.
She marched to the first brown lump she could see peering through the tall prairie grasses. Carefully, she placed her handkerchief over the object and gingerly lifted it off the ground, making certain her fingers never actually touched anything other than the linen.
Holding the coal—she much preferred to think of it as coal rather than dung—as far away from her as possible, holding her breath as well, she walked back into the camp. “Where do you want the fire?”
Working to stretch the tent into place, Houston glanced over his shoulder and a shaft of warmth pierced his heart. He’d never thought of Amelia as prim and proper, but she sure as hell looked prim and proper with some lacy thing hanging over cow dung. “Right there ought to do just fine.”
She started to bend down.
“No, no,” he amended. “A little closer to the tent might be better.”
She straightened and walked toward him. “Here?” she asked.
She placed the dung on the ground and began shaking out her linen.
“On second thought, that might be too close. A strong wind comes through here and the tent would go up in flames.”
“Where do you want it, then?” she asked, her lips pursed.
He wondered what the hell he thought he was doing. He’d often seen cowboys pull pranks on each other, but he hadn’t been on the giving or the receiving end of a prank in years, and he had forgotten how it was done so everyone ended up laughing.
He wanted to hear her laugh, but playing with manure sure as hell wasn’t the way to accomplish that goal. Irritated with his stupidity, he released his hold on the tent, and it fell into a heap. He picked up the cow dung and tossed it a foot or so away. “Right there ought to do it.”
A look of horror crossed her face. “You touched it.”
“It makes the chore go quicker.”
She visibly shuddered. “Should I set it on fire or do you want to?”
“We’re gonna need a few more. Since my hands are dirty, I’ll gather them. You check the cans.”
This time Amelia didn’t protest. She scurried back to the wagon and studied their supplies. Nothing appealed to her.
A shiver raced down her spine, and she shuddered with the realization of how quiet everything had suddenly become. Silent and still, like a funeral. Even the mules and Sorrel seemed to sense it as they lifted their noses and turned their ears back.
She glanced at the sky. It was growing darker, but not from the approaching night. Blocking out the late afternoon sun, black clouds rolled in as though pushed by the mighty hand of a giant.
Without warning, the wind rose, sweeping up the dirt, whipping it around her, and startling her with its ferocity. A fat raindrop splattered on her nose.
She heard a harsh curse and spun around. Houston was fighting the wind to get her tent into place and having very little luck. She wondered if he would stay in the tent with her if it rained.
She heard a crack of thunder. A sheet of lightning flashed, igniting the sky so brightly she would have sworn she was standing in the center of it. Houston flung the tent to the ground and strode toward her, seemingly a man with a purpose.
A wide arrow of white lightning streaked to the ground. Sorrel whinnied and dropped her head between her knees. The sky reverberated with rolling thunder as another streak of lightning burst through the darkening sky. Houston reached her.
“Climb inside the wagon,” he ordered as he began to unbuckle his gunbelt.
Amelia backed up a step. “I don’t mind getting wet.”
“It’s not the rain I’m worried about,” he said as he laid his gun on the floorboards. “It’s the lightning. Now, get inside.” Kneeling, he removed his spurs and tossed them into the wagon.
“Are you going to get in the wagon?”
“No, I need to get all the metal off the animals.” As though tired of waiting on her, he quickly came to his feet, grabbed her waist, and hoisted her into the back as though she was nothing more than a sack of flour.
The wind wailed, thunder roared, and lightning flashed across the sky.
“Get down, damn it! I don’t have much time!”
It was the desperation in his voice that convinced her. She lay on her side and wrapped her arms around her drawn-up knees as he brought the tarpaulin over her. Darkness enclosed her, encircled her, and taunted her with the memories of another time when she’d been huddled in a wooden box.
The rain began to pelt the tarpaulin, a steady staccato beat, like the distant sound of long-ago gunfire, the pounding of a thousand hooves … or so it had seemed at the time.
The terrifying darkness trapped her inside its windowless cocoon, blacker than night with no stars, no moon. She was a little girl again, eight years old. Too small. Too frightened. And the enemy was coming.
Amelia grew hot. Breathing became difficult … just as before. The memories rose up and howled louder than the wind that rushed past the wagon.
She could hear her mother’s frightened voice. “Hurry, Amelia. Hurry!”
“No, Mama! No!”
Her mother’s fingers dug into the delicate flesh of her arm as Amelia tried to dig her heels into the wooden floor. Her mother jerked her so hard that she thought surely her arm would come off her body. “Come on, child. Your papa will protect you. You’ll be safe with him.”
“No, Mama! No!”
The room loomed closer and closer. The shadowed room. The flames from the candles flickered, and the ghosts danced along the wall.
“Hurry, Amelia. Papa will save you.”
“No, Mama! No, please! Papa can’t save me. Papa’s dead!”
Amelia couldn’t breathe. She was suffocating, drowning in the memories. She yanked on the ribbons and jerked the bonnet off her head. Still she couldn’t draw air into her lungs. Desperately she tore at the tarpaulin.
Houston was working to get the harness off the mules when he saw Amelia scramble out of the wagon and begin running toward … nothing but a distant horizon. He was familiar enough with lightning storms to know the damage they could do on the flat open plains. With a harsh curse, he bolted after her.
She stumbled, her knees hitting the ground. She scrambled back to her feet and continued to run, her arms waving around her as though she were warding off the very demons of hell.
His legs were longer, churning faster than hers. He caught her, totally unprepared for the stark terror in her eyes when he swung her around. She flailed her arms, hitting his face, his shoulders, his chest.
“Don’t put me back in there! Please, don’t put me back in there! I’ll die! I swear to God, I’ll die if you put me back in there!”
He wrapped his arms around her, drawing her against his chest. “I won’t,” he promised, his breathing labored, his heart pounding so hard he was certain she could feel it. “I won’t.”
She slumped against him. Still holding her, he brought his duster around her and eased them both to the ground. She trembled violently.
“It’s all right,” he cooed as though she were a horse he wanted to tame. “It’s all right.” He began to rock gently back and forth while the mild rain splattered his back and dripped slowly from his hat. Lightning flashed around them, so brilliant, so close that he thought it might blind him. He pulled the right side of his hat down and ducked his head, hoping to give her more shelter. A short distance away, lightning struck the ground, igniting a fire that the rain quickly drenched. Smoldering smoke trailed along the ground.
“If it hits us, we’ll die, won’t we?” she asked in a quiet calm voice, a voice too calm, too quiet.
“Do you think it’ll hurt?”
“No,” he replied, tightening his hold. “We’ll just see a flash of bright light, and everything will go black.”
She tilted her face. “You don’t have to wait here with me.”
“You’ll get wet.”
She smiled, an endearing crooked grin, and right then, he didn’t care if the lightning did strike him. Dying with her in his arms couldn’t be worse than living a life alone.
His backside was drenched, mud coated his trousers, rivulets of water ran into his boots, and water dripped off the brim of his hat onto his shoulders. His muscles ached from the unnatural way he held his body, trying to shield her from the storm. He brushed his knuckles over her tear-streaked face and lowered his mouth until it rested beside her ear. “Tell me,” he said simply.
The crack of thunder filled the air. The smile eased off her face, and a great sadness filled her eyes. He wished he had the power to remove the sadness from her life—forever.
The rain lessened, falling softly, its patter a somber melody to accompany her words.
“I told you that my father died during the war. The day we were to bury him …” She swallowed and turned her gaze toward the darkening sky. “Some men came. I don’t know if they were soldiers or deserters. They wore blue uniforms, but no one seemed in charge. My mother was terrified, so she hid me.”
A tremor traveled the length of her slight body. He remembered that she’d told him that she didn’t like being inside the darkness. Not in the dark, not afraid of the dark. But inside the darkness. Dread crept through him. “Where did she hide you?”
“With my father.” She looked at him then, tears welling in her eyes. “Inside his coffin. It was so dark. I was afraid that no one would find me. That they would bury me with him. I cried until I fell asleep.”
“You said at the hotel that you’d slept with worse.”
She nodded, her voice growing ragged. “He was so cold. When I woke up, Mama was holding me, but she was different. I don’t know what they did to her. Her face and her throat were bruised. Her dress was torn. I always thought that she should have been crying, but she wasn’t. She just stared, but not at anything I could see. It was like she was staring inside herself, like her mind, her heart had gone away, and only her body remained to hold me.”
The bile rose in his throat. “Your sisters?”
She pressed her face harder against his shoulder until he thought she might crack his bones. She moved her head back and forth, and the warmth of her tears soaked through the flannel of his shirt. “They were staring, too,” she rasped. “Staring at the sky. They were lying side by side, holding hands … and there wasn’t much left of their clothes. It was so ugly.” She dug her fingers into his sides.
“Don’t think about it,” he ordered. He hated the war. It had brought out the best in men like his brother, the worst in men like him, and turned the rest into animals.
She sobbed. “I didn’t want to look at my sisters, but I did. I didn’t want to see the blood, but I did. So much of it. I think I know what those men did—”
“They weren’t men. Animals, maybe, but not men. Men don’t harm the innocent.” He cupped her cheek and pressed her face against his chest. “They didn’t hurt you?”
“Not my body, but my heart. I wanted to leave the plantation then, but I was only eight. And Mama was in no condition to travel. So we stayed and survived as best we could.”
She tilted her head back, her eyes as dark as the storm clouds. “That’s when I began searching for things, small things, for which I could be grateful. It didn’t matter how trivial, how silly. I just needed something each day to make me go on to the next day.”