Serena only started smiling again after Wesley died.
It was a fact made all the more apparent as she spun around the kitchen with her new husband, Paul, her face wreathed in a glow that highlighted her contented happiness. The two of them moved in tandem, working together and around one another with smiles and a gentle brushing of elbows. He got the last of his things together from the kitchen before nodding to the girl who sat on the other side of the counter and excusing himself with little to say. Paul was like that though, a quiet sort of steadfast that never made much of a fuss. He was the exact opposite of Wesley, Serena’s first husband.
Maybe that was why Melody liked watching the two of them so much. Seeing Serena happy after two years of watching her retreat more and more into herself during her first marriage was the kind of imagery that a younger sister couldn’t just easily dismiss from their mind—but Melody knew that her father had expected her to.
“What are you smiling at?” Serena asked from where she worked at the stove, glancing over her shoulder in curiosity.
Melody shrugged, not knowing how to tell her that it was her and her husband without it coming off as too forward. “I like seeing you happy,” she said instead, her smile soft as Serena’s grin expanded on her lips.
“I like being happy,” the older woman replied with a laugh, putting the lid on the pot she had been stirring and finally whirling around in a flurry of skirts to face Melody. “Paul never knows what to make of you being so quiet when he’s around,” she confided as she leaned against the counter, one side of her face dimpling as she looked Melody over in question. “He thinks you must disapprove of him and me as much as everyone else.”
Melody’s eyes widened, a quick shake of her head trying to dispel such thoughts from her sister’s mind. “Oh, no, I hope you assured him otherwise,” she pleaded. “It’s just…such a change from how you were with Wesley, it always takes me by surprise, you know?” Her hazel eyes widened further, an apology lurking in their depths as she tucked a dark auburn curl behind one ear almost self-consciously. “I don’t mean to cause offense…”
Serena laughed, wrinkling her nose as she leaned further onto the counter and blew air across her younger sister’s face as if to dispel the worry from her features with it. “Well, I know that,” she assured her in amusement. “Anyhow, I told him he’s not one for making a whole host of conversation himself to put it to rest. I know marriage has been on your mind an awful lot lately. I thought that might be why, myself.”
Melody shifted on the stool she sat on, her eyes breaking from her sister’s gaze to look out of the window with a small frown puckered between her brows. She’d been avoiding thinking about it in reference to herself as much as possible lately, but she couldn’t fault her sister for having guessed such a thing.
“Daddy’s been circling that campfire again,” Melody confirmed, her voice hesitant. A hesitance that only grew as Serena’s face shuttered at the mention of their father, her torso lifting off the counter as she busied her hands with putting ingredients away once more. “He keeps hinting at suitors and how I should be ready again, but…”
“Daddy doesn’t always know best,” Serena said sharply, her eyes tight as she spun away from the counter to go back over to the stove. She’d only made it halfway across the room before her posture softened slightly though. “He means well,” she amended, her tone almost sad. “But an ‘advantageous’ marriage doesn’t solve everything.”
Melody felt her heart clench, watching the tense way her sister carried herself talking about their father. “Maybe if you told him about Wesley,” she offered softly, wincing the moment she finished speaking for the harsh laugh that left Serena in response.
“He has eyes, Melody,” Serena muttered. “Everyone who was anyone knew that that man was mean enough to steal the coins off a dead man’s eyes; Daddy just didn’t want to believe it. He had the right amount of money and he was charming as anything when it suited him.” She broke off, chopping the onions on her cutting board with a vigor that was obviously her venting her frustration. “I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead,” she muttered, almost as an afterthought.
“You were married to him,” Melody soothed. “If anyone has the right…”
Serena offered Melody a wan smile over her shoulder, shaking her head. “Daddy still won’t answer my letters,” she offered after a moment, her tone carefully neutral. “I know he doesn’t approve of Paul being a blacksmith. Mama wouldn’t have minded, I don’t think. I reckon Mama would have liked Paul but there’s no telling Daddy that.” She stopped, her cutting coming to a pause as well as she turned to look at Melody seriously. “Don’t let him force you into a marriage that you hate the idea of, Melody.”
Melody snorted, wishing it were such an easy thing to promise as she looked down at her hands folded on the countertop. She wrestled, for a moment, with opening up to Serena, even with how close they were. Her nerves got the better of her though, her sigh short as she fiddled with her fingers anxiously.
“I don’t think Daddy could be dissuaded if he found someone that he thought was the right fit,” she pointed out, her voice grim. “I’ve been lucky the last two years, I reckon, with him not finding anyone he deems suitable enough, but that’ll end before too long. I thought…maybe, I might be able to get ahead of it though.”
She could hear the trepidation in her own words and obviously Serena could too. Her sister turned with a small frown, her head tilting to the side as she looked Melody over in question.
“Get ahead of it?” Serena asked, confusion filling her tone.
“Well, I only thought—what with his plans and all—that maybe if I weren’t here, he wouldn’t be able to marry me off,” Melody muttered, glancing away from her sister as the guilt of her plan ate away at her. She’d struggled for weeks to come up with a way to tell Serena her plans. This was an awkward, messy way of doing it, but the deadline to tell her about it was approaching rapidly and no matter how she tried, she couldn’t find a more elegant way of doing so.
“Not be here?” Serena repeated, putting the knife down and coming back slowly over to the counter that Melody sat at. Her brow was pinched in the same way that their mother’s used to get, her green eyes worried. “Out with it, Melody, don’t leave me in suspense.”
Melody sighed, glancing up at her only briefly before finding another reason to look away. “You’ve met Adrian Potter, I reckon. Everyone’s met Adrian,” she hedged. He’d only come into town six months past but in those six months he’d all but eaten up the hearts of everyone he’d come into contact with.
“That adventurer boy?” Serena asked, confused. “Of course I’ve met him.”
“You know, he and I have been getting on rather well. Did you know he’s been to Paris? And Germany! He sells those wares of his all over the place, but right now he’s making his way across the West and seeing all the wonders of it. He has such wonderful stories.”
“Well, when you travel as much as he does, I wouldn’t wonder,” Serena said sensibly, still eyeing Melody in concern. “You’ve always loved the thought of traveling; I remember you used to tell Mama that you were going to sail the world to see all the coasts before you were thirty.” She laughed, shaking her head, bemused. “What has he done, told you how to do that?”
“I like him,” Melody blurted, her face coloring with embarrassment. “I like him a lot, actually. I might fancy him and I know that he fancies me as well. He said that he hated traveling alone, you know, and one thing led to another…”
“You’re planning on leaving with him?” Serena asked, shock filling her tone. “Are you planning on getting married first?”
“Oh, no,” Melody laughed nervously, still picking at her fingers. “I just… I can’t get married to whoever Daddy finds for me, Serena, and I can’t tell him no either. I don’t want to be stuck here forever! I want to see the world and Adrian has offered to help me do it. He never stays anywhere more than a month or two—imagine how much ground we could cover traveling like that.”
“He’s been here for six months, Melody,” Serena reminded her sister gently, her gaze more motherly than anything else. “I know you want to go and see the world, but are you sure that’s the best option for it? Leaving in secret with no one knowing where you’re heading…”
“Well that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Melody enthused, getting her nerve back as she looked up with her hazel eyes glittering excitedly. “I’ve told you, haven’t I? And I’d write any time we stopped, letting you know our next destination so you could write to me back! He’s only been here so long because of how well his wares were doing but he’s ready to leave soon. I knew if I talked to anyone else, it would get back to Daddy…”
“And he’d surely stop you,” Serena finished, her gaze still worried.
“Oh, he’d be so mad, Serena. You know he’d force me to marry someone before I got another chance to leave.” Melody didn’t want to lose her smile the way her sister had, doomed to a man who was mean enough to fight off a rattler all for the money he held to his name. “Chicago is such a dreary place. It’s such a small part of the world.”
“You just like those books you’ve read about the West,” Serena chided, though not unkindly. She shifted her weight between her feet, her eyes sad but resolved as she stared at Melody. “You’ve already decided, haven’t you? This isn’t you asking for my advice or my blessing, this is just you telling me before you have to say your final goodbye…”
Melody felt a small measure of guilt at the truth in the words, her nod short as she met her sister’s gaze with a sad smile of her own. “I’ve been trying to find a way to tell you for weeks now,” she admitted softly. “Adrian and I are due to leave next week.”
“Oh, Melody,” Serena sighed, coming around the counter to wrap Melody up in her arms. “I know better than to try to talk you out of anything and of course I won’t tell Daddy… not that he’d hear me long enough for me to tell him I reckon, but…” She pulled back, her honey-brown hair half-hanging in her face even as she smoothed Melody’s darker locks back from her forehead. “I do wish you’d think about it.”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Melody promised, her voice tight. “If I stay here, if I let Daddy marry me off… Serena, I know I’ll just die. I’ll fall in love with Adrian while we’re traveling and it’ll be a grand adventure to write to you about. I have no desire to be married within the next fortnight, wondering what my life might have been if only I’d been able to get out and see the world with some of it.”
“Lord have mercy, I just told you to make sure you didn’t marry a man you hate and now you tell me the only way to ensure that is by running off West with some pretty boy with an adventure streak as wide as yours.” Serena laughed, tears in her eyes.
Melody couldn’t help the grin that came to her own lips though, her heart beating steadily as she gripped her sister’s arms tightly in her hands.
“I want to see the world,” she repeated, the dreams lining her words, painting pictures in her mind’s eye so vivid she could practically taste them.
It was a desire that had fueled her whole life, since before she had even known how to give voice to those words. Now, she was being given the opportunity to live them, even if it was frightening.
It was hers.
“And you will,” her sister insisted, reaching across to pat her hand on the counter encouragingly.
Melody appreciated it, and Serena’s support—despite her sister’s obvious misgivings.
“Only if I can keep Daddy from finding out about it,” Melody sighed, remembering her father’s ominous words before she had left that morning. It was, in part, a good chunk of the reason she’d taken so long and dawdled while shopping earlier that day. “He said that he wanted to discuss something with me tonight,” she confided, her sigh weary.
Serena snorted. “Probably only something frivolous like his wanting to change something in the house or have you attend some event or another by someone he deems important.”
Her sister’s words were soothing, but Melody was afraid more than anything that it would be his announcement that he’d found another suitor for her hand. With the deadline of her leaving so close at hand, she was terrified he’d find a way to delay or ruin it entirely.
Melody didn’t want to stay in this town though, shackled to a man that might treat her like Wesley had treated Serena…or worse.
She put her father from her mind as best she could, focusing on her sister’s prattle as she moved about the kitchen and trying to dispel such unhappy thoughts from her mind.
She only had to make it through the week first.
Saying goodbye, even if it was only a preemptive goodbye, to her sister had been just as hard as Melody had imagined it would be. Despite her excitement over finally being able to share her plan with someone, knowing that she would be leaving Serena behind had been a hard pill to swallow. They’d been close growing up, but in the years since their mother’s passing, they had managed to grow even closer.
Melody was going to miss her almost as much as she wasn’t going to miss the constant threat of a doomed marriage hanging over her head.
It made her trek back home from her sister and brother-in-law’s house all the slower as she took the time to compose herself before returning to her father and the barrage of questions she was sure to face after having been gone for most of the afternoon.
Unlike Serena, Melody didn’t harbor the same bitterness toward the man, just a kind of removed distance the past few years that made it hard to connect with him.
Which was why, upon finding him in the kitchen when she entered through the backdoor, she paused for a moment, ensuring her expression was neutral before she entered the house.
Mr. Benson had always been a severe man, though the last four years since losing his wife had made him even more so. He had a firm brow, his sharp hazel-gray eyes missing nothing, and an even firmer view of the world and how it was supposed to work. He’d aged in those four years, maybe even more since his falling out with Serena, and the wrinkles gathering alongside his eyes and nose only seemed to become more prominent the more serious he became.
He sat at the kitchen table, a stack of mail and papers before him, eyeing Melody from behind the half-folded paper that he held.
Melody forced a smile, closing the door softly behind her and putting her basket of groceries down on the counter off to the side of him. “I didn’t expect to see you home so soon,” she greeted neutrally, ignoring the snort that came in response.
“Been home for an hour or more,” her father answered blandly, folding his paper the rest of the way and setting it down on the table in front of him. “Where’ve you been all afternoon?” The accusation was just present enough for her to hear it, her spine straightening as she busied herself with putting away the produce she had grabbed on the way to her sister’s.
“Running errands,” she answered cryptically, holding a carrot up as an example. She wasn’t lying, she reasoned with herself; she had run errands before stopping at Serena and Paul’s.
“Out visiting your sister and her layabout new husband, I reckon,” Mr. Benson muttered in response, unable to hide the venom in his words. His bitterness around the word husband shone like a lantern on a winter’s night, full of a fire the rest of his words lacked.
Melody was too used to it to react outwardly; she only gave a slight pull of her lips as she stopped her incessant movement to face him more directly. “He’s a blacksmith, Daddy, not a layabout,” she answered gently, not wanting to poke the bear any further than she felt she had to, not wanting to start a fight.
Her father made a noise low in the back of his throat, a kind of harumph as he pointedly declined answering. He didn’t ask after Serena, though Melody could see the stubbornness in his gaze to fight doing so. For all of his faults and severity, she was still his eldest daughter.
“I did stop by to visit with Serena,” Melody continued at last, resuming putting away her purchases without quite as much frenetic energy. “I wanted to see how she was doing, so I stopped by after running my errands in town,” she said honestly, not wanting to encourage any further disbelief on his part.
For a long moment after she finished speaking, there was silence. Melody knew that her father was struggling with not asking any further questions. A part of her hoped he would get over it and ask already so she could tell him any of the good news that she had heard from Serena, or tell him just how happy Serena was—anything other than the bitter silence that existed between the pair now.
Mr. Benson’s pride was stronger than iron, however, and he remained stoically quiet until Melody was finished putting away the groceries.
“Come sit for a moment. I have something I’d like to talk to you about,” he broached when she finished wiping down the counter she had sat the vegetables on. His tone was careful, matter-of-fact in a way that made the request sound more like a command, and Melody was instantly wary because of it.
Her earlier conversation with her sister played in her head, all of her plans and her worries coming back to the forefront of her mind as she carefully approached the seat across from her father and folded herself down into it.
“Is this about my visit to Serena?” she asked preemptively, her own tone carefully neutral. “I’ll remind you that you didn’t say I wasn’t allowed—” she started, only to be cut off by her father’s hand waving as if to make her stop.
Her stomach dropped, her mouth drying out as she readjusted on the chair she had just taken a seat in.
Please don’t let it be about a betrothal, please don’t let it be about a betrothal…
“Your Aunt Hannah has written from Texas,” Mr. Benson announced without preamble, picking a letter from the stack in front of him and taking the paper out with an eased precision. “You remember your Aunt Hannah, of course?”
Melody did. She nodded, confused, the rushed smell of lilac and rose filling her memory at the woman’s mention.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her, but yes, of course I remember her,” Melody muttered, trying to keep the curiosity from her tone.
Her Aunt Hannah was a much softer version of her father, more like her late mother in spirit than her actual blood brother, but she had moved long before Melody’s mother had even shown signs of being ill. Most of Melody’s memories of her living in Chicago revolved around going visiting with her mother in Aunt Hannah’s garden for tea or their weekly family dinners. But they were all good memories nonetheless.
“Her health has taken a turn recently. She was letting me know how poorly she’s doing.” Mr. Benson broke eye contact, reviewing the letter with a pinched look about his lips that made Melody’s heart dip. For him to bring it up to her at all, it had to be a serious health condition, not just a passing cold.
“Does she say what’s ailing her, or do they not know?” she found herself asking, her brow furrowing in concern.
Mr. Benson sighed, shaking the letter out as he had his newspaper from earlier and folding it again before he ran a tired hand down his face. “She only says she is of ill health and finding it difficult to manage her affairs, much less her business.”
Melody frowned, only vaguely remembering that her aunt ran a shop of some sort but not wanting to ask too much about that with the way her father was eyeing the letter.
“It’s our duty, of course, as her family, to look after her in such times,” Mr. Benson continued, his voice that same sort of matter-of-fact that he had started the conversation with. “Don’t you agree?”
A niggling of guilt wormed its way into Melody’s stomach, knowing her upcoming plans and the countdown that she had for them. She was supposed to be long gone from Chicago before her aunt would be able to make the trip up to them, and yet…
“Of course,” she agreed, her mouth dryer than four-day old cornbread. “We can have her stay in the guest room and I can make room in the sitting room for her to have a more comfortable chair moved in.” She was already mentally planning all the changes that the house would need with another addition, considering if they needed to hire more help, but her father interrupted her with a cough.
“No, I’m afraid you misunderstand,” he said sternly, his eyebrows knitting in concentration as he looked Melody over in surprise. “Your aunt is far too ill to make that sort of journey!”
Melody had already cut off before her father had begun talking, but she looked at him with wide eyes as he finished. She didn’t understand.
At least not at first.
The dawning comprehension that came after his words left her chest tight, her eyes suddenly feeling dryer even than her throat.
“You mean for me to go and stay with her?” she guessed, the assumption coming out as more of a question than a statement despite how carefully she tried phrasing it.
“I’m certainly not able to, what with business and the things that need to be seen to here,” her father explained, sounding both self-important and defensive all at once. “You aren’t doing anything anyway; a trip West might be good for you. It’ll only be for a short period, but it isn’t something that can be helped. Unless you have some objection to going?” He trailed off, his bushy brows rising slightly as he stared at Melody.
She had plenty of objections.
One above all of the rest but it was the one that she needed to keep the furthest from him, so she held it behind her clenched teeth with a trembling smile. “None,” she answered, the lie bitter on her tongue.
She could fight it, she was sure. There were any number of other reasons that she could come up with that would fit into why she couldn’t go, any number of excuses that her father would buy into. She knew that, though he was requesting it of her, that he wouldn’t be unreasonable in simply demanding that she go.
However, the fondness for her aunt weighed against the guilt that would come from Melody not offering to help the woman in her time of need. It was too great a price to pay.
“I’ll have to arrange train fair,” she muttered, seeking any way to buy the time she needed in order to handle her affairs at home. Mainly talking to Adrian and Serena, the only two things that really bothered her in this entire ordeal. “And say my goodbyes in town, pack,” she was rattling the list off out loud, her nerves eating away at her belly even as she said them.
“I’ve already purchased your ticket,” her father announced happily, seeming to be proud of such a thing. He didn’t catch the aghast look on Melody’s face at the gall of having done so though, happily rearranging his mail as if everything were already settled. “I’m assuming you can handle the rest of it in the next day or two, as it is the day after tomorrow that your train departs.”
Melody nodded mutely, staring at the wood grain of the table rather than her father, her thoughts racing as much as her heart.
Just that quickly—more quickly even than it had been discussed—the entire matter was settled. She was going to Texas.
The Texas sun had never been confused with being kind. It beat down on the earth like a raging ball of fire, its hot rays penetrating even the most well-designed fabrics, leaving everyone stuck below them without refuge in a fine sheen of sweat and a fouler disposition if they weren’t careful of it.
The tall, broad-shouldered man standing beneath those rays with only his hat for coverage was well aware of that fact, and obviously so, making sure to keep the man he was examining in the shadow of the building they stood by rather than subject him to the same heat. The pair stood just on the side of the general store, the man standing with his back to the quasi-busy street behind him, and the other man sitting with his hand shading his eyes further from the unrelenting sun.
“I’m telling you, Doc,” the old man grumbled, pushing his leg out further from the chair to showcase the knee that he had revealed from rolling up his pants leg. “It don’t look pretty, but it ain’t busted.”
Charlie Noble snorted, shaking his head as he crouched down to get a better look at said knee. “Just because it doesn’t look busted, Bear, doesn’t mean that you need to be walking on it,” he cautioned, his tone neutral as he reached out to prod the green and yellow flesh around the knee cap.
“Aw, Doc, that mule’s kicked me a million times. Ain’t never done more than bruise me. I told Gracie not to go calling you,” Bear groused, shooting a quick narrow-eyed stare at the younger woman standing somewhat off to the side.
“Your granddaughter was worried,” Charlie pointed out, his own gaze becoming more focused as he watched how the skin and cartilage seemed to shift under his prodding… and how Bear hissed and groaned with each new poke. “And I’d say she has every right to be. Looking at your injury right now I’d say your kneecap is fractured in at least two different places. If you weren’t so stubborn, I doubt you’d be able to walk at all.”
“Leave it to you to be such an old cuss that you walk out of spite,” Gracie sighed from the side, reaching forward to jab her finger into her grandfather’s shoulder.
Bear sputtered, his white mustache bristling as he tried to straighten his leg out again, the muscles seizing just from the motion. “You watch your mouth, young lady,” he corrected Gracie, his oak-colored eyes glaring at her. “Your mama catches you talking like that she’ll go blaming me. Ain’t about to have my hide tanned on account of you not talking like a lady.”
“Old cuss? That’s not talking like a lady? Grandpa, you say old cuss all the time—” Gracie started, indignant, but Bear cut her off with a sharp whistle.
“I said I ain’t about to have my hide tanned on account of your mouth,” he reminded her. The old rancher leaned back, looking down to where Charlie was biting back a smile as he continued assessing the knee. “I can’t not walk, Doc. You know hands are short this season and Albert just left me for his family back down in Mexico.”
Charlie knew there would be no arguing with the man, even though his first recommendation would have been rest and giving the fractures time to heal. He sighed as he stood up, brushing a wave of honey-colored hair off his forehead and back up under his hat before it stuck too much.
“You come on by the clinic, Bear, and I’ll see if I can’t wrap you up and set you up with some splint for that knee. You’ll need crutches but I reckon you’ll be able to hobble along just fine on them with some practice. It’ll take you twice as long to get things done and twice as long to heal because of it, but both’ll still be possible.”
Bear chewed on the tobacco he had squirreled away in one pocket of his cheek contemplatively, first eyeing Charlie and then his knee before a snort from behind Charlie interrupted them.
“I’d go getting a second opinion on that if I were you, Bear,” a younger man commented snidely from where he’d stopped to eavesdrop. His eyes were narrowed, his glare focused on Charlie despite his talking to Bear. “Can’t just take anyone’s word these days.”
“Yeah,” the slightly more grizzled man next to him laughed. “Leave it up to Charlie there and you might never walk again.”
“Never mind walking,” the first sneered, “you might lose your whole darn leg! Or, worse, your life.”
The two men snickered meanly, staring Charlie down as if to get a rise out of him.
Charlie didn’t answer though, rolling Bear’s pants legging back down carefully over the knee before straightening slowly from where he’d been crouched.
“You come see me at the clinic,” he said to Bear, his tone still friendly as he kept his back to the two behind him. “I’ll see what I can find for it as far as that splint goes.”
Bear chewed harder on his tobacco, his eyes narrowed to the point just behind Charlie where the young men still stood.
“You don’t mind them rumors, Doc, y’hear?” he said loudly, louder even than called for the two to hear him. “Mean-spirited folks is always gunna find a way to be just that: mean-spirited. Always gunna swallow up the gossip like the gospel itself just to find something to moan about.”
Charlie grinned briefly, his green eyes flashing. “People talk,” he said simply, keeping himself from commenting one way or another. “You know what they don’t do though? Go walking around on fractured kneecaps.”
Gracie laughed from her grandfather’s side despite the glares she was throwing at the two young men as well, snorting even harder as the two wandered off, muttering to one another at being ignored.
Bear groaned, seeming more put out with being called on his own choices than he was hurt. “I ‘spose we can make it by your clinic after my daughter finishes her shopping inside,” he mumbled, jerking his chin to the store behind him where his daughter undoubtedly was. “Won’t take too long?”
“Won’t even take an hour,” Charlie promised, holding his hand out to shake on it before taking a step back. “Gracie, you make sure he comes by like he says, you hear?”
Gracie’s giggle was cut off by her grandfather’s complaining but Charlie was already turning away with a grin, shaking his head as he readjusted his coat and turned in the direction of his clinic. He had a good idea where all the things he’d need for the splint were but being that he’d already promised Bear it wouldn’t take long, he wanted to be sure before the man actually showed up.
He was so engrossed in running it out in his head that he missed the flinty-eyed stare he was getting from the front of the saloon until he was right up on it, the figure that had straightened off of the beam it had been leaning against coming into focus too late.
The dark-haired man had a look of menace on his features far more pronounced than the two that had been jibing at Charlie before. Charlie sighed even just to see the man stepping out in his way as he passed by.
“Gerald,” he greeted coolly, his tone not unfriendly, but definitely less welcoming than it had been moments before.
“You maiming more patients?” Gerald asked with a smile that never reached his dark eyes, his sneer curling his lips in an ugly fashion. “Or just swindling old Bear out of his paycheck early?”
Charlie didn’t comment that Bear would most likely be paying him in poultry this go-round, given the season and the state of things at his ranch. He knew to say as much would just make the slightly older man before him even more irate.
“Just treating a patient,” he answered evenly, refusing to rise to the bait.
“Shame,” Gerald muttered, bracing his thumbs through his belt loops and rocking back on his heels as he looked Charlie up and down condescendingly. “I really figured after that incident several months ago people would have learned their lesson and stopped calling on you. I suppose a fresh face helps with business though.” The backhanded compliment was just as snide as the rest of it had been, Gerald’s words silken despite the undertone to them.
“Bright Ridge is plenty big enough for two doctors in town,” Charlie commented dryly. “I reckon they just figure with your recent uptick in business you might be a bit too busy.” It was a lie and Charlie knew it, but he wasn’t looking for any kind of tussle in the middle of the street, or even to be trading words like they were currently.
His stomach churned with irritation even being as near to Gerald as he was, an irritation he was hard-pressed to fight down the longer he was made to stand there and remain pleasant despite the bait being thrown mercilessly at him.
Gerald’s eyes narrowed slightly, his sickly smile never so much as changing. “A real doctor is never too busy to provide adequate care to his patients,” he responded, voice layered with innuendo.
Charlie gritted his teeth, forcing a grin that felt more like a grimace. “Glad we’re agreed on that,” he managed to get out, his tone still even despite his tumultuous emotions. “I need to be getting to the clinic to ensure that I can help mine though, so if you’ll excuse me…”
“Of course,” Gerald called after him, forcing himself to have the last word despite Charlie already walking away. “Wouldn’t want what happened to the Farren girl to happen to anyone else,” he added deviously, the grin in his voice almost too much for Charlie to bear.
He had to fight turning around and going back, tongues of fire licking the back of his throat as he focused instead on each step that took him further from the ignorant man behind him.
Four. Six. Eight. He counted them out in his head, his eyes focused ahead and his hands carefully kept from clenching into fists at his side. The nerve of Gerald, of all people, to bring her up so directly, to name her with such volume as he had…
Charlie knew that he should have expected it. He knew that it had been done in order to get under his skin. No matter how tough he tried to make his flesh though, those words still needled at him. He could stay calm and keep himself professional but the more often it happened the harder it was getting to be. He had hoped that after a few months, things would have died down.
Every time the fire started to simmer, Gerald or one of his cronies was back, adding fuel to the flames and forcing those sparks back into a dancing bonfire.
The door to the clinic wrenched open more aggressively than Charlie had meant to, the welcome shade of it helping to cool his head somewhat as he swiped his hat off it, gripping it by the brim to toss it onto the nearest desk.
He needed to be focusing on splints and splint material, not Gerald and his grudge. People talked, he’d told Bear, and he’d meant it. It was a universal truth. People talked. He just had to remind himself that it was up to him how he took how they talked.
It was just harder to put that into practice than remembering sometimes…
“A Doctor’s Cure for Heartache” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Melody Benson is an adventurous soul, determined to escape her boring life. When her father shows her a letter from her aunt in Texas who faces serious health issues, Melody decides to run to the rescue of the only mother figure she has ever known… During this most difficult time, she meets Charlie, a man whose eyes soothe her heart… Could this be the adventure she always dreamed of?
Her salvation may finally lie in him….
Dr. Charlie Noble is a talented doctor, but a horrific slander has thrown his career off course. Torn between healing his few remaining patients and restoring his name, he is hesitant to help the newcomer, Hannah, as she distracts him with her kind nature. Shortly enough though he realizes that his days have been much brighter since she arrived…
His desperate loneliness in this hostile town makes her smile even more precious…
Just when Melody and Charlie find the courage to confess their feelings to each other, the man responsible for Charlie’s downfall hatches yet another plot to harm him. Is their love strong enough to endure a hurricane of lies, or will their romance be shattered?
“A Doctor’s Cure for Heartache” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.