Book 3 of “The Sunset Series”
Western Historical Romance by Christina Cole
Nobody flounced better than Emily Sue Phillips. She’d first begun working on her flounce in her pre-adolescent years, and now, at the age of nineteen, she had more than perfected the art. Demonstrating her abilities, she wrapped her cloak around herself with a flourish and pranced across the brick platform of the stage depot. Her long skirts swirled about her ankles, and she lifted her chin a bit higher. Unfortunately, folks around town were busy that morning—too busy to pay her any mind.
For good measure, Emily added in a disdainful shake of her head, knowing how perfectly the strawberry-blonde ringlets peeking out from beneath her bonnet danced around her heart-shaped face. To complete her performance, she threw in a well-practiced look of scorn—along with a rather unladylike snort. All to no avail.
No one noticed. Worse, no one cared that her heart was breaking.
With a sigh born of disappointment, Emily gave up flouncing about, stopped at the edge of the raised platform, and glanced around once more. She’d been waiting—and watching—for nearly an hour, ever since the stage had arrived in Sunset, and she’d eagerly disembarked.
But Benjamin had not come to greet her.
The bitter chill of the frosty November morning quickly seeped through her woolen cloak. Emily shuddered as a gust of wind rose up, whipping at the edges of her skirt. Dead leaves rustled through the streets. A perfect day for heartbreak, indeed.
She bit back tears and clutched her pocketbook close, refusing to think of the peculiar letter tucked inside. She’d read it, but it had made no sense.
Regardless of anything Benjamin Brooks might have written, she’d still expected him to greet her at the depot. After all, they were sweethearts, and she’d been away for the last three months. He should have been rushing to welcome her home instead of making her stand about alone on a dreary gray morning.
The sound of yet another wagon caught her attention. Hope rising anew in her heart, Emily looked up, but the driver reined in at the mercantile, and a young woman climbed down.
Little point in waiting any longer. Ben wasn’t coming.
Snatching up her weary-looking valise, Emily stepped from the platform. Tears stung her eyes, making it hard to see. Somehow, she lost her footing, and with the heavy suitcase throwing her off-balance, she couldn’t right herself.
Down she went in a heap, landing with her right ankle twisted beneath her. Wincing as she wiggled the foot, she let out a grateful sigh. It hurt, but at least no bones were broken.
From out of nowhere, a rough, swarthy hand reached toward her. “You all right, miss?”
Wiping away her tears, Emily glanced up into the eyes of a huge, hulking stranger. She’d grown up around Sunset, had lived all of her life within shouting distance of the town, and she knew the folks who called it home. She’d never seen this man before. Instinctively, she drew back.
The big fellow didn’t move. He stood over her, his hand outstretched.
Emily guessed him to be close to her age, but it was hard to be certain. He had what Mama called a slow look about him—a low, sloping brow, close-set eyes, a weak chin. Nothing more than a big, dumb brute who’d stumbled into Sunset. A harmless sort.
That’s what Mama always said, but the hard look in this man’s mud-brown eyes said otherwise. Alarm shot through Emily. Her heart pounded.
“I’m fine.” Shaking her head, she struggled to stand. She no sooner got to her feet than she went down again, crying out from the pain.
The giant hovered over her, then, with surprising swiftness, bent down and swept her up into his arms.
“Put me down!” Dropping her valise, Emily clenched her hands into tight fists and beat at the man’s shoulders. Her blows had no effect. Frightened out of her wits, she fought wildly, scratching and clawing, kicking and biting. She couldn’t break free of the man’s grasp as he carried her along the street.
Why wouldn’t someone help her? Was everyone so busy preparing for the holidays that nobody had time to even look her way and see her distress? Apparently so.
Nobody cares what happens to me.
The pitiful thought once more brought tears to her eyes.
“What the hell’s going on?”
A deep, familiar male voice called out, and suddenly Emily felt herself falling as the big man let go of her. She landed on the dirt with a painful thud, confused and disoriented. With great effort, she scrambled again to her feet, careful this time not to put any weight on her twisted ankle.
“Go on! Get away from her.”
Emily nearly swooned at the welcome sight of the man she loved. Ben hadn’t forgotten her, after all. Grateful that he’d come in time to rescue her, she threw herself against him, expecting him to open his arms and enfold her in an embrace.
Instead, he stood rigid, his arms at his side. He stared at the broad-shouldered giant whose hands were now raised in apparent supplication.
“I didn’t hurt nobody,” the big brute said in a surprisingly timid voice. “Only trying to help. That’s all.”
A harmless fellow, indeed. Not the least bit dangerous. Emily bit her lip, unsure whether or not she should speak up, make some sort of apology, or if she should simply remain silent.
And what was going on with Ben?
He didn’t look the least bit pleased to see her.
Puzzled by all of it, Emily reached up to press gloved fingertips to her throbbing temples. For weeks, she’d looked forward to coming home, but returning to Sunset certainly hadn’t brought the expected pleasure.
Ben cleared his throat and nodded toward the bewildered rescuer. “You’ve helped enough,” he said, his voice quieter now, almost gentle. He might have been speaking to a child. Obvious concern in his eyes, he turned toward Emily and gave her a quick once-over. “Did he hurt you?”
“No. He frightened me, but he didn’t hurt me.”
Together, they glanced toward the big, dumb oaf, but he’d already turned away from them. They watched as he lumbered down the center of Main Street then disappeared around the next corner.
Out of sight. Out of mind.
Emily had other things to think about.
“I’m so glad you finally got here, Ben.” She reached out to place a hand on his arm, but he stepped away before she could touch him. Startled by the unexpected reaction, Emily drew back.
“I told you not to come home,” he said. “I told you to stay in Denver.”
Shocked and hurt by his rejection, and concerned by his fearsome scowl, Emily had no idea what to say to him. She’d never known Ben to act this way.
An apology rose to her lips, but she snapped her mouth shut and held back the words. Why should she say she was sorry when she’d done nothing wrong? Sucking in a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and faced him.
“The school term is over, Ben.” True enough, and for now, that was all he needed to know. She could discuss the rest of her plans with him another time. “The holidays are here. Of course I’m coming home to be with my family.” She sighed, lowered her gaze, and said, “I came home to see you, too, but you no longer seem to care.”
“You got my letter, didn’t you?” He reached out, placed a hand beneath her quivering chin, and raised her face to his. “I wrote to you. I told you I was going to be too busy to spend any time with you.”
Benjamin Brooks had the most fascinating eyes Emily had ever seen. A light brown, almost golden, they reminded her of two amber gem stones. Warmth always seemed to glow from Ben’s eyes.
But Emily saw no warmth this morning. She heard no warmth in his voice. She felt no warmth from his touch.
Shivering, she pulled her gray cloak tighter about her shoulders. “Why did you bother to show up at all?”
His body stiffened at the question. He sucked in a deep breath, drew himself up, and peered down at the girl he’d called his own for the last seven years. As his gaze raked over her, Emily wondered again at the unmistakable changes she saw in him.
“I figured you’d be stubborn enough to come back, even if I didn’t want you here.” Without waiting for a reply, Ben looked around, spotted the dusty valise in the middle of Main Street where Emily had dropped it, and sauntered off to reclaim it. “Get in the wagon,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll drive you home.”
Ben took a few steps, stopped, and then turned to look at Emily again. “Have you really been waiting all this time for me?” For a moment, the familiar warmth returned to his amber eyes. The corners of his mouth briefly turned up as a grin flickered and died.
If only she could toss out a casual, cutting remark and tell him that she most certainly had not been waiting for him. Of course, it would be a flagrant lie. Ben knew how much she adored him, and yes, he knew she’d been waiting at the depot for nearly an hour.
“Never mind,” she said, taking a few halting steps toward him. Her ankle hurt, but she could move about so long as she didn’t put her full weight upon it. “I can make my own way home. That’s what I was about to do when I fell.” Turning her back to Ben, she gathered her long skirts in her hands and raised them a scant few inches, glancing down at her swollen ankle. A sigh slipped out.
“I saw you go down,” he said, “but that big fellow got to you before I could. Sorry, Em.” Despite her insistence that she could get home on her own, Ben picked up her valise, then jerked his head toward the left. “The wagon’s parked over there by the mercantile. I need to pick up a few things while I’m in town.”
Tears stung Emily’s eyes. Wasn’t he even going to assist her? She began to make her halting way to the wagon, then paused at a touch on her arm.
“Here, I’ll help you to the wagon,” Ben offered, his voice a little softer than before.
“Thank you.” She grabbed hold of him, awed as always by the powerful muscles, the strong, hard feel of his bicep. Benjamin Brooks had grown a lot over the last seven years, maturing from a scrawny freckle-faced boy to a man whose good looks made every woman swoon. Had she not been so sure of his devotion to her, Emily would have died a thousand deaths from jealousy over the years. But Ben had never given her the slightest cause for concern nor the least reason to doubt his constancy.
Blinking back her tears, Emily hobbled alongside Ben. Pain shot through her with each step.
Drat! If she went home now, Mama would make a fuss over her twisted ankle. She’d insist on wrapping it tightly and order strict bed rest for the next few days. That would never do. It wouldn’t fit in at all with Emily’s plans.
“I’ve changed my mind.” Her grip tightened on Ben’s forearm. “Instead of taking me to my folks’ house, I need you to take me back to the J Bar K with you. I can stay there with Kat and Josh.” The ranch where Emily had grown up—and where Ben had worked for the last seven years—now belonged to her sister and brother-in-law. They would be only too happy to have her stay with them over the holidays.
But Ben stopped. Once again he turned to her with a bewildered look. For a moment he remained silent. All the while, his golden eyes studied her.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, hating how timorous her voice sounded.
For a moment more, he stared at her, then finally turned away. “Did you even bother to read my letter?”
“Well, yes, of course. At least, most of it.” Her cheeks heated, and she lowered her gaze, but then, at once, she jerked her head up again. “That letter didn’t make a lick of sense, Ben.”
“In other words, the answer is no, you didn’t read it.” A rush of breath shot out from his lungs. “You know, Em, you pride yourself on always being so smart, always using your head. You talk about how observant you are, about how carefully you listen so you can gather all the facts—”
“Yes, of course. You know I do.” She interrupted his lecture, folded her arms across her chest and dared him to contradict her. He didn’t even stop for breath.
“—and you call yourself rational. You’re always going on about logic, but then you take whatever facts you find and throw logic right out the window, jumping headlong to whatever conclusion it is that you want to believe.”
She drew back, shocked by the vehemence of his attack. “What’s gotten into you, Ben? I swear, I don’t even know you!” Emily waved a hand. “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what you wrote. Let’s put it all behind us now and move on.” Slowly she edged toward the wagon. “Take me out to Kat’s, let me rest a little, and we’ll talk later, all right?”
Ben didn’t budge. “I’m not going to the J Bar K.”
“I’m not working there any more, that’s why. If you’d taken time to read my letter, you would have known.”
“You quit your job?” She knew Kat and Joshua would never fire Ben. He was almost like family. “Why would you do that?”
“Something better came along.” He gave an indifferent shrug. “A man’s got to go where the opportunities are, Em, if he wants to make something of himself.”
“And just where is it you’ve gone?” She fisted her hands on her hips. “Who are you working for now?”
“Oh.” Emily nodded. A few years earlier, Tom had inherited a piece of land and had worked hard to build a successful enterprise breeding horses. Without a doubt, Ben would enjoy working at the horse farm. Emily’s features scrunched. “I thought he had a crew of Mexicans working for him.”
“Yeah, he did, but they left a while back.” He picked up the valise and shrugged again. “Guess they got tired of Colorado winters and headed back to the Rio Grande.” He nodded again toward the wagon. “I’ll help you up, then I’ll get what I need at the mercantile. It won’t take more than a few minutes.” He pushed his hat back on his head. “After that, I can take you to your folks’ place. I don’t really have time to drive all the way out to the J Bar K.”
“Yes, you’re awfully busy, I know.” She sighed, wondering how so many dreams could fall apart so suddenly. Little point in talking to Ben about her plans now. Little point in even thinking about them. In a single moment, Ben had spoiled them all.
* * * *
As Ben helped Emily into the wagon, he kept a respectful distance. It wouldn’t do to let himself get too close, so close he’d be unable to resist her charms.
Turning away with a heavy breath, he reprimanded himself sharply. He shouldn’t have come into town. When Tom asked him to go to the mercantile for supplies that morning, he should have come up with some reason to refuse. But he’d never get ahead in life by saying no to the man who paid his wages.
Besides, when all was said and done, he wanted to see Emily. The last time he’d been with her was the day she’d left for Miss Brundage’s Female Academy, three months earlier. Denver wasn’t all that far, really, but the two of them had agreed not to be running back and forth, but to wait for the Thanksgiving holiday.
It was part of growing up, Emily had explained. They needed to be mature, to attend to their different responsibilities—hers at school, his at her brother-in-law’s ranch—and then look forward to a joyous reunion in November.
Ben muttered a few choice words to himself as he headed to the mercantile. Who would have known so many things would change in such a short time? Now, as much as he wanted to see Emily…well, there were other matters to keep in mind.
He focused his attention on his errand and hurried into the store.
“Thanks, Asa,” he said to the proprietor a short time later. Hefting a wooden crate at his shoulder, he returned to the wagon, set the supplies in the bed, then swung up to the driver’s bench.
“You really want to go out to the J Bar K?”
Emily nodded but didn’t turn to look at him.
“I reckon I could take the time.” He picked up the reins, then glanced over his shoulder toward the crate. “Nothing in that box that Tom needs right away.”
Emily continued to stare straight ahead, but Ben caught a slight smile—or, at least, he thought he did.
The first mile crawled past in a dreadful, awkward silence. The girl at his side sat as stiff and rigid as a statue. Even so, he liked being near her, loved breathing in the delicate floral scent of her fair skin. He wished he could put her at ease somehow.
The long road wound through thick stands of pine, their needles still lush and green against the gloomy backdrop of the late autumn sky. From somewhere high above them among the branches, the light-hearted song of a siskin floated down. Ben breathed deeply and loosened his death-grip on the reins.
“What about your folks, Em?” he asked, breaking the stillness between them. “Aren’t they expecting you? Won’t they worry if you don’t show up at home?”
She shook her head. “Our plans were a bit indefinite. I had several days of examinations at school. I wasn’t sure when I would finish up or which day I’d be ready to come back.”
“In other words, your folks don’t know you’re in Sunset?”
Her shoulders moved slightly. Ben guessed it was supposed to be a shrug. “I’ll send word later and let them know I’ve arrived and that I’ll be staying with Kat. Really, Ben, it’s all right.”
Relieved that she was still speaking to him after the way he’d treated her earlier, he nudged her slightly. “So, how’s everything going at school? When you left last August, you were excited about it. You don’t seem all that enthused now.”
“My bad mood has got nothing to do with school.” She edged away from him and folded her arms across her chest. “I don’t know how you’d expect me to be cheerful after that tongue-lashing you delivered. You’ve made it very clear that you’re not happy to see me.”
A quick protest nearly slipped out, but he sucked it back. For now, best that he not encourage her in any way.
“Just making conversation.” He shrugged and threw the words out as if they meant nothing. “It’s a long drive to the ranch. Thought the time might pass more easily if we engaged in a bit of talk.” Measuring his words carefully, he leaned back. “Do you like the academy?” he asked. “How about Miss Brundage? Are you learning a lot from her?”
Emily pressed her lips together, obviously reluctant to share her thoughts with him. Her reticence hurt. In the past, he and Emily had always been open with one another, had talked freely about their lives, their hopes, their likes, their dislikes. Nothing had ever been off-limits in their conversations.
Finally, she stirred. Ben turned a curious ear.
“Actually,” she said, her voice so quiet he strained to hear, “I’ve been thinking about leaving school. I hate it.” She kept her gaze cast downward. “I don’t want to go back.”
How in hell could he respond? Ben’s thoughts skittered off in a dozen directions. Swallowing down a handful of dangerous emotions, he cleared his throat. It wasn’t enough, and he knew it. He had to speak up.
“That’s crazy, Em. All you’ve talked about for the last few years is how much you want to earn your certificate and get a teaching position. You wanted to work with the Ute children, help civilize them. You talked about doing good in the world,” he added, mimicking her in a solemn voice. “Isn’t that how you put it?”
Her blue eyes widened. “Haven’t you heard?”
“About…” She shuddered, her voice fading into nothing. “About the massacre,” she finally finished. “Nathan Meeker was murdered by the Utes. His wife and daughter were abducted. They were held captive for weeks.”
Ben’s breath caught. He regretted his questions and wished now he hadn’t pushed her for an answer. When Emily had left for Miss Brundage’s Female Academy in late August, she’d been filled with righteous optimism about the future, caught up in the noble intentions proposed by Nathan Meeker, the government’s Indian agent. He meant to civilize the Ute tribe, teach their children, and show them better ways to live. Obviously the natives hadn’t accepted the white man’s ideas.
“I’m sorry. I hadn’t heard.”
Still shaken, Emily huddled beside him. She grabbed for the edge of her cloak and used it to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
“You don’t have to teach the Indian children,” Ben pointed out. He hated to see Emily cry. Her tears always made his heart ache, always made him yearn to find a way to make everything in her world all right. For years, he’d been her friend, her protector, her comforter. “You could get a good teaching position in Denver. I’m sure of it. Probably in any town in the state. For that matter,” he grudgingly admitted, “you could probably teach right here in Sunset.”
“Do you really think so?”
Too late, he wished he could call back those last few words. “Well, maybe next year, I mean. I’m sure Mr. Hodges already has all the teachers he needs for this term. I’m just thinking about the future. Besides, you don’t have your credentials yet.”
“Sometimes I’m not sure I want to be a teacher.” When she glanced his way, he saw tears still glistening in the corners of her beautiful, dark-fringed eyes. “To tell the truth, school is a lot harder than I expected it to be. I hate it, Ben.”
“Give it time.”
“It’s a miserable place,” she went on, paying him no heed. “I’m not especially fond of Miss Brundage, either. She’s a dreadful old hag who goes out of her way to make sure everybody around her is as unhappy as she is.”
“It can’t be all that bad.”
Again, she paid him no mind.
“And then, there’s Hattie Mae. My roommate,” she explained. “She’s a dear girl, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that she has a tendency to grate on my nerves a bit.” Emily drew in a deep breath. “Mostly, Ben, I don’t like being away from home.” She turned to him, hope shining in her tear-filled eyes. “I don’t like being away from you.”
His guard went up at once. Every muscle in his body tensed. “That’s no reason to give up your education,” he pointed out. “In fact, that’s a pitiful excuse, if you ask me. Besides, how do you think that makes me feel?” In truth, it made him feel damned good to know Emily Sue missed him, but at the moment, he didn’t dare let on to that fact. “If you leave school, you’ll come to regret it in time, and I don’t want you blaming me.”
“I’m not blaming you, Ben.” She placed a hand on his arm. “I’m telling you how I feel, that’s all.”
He hated himself for what he was about to do. He jerked his arm away.
“Yeah, well, it’s not good to act on feelings. They’re slippery things, you know. Feelings change.” A quick glance toward the girl at his side confirmed his worst fears. Although she tried to look away, he’d already caught sight of the tears sliding down her cheek. It took every last ounce of restraint he possessed to resist reaching out to her.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt and that I’ve intrigued you with the story.
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Available from Secret Cravings Publishing
January 28, 2015