Texas Legacy – Lorraine Heath

The telegram found him in Cheyenne, the words simple and to the point: I need you home. Love, Ma. He’d ridden out to the ranch where he’d been working as foreman, given his notice, packed up his few meager belongings, hightailed it to the railway depot, and hopped on the first train going through that would get him to where he needed to be as quickly as possible. Leighton, Texas, a town once described as being on the far side of nowhere, but when he’d left, had been bustling with activity and promise. The railroad had changed its destiny. No, that wasn’t quite right, he mused as he sat beside a window on the lumbering train and watched the empty vastness rolling by. Dallas Leigh had created the town from nothing, courted the railroad barons to ensure a stretch of track went through his town to increase its chances of thriving, and in so doing had altered the makeup of the land and the lives of a good many people. He, along with his wife, had changed Rawley Cooper’s life as well, had dragged him from the hellhole that had been his boyhood existence and given him more opportunities than he deserved. Which was the reason Rawley hadn’t hesitated to leave everything behind when he received the telegram. Although if he were honest with himself, he had to admit he was more than ready to return. He’d missed the place, missed the people. Missed Faith. He’d hoped time and distance would cause her to fade from his memories, but she was as vibrant as ever, and not a night passed that he didn’t dream about her. Faith Leigh was the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on, although he hadn’t always viewed her in that light. When she’d been born—wrinkled, red, and caterwauling worse than any bawling calf he’d heard up until that moment—he’d proclaimed her to be butt-ugly.

But she’d quickly managed to worm her way into his heart—not that he’d ever been too pleased about that. He was probably somewhere between a decade and a dozen years older than she was. His true age was anyone’s guess because the man who had called himself Rawley’s pa hadn’t paid much attention to the details of his life. It wasn’t until Rawley went to live with Dallas and Cordelia Leigh that he learned people kept track of the time they spent on this earth. Since they’d taken him in on a cold night in December 1881, that had become the date when they honored his birth. He couldn’t deny it was a good day for a little revelry because it marked the moment his life transformed from a mere existence into actually living. As for Faith, her arrival had come in May 1884, duly noted and recorded in the family Bible. The last time he’d seen her had been six years earlier on the night she’d turned nineteen, after a celebration that had no doubt left a good many men—and possibly a few women—greeting the following morning with an aching head. He also suspected a number of cowboys had awakened a little heartsore because Faith had a way about her of making a man long for things he could never possess. In the distance, the town came into view, and although it wasn’t exactly as it had been when he left, he’d recognize it anywhere—the Grand Hotel dominating the skyline.

It had been ahead of its time when it had been built in 1881. He’d seen much more of the country since then, but nothing else reminded him of a grand and majestic lady as much as it did, maybe because he’d long worshipped the woman who had envisioned and built it: Cordelia Leigh. It was odd, all the emotions ricocheting through him. Pride, joy, a bit of remorse, a bit of dread. He had little doubt his abrupt departure had left many a burning question, and some might be wanting the answers with his return—but if he had his way, they’d go to the grave with him. Faith Leigh stood on the depot platform and watched the smoke billowing from the behemoth in the distance bearing down on them. Her stomach knotted, and she took a deep breath to release the tension that had been building ever since she’d learned Rawley Cooper was on his way home. She’d known this day would come, sooner or later. A reckoning. A chance to prove she was no longer the silly nineteen-year-old girl who had thrown herself at him and humiliated herself in the process.

The last time she’d seen him had been awkward at best. She expected it to be no different this time, especially when he learned all the truths about her—and he would. She’d never been able to hide anything from him. Once he’d been her best friend, her most trusted confidant, but then when she’d needed him the most, he’d ridden out of her life. Not that she blamed him, not deep down inside. But the girl she’d been still held a grudge. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t loved him. She hadn’t learned to walk because her mother and father encouraged her; she’d taken those first steps because they’d provided the opportunity to keep up with Rawley. Not that her memories went back that far, but she knew herself well enough to know what had always motivated her, to know most of her actions had been an effort to tag along with the older boy her parents had taken in. The train pulled into the station with a bellowing of steam and a screech of brakes.

People disembarked in a frenzy as though anxious to get to where they were going or to greet the people they’d come to see. All except him. As though in no hurry, as though he had all day and the world would wait for him, Rawley Cooper stepped off the train, holding the saddle slung over his back with one hand at his shoulder. He was a tall drink of water who would quench any woman’s thirst. Damn him. The past six years had served to make him more handsome, and a body that hard work on the range had honed to perfection had somehow managed to become even more pleasing to the eye. He walked toward her with a lazy, loose-hipped stride that spoke of no rush to be anywhere, his boot heels thudding against the wooden platform, and she could feel it quivering with each step he took, just as she imagined women quivered whenever he gave them that sultry look through eyes so dark as to be almost black, as black as his hair. Just as she quivered now that he was near enough for her to see that he hadn’t shaved recently. The short stubble added a ruggedness to his sharp jawline. When he reached her, he used the thumb of his free hand to tip his black Stetson back from his brow, and the few shadows that had dared to play over his features retreated.

At the corners of his eyes tiny lines fanned out, lines that hadn’t been as deep before. A somberness hovered around him like a well-worn duster designed to protect against the harsh elements, and she wondered if he’d dreaded seeing her as much as she had him. “Faith.” No smile, no grin that had once brightened her world. Just the one word, spoken flatly, with no emotion, with no hint as to what he was feeling—and that in itself communicated everything. She’d imagined this meeting a thousand times, hadn’t slept a wink the night before, practicing just the right inflection, just the right words to greet him after all this time. They hovered on the tip of her tongue, but her fist beat them to the punch—literally—and she felt the jarring pain traveling up her arm before she’d even realized she’d given him a quick jab to the cheek, just below his eye, that had his head snapping back and his saddle hitting the wooden planks with a thud that caused them to shudder. There was emotion now, rioting on his face, in his eyes. Fury. Shock.

Disbelief. “What the hell, Faith?” “That was for leaving without saying good-bye.”

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