speak. “Forgive me, Joseph, but every woman needs to feel she’s the most important person in her man’s life. I acknowledge that isn’t often the case, but I was young enough to want that for myself. You obviously couldn’t give me that.” He was a different man now, however, an adult who had been tested in fire, seasoned and strong. Why should he continue to suffer for one horribly wrong decision that had ousted her from his life and shattered her heart? “As for Matthew, I was led to believe he wanted a partner for his practice. It was the way he proposed marriage. Businesslike and logical.” So unlike the way she and Joseph had been together, slowly falling in love over the course of a year, unable to stay away from each other, a constant challenge for those who chaperoned them.
She’d dreamed of becoming a rancher’s wife, especially after Joseph built a new room onto his ranch house and started teasing her about becoming “Mrs. Joseph Rickard.”
“I knew he loved you by the way his gaze followed you wherever you went,” Joseph said. “By the way his eyes lit up when he talked about you.”
“So it appears I got what I wanted, after all.”
“I don’t think so. Matthew had priorities that took precedence over your welfare, it seems, or he wouldn’t have drawn you into your present dangerous position.”
“Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
He leaned closer to her and she caught the scent of the watercress he liked to pick along the streams, and the earth and water that had nearly killed him. He sighed and brushed at some drying mud on his sleeve. “Listen to us arguing again.”
“Not everything has changed,” she said.
“I didn’t expect him to marry you after I left. Keep you in his employ, yes, but...you’re right, I was stunned when I found out about your marriage.”
She turned away, barely hearing the voices of the others near camp. “I believe you expected that I would wait for you no matter what, even after I heard of your engagement.”
Joseph was silent for a long moment. She looked over her shoulder at him and saw him staring toward the flooded creek, and she recognized the lines of self-recrimination in the square frame of his face.
“Shouldering the blame can’t repair the past,” she said, gentling her voice. How hard she’d been on him these past weeks, avoiding him when possible. He’d been a perfect gentleman, treating her with respect and kindness while she’d remained reserved.
“I thought my father needed me.”
“Your father sold your closest friend. I’m sorry you had to endure so much.”
Joseph reached for her hand, and to her surprise, she allowed him to raise it to brush his lips against her knuckles. “Leaving you in St. Louis was the most painful decision I’ve ever made.”
“Good. I wanted you to feel the same pain I did.”
“But maybe it was right for you at the time. Had we stayed together, you wouldn’t be a doctor now, and Matthew would never have had the wonderful experience of being your husband for those ten short years.”
Victoria reminded herself to breathe. The intimate touch of Joseph’s hand affected her more than any touch she had received from Matthew, and the guilt of that discovery caused her to withdraw again. Joseph released her without a word.
“Brown is planning to move later this year into Kansas Territory.” She hoped he didn’t hear the race of her heartbeat in her voice.
“He’ll have my support. It could determine the balance of power in the whole nation.”
She allowed the warm breeze from the south to dry the perspiration from her face, and she felt the warmth from Joseph’s nearness when he stepped up behind her.
“No matter how many measures you took to get out of St. Louis discreetly, someone could have followed you. Someone who knew you were friends with Brown.” His deep voice, laced with concern, made her shiver.
A crow cawed deeper in the woods and she gasped, jerking so hard she nearly
Monica Drake; Chuck Palahniuk