Tomorrow's Shining Dream
She needs to learn how to flirt. He needs to forget she exists. Then she asks him for help finding a husband… What could possibly go wrong?
Charlotte Westin has always been more comfortable in a saddle than a ballroom. That wouldn’t be a problem, except her father owns the largest ranch in Texas—and he insists she marry a wealthy city-slicker worthy of a cattle baron’s daughter. There might be someone out there who’d love her for who she is instead of her money, but she’s been fooled by a sweet talker before, and her family is still suffering because of it.
With an old friend-turned-enemy returning to town and cattle rustlers running roughshod over the county, Sheriff Daniel Harding knows the last thing he should be thinking about is a woman… especially the one woman he’ll never be able to marry. Then Charlotte Westin asks for his help, and Daniel can’t refuse. Until he finds out exactly what she wants…
When Charlotte comes to Daniel with a plan to find herself a husband, Daniel is forced to face his feelings for her—as well as some past mistakes of his own. But as the rustlers grow more dangerous, Charlotte’s father takes drastic steps to engage her to a man she doesn’t love. And Charlotte and Daniel soon find themselves caught between the burdens from their pasts and others’ expectations. Will they let their past choices ruin their dreams? Or will Charlotte and Daniel embrace God’s forgiveness and forge a happy future for themselves?
Twin Rivers, Texas; July 4, 1885
How hard could attracting a man’s attention be?
From her position against the wall, Charlotte Westin looked across her family’s crowded ballroom toward the punch table. Three men stood there in suits: her father, his friend Charles Mortimer, and Mr. Mortimer’s son, Andrew.
A beautiful woman in a creamy lace dress had latched herself onto Andrew’s arm and leaned close to the circle of men, a wide smile on her face.
Normally Charlotte wouldn’t care about a socialite fawning over a wealthy heir, but Andrew Mortimer was different.
Charlotte didn’t need to hear the socialite’s laugh from across the ballroom to know how it would sound. Light, tinkling, perfect. Just like the laughs of all the other unmarried women who had come to visit her family’s ranch these past two weeks.
The woman probably didn’t have a splotch of punch on her dress from earlier in the evening either, or mud around the white lace at her hem.
Tomorrow. Charlotte sucked in a breath through her nose, then blew it out through her mouth. Her life would return to normal tomorrow.
She just had to survive tonight’s ball first. But that was no easy thing considering she was crammed into a stifling ballroom that had been decorated to the point she couldn’t recognize it. It looked as though someone had set off a string of dynamite that exploded red, white, and blue over everything in sight. That included the ceiling, which had been swathed with red, white, and blue fabric, and the stacks of Uncle Sam hats by the door for when the guests went out onto the terrace later to view the fireworks.
But every other woman in attendance was smiling. Every other woman looked like she enjoyed being laden with ten pounds of jewels and stuffed into a billowing dress—almost all of which were some shade of red, white, or blue.
Didn’t their heads itch beneath the weight of their fancy updos or their feet ache in their slippers with delicately pointed toes that they’d crammed onto their feet?
“Is something wrong?”
At the sound of the rich, masculine voice, Charlotte’s entire body went stiff. She dragged her gaze away from the crowd to find herself staring into the serious blue eyes and stern face of Twin Rivers’ sheriff, Daniel Harding.
And here she’d thought her night couldn’t get any worse.
She slammed her eyes shut. Maybe if she ignored him long enough, he’d disappear back into the crowd.
The question in his voice told her he wasn’t about to move away. In fact, he’d stepped nearer.
“You’re pale. Is there something I can help with?”
He could help by leaving her alone and never talking to her again. Her family’s hacienda might be packed with people, but not a single one of them knew the full story of what had happened last month…
Except for Daniel Harding.
She huffed out a breath and opened her eyes. “I’m fine, thank you. I think there’s a woman over by the hors d’oeuvre table waiting to dance with you.”
A lie, but she’d use it if it meant he’d leave her alone.
He didn’t even look over his shoulder. Instead he took another step nearer, bringing him close enough she could see the dark ring of blue that rimmed the lighter blue in his eyes. “Did you see something suspicious while you were out riding the ranch today? Is that why you look scared? Do you suspect rustlers have taken more cattle?”
At least he was asking about the ranch itself and not interrogating her for more details about everything else that had happened. But did the man realize how formidable he could be when he narrowed his eyes and started spouting official-sounding questions?
“You two should dance.”
Charlotte whipped her head around to find her brother, Wes, had come up beside them. He stood as uncomfortably stiff in his tuxedo as she did in her yards of billowing green silk. He’d taken extra effort to comb his hair to the side rather than settle a cowboy hat atop his head. But unlike her, he hadn’t spent most of his evening standing against the wall avoiding marriage prospects. She’d seen him earlier with no fewer than three women.
Wes tilted his head toward her, the lights from the chandeliers above glinting against the pomade on his dark hair. “Go on. I haven’t seen you out on the dance floor once tonight.”
Don’t ask me to dance with Daniel. Anyone but him.
“Actually, I need to get back to town.” Daniel pulled his timepiece from the pocket in his vest and glanced at it. The small movement caused a thatch of light brown hair that was usually tucked beneath a cowboy hat to fall over his forehead. “Someone still needs to make rounds even though we’re down two deputies.”
“You’re just as bad as Charlie. I only saw you on the floor once, and that was with your sister.” Wes frowned up at Daniel.
Given how the sheriff stood a half foot taller than Wes, the frown had little effect. “Someone needed to save Anna Mae from the vultures.”
Indeed, Anna Mae Harding was just finishing up a dance with a banker’s son from Austin, a wide smile spread across her face. Two other men stood at the edge of the dance floor, both watching Anna Mae as though they expected to dance with her next.
Charlotte sighed. Anna Mae looking lovely was nothing new, but how did her friend make all this business with men and dancing seem so easy?
“Well, are you going to dance?” Wes placed his palm on the small of her back and gave her a gentle push forward.
No. But what excuse could she give without looking ridiculous? She’d known Daniel her whole life and had danced with him before at parties. Though if she was going to be forced onto the dance floor, she’d rather dance with Andrew Mortimer than Daniel.
She scanned the far edge of the ballroom, only to find Andrew had left the punch table and was now surrounded by three—no wait, four—women in sparkling jewels and shimmering ball gowns. Two of them looked suspiciously familiar, as though they may have spent the past hour bothering Wes.
“Reckon I can spare time for a waltz before I leave.” Daniel took her arm and threaded it through his, causing that same thatch of brown hair to fall across his brow again.
She gave her hand a small tug, but Daniel kept it pinned under his wide palm.
Why did Pa have to keep hosting these Independence Day parties? Every summer her father opened their ranch for two weeks to his wealthy friends and business associates, and city folk came in droves. It seemed everyone wanted to see the expansive A Bar W cattle ranch at least once in their lifetime, and a good number of those first-time guests then decided to return every year. People started arriving in June, turning their mostly empty hacienda into something that felt more like an overstuffed hotel than a home, and Pa always hired extra staff from Mexico to tend the crowd.
Charlotte straightened her shoulders. All she had to do was make it one more day—and evidently one dance with Daniel—and then the house would be empty again.
She and Daniel reached the floor just as the music started, but rather than place his hand at her waist, Daniel studied her for a moment. “Are you sure nothing’s wrong?”
Other than the fact her family had lost three thousand head of cattle because she’d fallen for a pair of warm brown eyes and a promise of unending love? Other than the fact Daniel knew everything that had happened and could tell her family at any moment?
“I already told you, I’m fine.” She placed one hand on his broad shoulder, then nearly pulled her hand away. A warm sensation traveled up her arm, followed by an even warmer feeling that bloomed on her cheeks.
Daniel grabbed her other hand in his. Thank goodness she was wearing gloves so she didn’t have to feel his skin against hers.
He settled his palm on her back, splaying it against her ribs. She suddenly wished she was standing by the punch table with her father, if for no other reason than to ease the dryness that had just climbed into her throat.
The quartet played the opening bars of music, and she forced a breath out of a chest that felt too tight to hold air. What was wrong with her? Their position was perfectly normal for a waltz, so why did her skin burn beneath the patch of her dress that Daniel touched?
It had to be shame, pure and simple.
Daniel moved her in time to the music, but her chest rose and fell in quick, strained breaths, and her muscles stretched tighter than the barbed wire that lined parts of the A Bar W.
She pressed her eyes shut. Pretend the room is nearly empty. Pretend you’re dancing with Wes while Anna Mae plays the piano. Pretend…
But she couldn’t pretend anything with the way the scents of sunshine and leather and desert twined around her, so different from the warring aromas of perfume and cologne that everyone else had seemingly doused themselves in for the ball.
She stepped on something large and lumpy, and Daniel sucked in a breath.
She opened her eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to step on your foot.”
Daniel gave her a weak smile. “I’ll recover.”
He moved her in step to the triple-time music—one, two, three; one, two, three. But she still couldn’t keep herself from growing stiffer as the dance progressed.
“You can relax, Charlotte. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Why not?” The words exploded from her mouth before she thought to hold them back.
A crease appeared between Daniel’s eyebrows. “You think I want to hurt you?”
“Not physically. I just…” She swallowed. “Why haven’t you told my family what happened with Robbie Ashton?”
Daniel studied her for a moment, his eyes all blue and intense and sheriff-like. “Reckon that’s not my story to share. But I think you should tell them, if you’re asking my opinion.”
“I’m not.” Her body went stiff again, and she stepped on another lump.
Daniel outright grimaced this time.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I agreed to this. Truly. I’m a terrible dancer.”
“You wouldn’t be if you just relaxed.”
“Relaxing while dancing is impossible.” As was relaxing while being in the presence of Daniel Harding.
Because he knew about Robbie, of course. Not because he smelled like the desert at dawn or looked handsome in a brown three-piece suit.
Somehow she managed not to step on his foot again as the music slowed, then ended, but she couldn’t force her muscles to relax either.
Daniel unclasped her hand and stepped back. “Thank you for the dance. I really do need to get back into town. Do you have a partner for—?”
“There you are, dumplin’.”
She turned to find her father had come up beside her, his form lean and sinewy compared to Daniel’s wide shoulders and broad chest.
“I’m afraid I need a word with my daughter, Sheriff.”
“I was just taking my leave, Mr. Westin. Enjoy the rest of the ball.” Daniel dipped his head their direction, then turned and headed for the door, his strong gait causing people to naturally move aside for him.
Pa caught her newly freed hand and wrapped it over his arm. “Let’s go downstairs to my office, shall we?”
His office? Now? This couldn’t be good.
But Pa didn’t look overly upset as he led her down the same path Daniel had followed to the door of the ballroom. His steps were slower than usual and his breathing a bit labored as they clambered down the stairs together. He must have participated in the last dance. She’d thought he’d been at the punch table talking to Mr. Mortimer, but he had to have danced with someone. The Widow Abernathy, perhaps? Or maybe the wealthy spinster, Miss Sims?
They reached the bottom of the stairs, her father’s wheezing growing more pronounced as he steered her toward his office.
She stepped through the door into the cool darkness of the adobe room.
Her father lit the lamp, a large sigh gusting through him at the same moment flame jumped to life inside the ornamental globe. “I thought you said you were going to make an effort this time around.”
“With Andrew Mortimer. We agreed before he came that he’d make you a good husband. He’s renowned for his horseflesh.”
“I was. I am.” She sank down into one of the high back chairs. “I ran into him in the stable before the ball, and we talked for nearly an hour. I thought it went well.”
“An hour, you say?” Something soft shone in her father’s eyes. He wasn’t the easiest of men, had a shrewd streak in him that most people shrank away from, but he’d never been overly hard with her. He did, however, expect her to marry a man with a bank account and social standing that matched her own.
The thought had always terrified her, as had the string of men her father had trotted in front of her over the past two years. But maybe Andrew Mortimer would be different.
“What did the two of you talk about in the stable?” her father asked.
“Horses. My Arabians, his thoroughbreds. He was eager to see my horses. But did you see the thoroughbred he brought here? You have to admit it’s magnificent. He invited me to visit his stables next time we’re in San Antonio.”
“You didn’t talk about anything else?”
She blinked at him. “What else were we supposed to talk about?”
“You know…” Pa gave his hand a rolling motion. “The kind of things a woman and man discuss when there are feelings between them.”
“But there aren’t feelings between us. I barely know him.” Maybe a small part of her had hoped he’d ask for a dance, but evidently their conversation in the stable hadn’t been as memorable to him as it had been to her. “I promise I’m trying with Andrew, but he’s been surrounded by women ever since the ball started.”
“That’s why I got him to agree to escort you into supper later.” Pa straightened the lapels of his suit, never mind that they didn’t need straightening. “Try to put on a little charm for him.”
She stared down at her hands. As though she had any charm with which to impress Andrew—or anyone else.
She could talk about horses with him, but that would only earn her glares from everyone seated nearby. She’d learned long ago that horseflesh wasn’t considered appropriate supper conversation for a ball.
So what was she supposed to say to him? Unlike Andrew’s father, who had been here two weeks, Andrew had only arrived at the ranch this morning. Should she ask about his trip from San Antonio? If his room was comfortable?
She felt bored just thinking about the conversation.
“Is that straw on your dress?” Pa pointed at her shoulder.
Was it? She looked down at the same time her father stepped forward and plucked the strand from where it had been stuck along her neckline.
A fresh bout of heat burst onto her face. She’d gone through an entire dance with straw stuck to her? Why hadn’t Daniel or Wes said anything?
“Stand up and turn around.”
She did, and the jerky way her father plucked at her back told her more had gotten caught in the silly lace flounces he’d insisted she wear.
“What in tarnation possessed you to visit the stable during the ball?” Displeasure dripped from his words.
“You remember the quarter horse I bred with Ares? Helen is in labor.”
She whirled around. “Don’t be that way. You know how difficult foaling can be on a first-time mother. Someone needed to check on her.”
“We have cowhands for that.”
“Cowhands know what to do with birthing cattle. Not horses.”
“There’s not that much difference.”
“There is, and you know it. Helen is getting along fine, I’ll have you know. But her labor isn’t progressing very rapidly. I expect she’ll be in labor most of the night.”
Father muttered something under his breath that may have pertained to stubbornness and women. “You ought not to be concerned with horseflesh on a night like this.”
“Then what should I be concerned with? How much land Andrew’s set to inherit after his father dies?” The Mortimers’ operation outside of San Antonio was modest, but nothing compared to the ranch her father owned. Cattle alone couldn’t be what was enticing her father to want a marriage between their families. “Perhaps I need to find out how well the portion of the railroad they own is doing?”
“Leave the business side of this to the men, Charlotte.” Pa pressed his eyes shut and rubbed both of his temples, as though a sudden headache had come upon him. “All I want is what’s best for you. Now can you please go back upstairs and try charming Andrew? You’re young and beautiful. Men’s gazes follow you when you step into a room, yet you never try to impress any of the men I pick.”
“Men’s gazes don’t follow me because I’m beautiful. Men watch me because I’m a Westin and everyone knows we’re drowning in more money and cattle than we can handle.”
But a flicker of hope ignited somewhere inside her chest. She hadn’t wanted to marry any of the men her father had picked for her so far, but Andrew might be different.
She fingered the shimmering fabric of the dress she’d donned for the ball, so unlike the leather split skirts and plain linen shirts she usually wore. Even if Andrew turned out to be the same as all the others, she needed to marry someone, and soon. She’d tried choosing her own husband twice now without Pa knowing, and the second time…
Her throat grew suddenly tight, and heat pricked her eyes.
Maybe Daniel was right and she needed to tell her family the full story of what had happened with the rustlers. How Robbie Ashton had wooed her with sweet talk and tender kisses to distract her from the cattle slowly disappearing from her family’s ranch.
But she couldn’t speak of it when memories of Robbie still burned through her like a branding iron to a calf’s hide.
“I’ll try my best with Andrew tonight.” She met her father’s gaze.
“Thank you.” A small smile tilted the edges of his mouth, and a warm sensation spread through her chest.
Like he said, he was only thinking of her future…
And she didn’t intend to cost the ranch any more cattle by letting her heart get tangled up with the wrong man a second time.
Dancing with Charlotte had been a mistake.
Daniel Harding strode through the stone-tiled entrance to the Westins’ hacienda, his eyes scanning the darkened desert for anything that might be amiss.
Watching Charlotte from across the ballroom had been hard, but what had he been thinking to walk over and strike up a conversation?
He’d been thinking she looked miserable standing against the wall by herself, and he’d wanted to replace the frown on her face with a smile. And maybe he’d wanted a closer look at the dress that shimmered hues of jeweled green beneath the light of the chandeliers or at the hair she’d piled atop her head in a riot of soft curls.
And that’s where he’d made his mistake, because she’d been even more beautiful up close than he’d realized.
“I thought you said you were going to make an effort this time around.”
Daniel paused. He recognized Agamemnon Westin V’s voice, but where was it coming from?
“An effort?” Charlotte’s voice this time.
Daniel turned in the direction of the sounds. A dim lamp flickered through the open window of Mr. Westin’s study.
“With Andrew Mortimer. We agreed before he came that he’d be a good match. He’s renowned for his horseflesh.”
A good match? As in for Charlotte to marry?
Daniel grunted. Wes had introduced him to someone named Andrew. The dandy had been so busy watching the duo of women by his side that he’d barely managed to mutter a greeting. Why was Mr. Westin trying to marry Charlotte to such a man?
But he knew the answer. Her father had spent years growing this ranch into a massive cattle company, and he intended to use his wealth and prominence to secure his children marriages to similarly wealthy and prominent Texan families.
The trouble was, anyone who spent more than five minutes with Charlotte would learn she didn’t want wealth and prestige.
And none of this had anything to do with him.
Daniel dragged in a lungful of warm desert air. It didn’t matter that he’d known Charlotte since the day she’d been born. His family didn’t have enough money for Mr. Westin to consider him as potential husband material.
Charlotte’s conversation with her father continued. Mr. Westin’s voice was gentle, kind even. He’d always been that way with his children. There was no question he’d been as good of a father as possible after Mrs. Westin and their youngest child had died.
But that kindness only extended to his family. When it came to running his ranch, he was opportunistic and driven. He’d even been cruel to one of their friends, Sam Owens, after he inherited land that Mr. Westin had wanted to buy for the A Bar W.
Charlotte and her father kept talking, discussing how she’d spoken with Andrew earlier and he’d seemed nice but had been ignoring her at the ball. Then she admitted she’d snuck out to the barn to visit one of her laboring horses at some point in the evening—which wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knew her. She also wanted to know how big the Mortimer’s ranch in San Antonio was, how lucrative their shares in the Southern Pacific Railroad were. Again, none of this was surprising.
So what was he doing eavesdropping? He had a town to patrol and no deputies to help him tonight.
But Charlotte wasn’t protesting marriage to this Mortimer fellow nearly as much as he expected. Daniel scratched his head beneath his hat brim. Maybe she actually found something admirable in Mortimer?
Not my concern! If he repeated the words enough times in his mind, hopefully he’d start to believe them.
Since he’d been old enough to understand what marriage was, he’d known Charlotte would one day marry a man of her father’s choosing. And he’d been reminding himself of that fact since the day in church three years ago when he’d looked down the pew and realized Wes’s little sister had somehow grown from a girl into a woman.
Even now, he could still feel Charlotte in his arms as he’d led her across the dance floor. Still remember the stiff way she’d held herself, still see the mesmerizing way the lighting had bounced against her honey-brown hair. Still recall the way he’d almost gotten her to smile.
“Did you give Anna Mae one of your dresses to wear tonight?”
At the sound of his sister’s name, Daniel straightened.
“Is there a problem with that?” Charlotte’s voice took on a short, clipped tone.
Daniel could almost imagine her standing in front of her father, her chin high and nostrils flared.
“I’ve told you before, you can’t go giving her your clothes.”
“I never wear that dress. Even with my horrible fashion sense, I could tell that shade of yellow clashed with my hair but would look gorgeous on Anna Mae. I gave it to her a month or so ago and she altered it.”
“Andrew won’t take his eyes off her.”
“Of course he won’t. What man would? She’s both beautiful and charming.” Charlotte didn’t speak her words with envy, but as though they were simple fact.
They were the oddest pair, Charlotte and Anna Mae. Daniel would have never lumped them together, but they’d been friends since just about their first day of school. Most women felt threatened by Anna Mae’s beauty, and if not that, they couldn’t tolerate her constant chatter and never-ending energy. But Charlotte just blinked at her, shrugged, and went on with her quiet, structured life, taking whatever ideas Anna Mae concocted in stride.
Daniel readjusted his hat on his head. Here he was getting distracted again. He shouldn’t be eavesdropping on Charlotte’s conversation with her father in the first place, but there was no question that he needed to figure out what to do about his feelings for her.
Dear God, take them from me. I don’t want to feel this way. It was a prayer he’d prayed hundreds of times over the years. But God hadn’t seen fit to answer it, not yet.
Maybe the best thing was for Charlotte to get married. Surely once she belonged to another man, he’d be able to move on.
But was Andrew Mortimer really the best choice for her? Or was her father trying to stuff her into a mold that she was never going to fit?
Daniel shook his head, then shoved away from the wall and stalked toward where he’d left his horse, Blaze, in one of the paddocks. If he let himself keep arguing in his head, he’d be standing there all night.
But if he were to be of any use on patrol once he got back to Twin Rivers, he’d need to scrub from his memory the image of Charlotte dancing beneath the light of chandeliers, aglow in that emerald dress.
He’d have to scrub it from his mind tomorrow, too. And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. In fact, forgetting the way Charlotte felt in his arms just might be the hardest thing he’d ever done.
But he didn’t have a choice. Charlotte Westin would never be his.
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