by Leah Wyett
“Welcome, Miss Hazel.” he said. “It’s an honor to meet you.” Then he turned to Hal and gave him the same greeting. Hazel looked at her father. He seemed just a bit overwhelmed. Mr. Lee helped John get their bags as the two women came forward to greet them. One was Sally, the “junior housemaid” and the other, a woman named Greta, who spoke with a strong Scandinavian accent and said that she was the “senior housemaid.”
As Greta was speaking, Hazel heard the front door of the house opening. She looked up into the most powerfully intense pair of brown eyes she had ever seen. Hazel was so lost in those eyes that it took her a full thirty seconds to even notice the rest of the man. When she did, she didn’t flinch, not even internally. Her soul had mingled with his when he looked into her eyes and she wasn’t even a little bit afraid. She gave him a wide smile and he returned it. She glanced sideways at her father then. She was proud of him. He was looking at the man no differently than he had John when he’d met him at the station.
Heath came toward them and as he did, Hazel noticed how muscular and handsome his body was and that he had the softest looking shiny black hair she had ever seen. When he took her hand and looked into her eyes once more, she no longer had a single doubt. She loved this man just as he was and she wanted to be his wife.
“Hazel, I’m so pleased that you are here.” He bent at the waist and kissed the back of her hand. She noticed that the hand he held hers in had the same scars as the ones on his face.
“I am so delighted to be here.” she said.
Heath turned to her pa then and said, “Welcome, Mr. Morgan. Thank you for bringing your lovely daughter all the way out here to meet me.”
Hal shook his hand and nodded. Heath put his arm out and Hazel took it and he led her up the steps and into the house. Hal followed them. The foyer was wide open with shiny wood floors and a spiral staircase. There was a chandelier overhead as well. Neither Hazel nor Hal had ever seen anything like it. Hazel had never even known anyone with a two story home. Heath led them into a parlor that Hazel knew their entire home would have fit inside of. The cast iron pot-bellied stove was warming the room and large picture windows surrounded it, letting in the bright Texas sun.
“Please, have a seat.” he said. Hazel and her father sat down and within seconds, Sally appeared with a tray that held a silver teapot and cookies.
She poured the tea and then offered them a cookie. When she got to Hal she said, “You’re welcome to take more than one, sir, they’re small.”
Hal smiled and said, “Well, because they’re small…” He took two and thanked her.
She looked at Heath and said, “Will you be needing anything else, sir?”
“No, Sally, thank you.” he said. Hazel loved the Texas accent, and the soft, melodic tone of his voice. He turned his attention back to her. He couldn’t seem to be able to take his eyes off of her and it gave Hazel chills down her spine. It was an awkward first meeting with Pa there. No one seemed to know what to say. Finally, Heath looked at Hal and said, “Is this your first trip to Texas, Mr. Morgan?”
“I was here once back in the fifties.” he said. “I came out to look at some property when Mrs. Morgan and I were thinking of moving out west from New York. We settled on Ohio instead.”
“I imagine it has changed a lot around here since then. It has changed a lot in the time I can remember.”
“Yes, it has. But then so has this entire country.” Hal said. “How many acres do you have here?”
“My pa started the ranch in 1952 with a hundred and fifty acres and a partner. His partner was killed when he was only thirty years old and his rights to the ranch reverted to Pa. By the time he passed away, we had one hundred and forty-two thousand acres. Much of it is still wilderness. My pa was quite the businessman. His first few years of managing the task of getting the cattle to market, alone, was a daunting one. There was a thousand miles of wilderness between this ranch and the Midwestern railheads back then. He muddled through though and he began investing in and building railroads, packinghouses, and ice plants. He also invested in improvements in the port of Corpus Christi. His bottom line was always to get his cattle to market, but in the process he branched the business out on a hundred different directions.”
“Your pa sounds like quite a man.” Hal said. Hazel could tell that her pa was impressed. She smiled. That was good.
“He was.” Heath said, also smiling. Something about the scars on his face had even softened when he talked about his father. “He developed a system of up breeding that significantly improved the quality of our cattle and horses, and before he died, he was even working on creating a new breed. John and I have taken that over; I hope to see it happen before I die.”
“Was your pa from money?” Hal asked.
“Pa!” Hazel said, embarrassed that her father would ask such a question.
Smiling again, Heath said, “It’s okay. No, sir. He started out as an orphan and moved on to be an impoverished, indentured jeweler’s apprentice. He made money during the war, running supplies to the Union army. He flew a Mexican flag on his ship as he sailed the Rio Grande. He had a keen sense of adventure and he wasn’t afraid of hard work either. That’s what he started his empire with, that and his good choice in women. My mother was as much a part of improving the quality of this ranch as my father was. He liked to give her credit for that as well.” He looked at Hazel then and said, “I had fantastic examples of how to have a happy marriage and how to raise a happy child.”
It was easy to see how proud he was of both his mother and father, and his heritage. “Would you like a tour of the ranch, sir? Or would you like to wait until tomorrow when you’re better rested?”
Hal looked at his daughter. He knew that she was dying to have a moment alone with Heath. Although, as a father, he was aching to object, this man seemed harmless enough, so far…. “Why don’t I have a look around and give you and Punkin’ some time to get acquainted?” he said, proud of his forward thinking.
Hazel smiled at him, gratefully. Heath said, “Let me see if John is still here. I’m sure he would love to take you. Excuse me, please?”
He waited for Hazel to say, “Yes, of course.”, before he left the room.
When he was gone, she looked at her Pa and said, “What do you think?”
Hal shrugged and said, “I’m not packing you up…yet.”
Hazel grinned at him and said, “Thank you, Pa.” He only shrugged again. “This place is really something, ain’t it?”
“That it is, Punkin’.” her pa agreed. A few minutes later, Heath came back with John in tow.
“Whenever you’re ready for that tour, sir,” John said.
Hal stood up and looking at his daughter and Heath, he said, “You two be good. I won’t be long.”
They both smiled and nodded.
When Hal was gone, Heath looked at Hazel nervously and said, “You’re so beautiful.” Hazel thought she might melt at that very moment.
“Thank you.” she said.
He went over to where she sat then and he sat on the ottoman at her feet. “No, thank you for coming. I wish there were words to tell you how happy it makes me that you were willing to come after everything. Am I too hard for you to look at, dear Hazel?”
Hazel ran her fingers along the side of his face. Heath shivered at her touch. It was the kind of touch he had always craved…Unsolicited and loving.
Looking into his eyes she said, “I think you’re beautiful.” Hazel meant it, and Heath could tell she was sincere. Heath put his hand on hers and held it to his cheek.
He had tears in his eyes when he said, “I waited my entire life for the woman who believed that. My ma used to tell me that she was out there, that I just had to be patient. I can’t believe I finally found you, and you’re a thousand times more amazing than I ever thought you could be.”
Hazel had tears in her eyes now. She had to c
oncentrate to make herself breathe. “Thank you for bringing us here.” she said at last. “Your home is lovely.”
“Would you like to see the rest of it?” he asked her.
“Sure, I’d love to.” she said. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. It was titillating and unnerving at the same time, the way his gaze was so penetrating.
Hazel was enthralled by the home, but more so by him. His movements were graceful and deliberate and it was hard for her to imagine him on a cattle drive with a bandana around his face, riding a horse and running cattle like just another cowboy. He seemed like he should have been born in a different age, one of castles and kings. He should have been a knight, or a prince. Hazel smiled at herself and her own thoughts. Had her mother been here, she would have told her that she was “letting her imagination run away with her again.”
The house had five bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, two indoor bathrooms, a parlor, a billiard room, a mud room, and a large porch in the back where the wash was done.
“I have one more room to show you.” he said. “I saved the best for last.” He took her to a tall wooden door and said, “Close your eyes.” Hazel smiled, but did as he asked. She heard him open the door and he said, “Okay.”
She opened her eyes to the most incredible sight that she had ever seen. It was a round room and it was filled top to bottom with shelves and the shelves were filled top to bottom with books.
“Oh! Look at all the books!” she said.
“It’s our library.” he said. “It was my mother’s pride and joy. I update it as often as I can.”
“It’s…It’s…Oh! I have no words for it.” she said. Hazel had never even seen a bookstore.
Heath laughed. He had only just met her face to face and he already loved to see her face when she was happy. She was such a sweet mixture of woman and child.
She turned to him and said, “I’ve never seen a house this big.” she said. “Do the servants live here with you?”
“No,” he said with an indulgent smile. “They have their own quarters out back.”
“What about John?” she asked.
“No, John has his own house out on the back forty of the ranch. There’s a tack house out there that we turned into a bunk house so now we have two of those as well and that’s where the ranch hands live if they’re single.”
“So you live here all alone?” she asked him, wondering what one person would do with so much room.
He took her hands in his and said, “Yes, I do. But hopefully, not for long.”
She smiled and said, “Yes, hopefully not for long.”
As they made their way back down the spiral staircase, John and Hal were coming in the front door. “It’s snowing out there, lightly.” John said. “But I thought Mr. Morgan would be better served seeing the ranch in the morning when the weather isn’t so miserable.” It had been an unseasonably cold winter in Texas.
“Good thinking, John.” Heath told him. “Come in and get warm by the fire, Mr. Morgan. I’ll have Sally fetch you a cup of hot tea.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent with the men playing a game of billiards while Hazel took a little nap and then freshened up with a bath. The train ride had taken a lot out of her. After her bath and dressing for dinner, Hazel went over to the window in her room. She looked out on the miles and miles of land and it suddenly really sank in that her husband-to-be owned all of this. Hazel didn’t care about money, she had never had any to care about, but it was still a thrilling notion. There was a seat in the window, and she imagined herself sitting there with a book, reading in the afternoon light.
“A book from my own library!” she said out loud. Hazel had never been so happy, and not only that, she had never imagined that she could be.
Today was the day Hazel’s pa was scheduled to leave. His train was to depart Brownsville station at ten a.m. As Hazel lay awake in her big, comfy bed, she smiled as she thought about the past few days. The first evening had been awkward but by the next day, everyone was warming up to each other and Hazel’s pa really enjoyed the tour of the hard working ranch. She got to see Heath in his cowboy gear and it actually gave her goose bumps. Last evening, after dinner, they had gone out to look at the stars and before Hal made an appearance, Heath told her that this was where he sat every night and looked at the moon and thought of her. He even had a telescope that he used to look at the stars. It had made Hazel wish that her little sister was here, she would have loved that.
They had been standing close, looking up at the moon, and Hazel just knew that Heath was going to kiss her. Just as he leaned in, and she could feel the energy coming from his lips, Hal stepped out the back door. The mood was gone, but that was okay. Hazel told herself they would have the next fifty years to kiss if they wanted to. She threw back the covers just as there was a knock on her bedroom door.
“Punkin’? It’s Pa, are you up?”
“Yes, Pa, one minute.” Hazel threw a robe over her dressing gown and let her Pa inside. He looked around the room, which had a sitting area with two chairs and a small fireplace and a huge four poster bed with a chest of drawers and an armoire.
“Impressive.” he said.
Hazel smiled. “Everything is beautiful here.” she said.
“And big.” Hal said. “I might have fit here better than I do in Ohio.”
Hazel giggled. It was true.
Hal turned serious then as he said, “Today is the day I’m supposed to leave. I get the feeling you’re not coming with me?”
Sarah took a deep breath and said, “Oh, Pa, I will miss you like crazy. But, no, I don’t want to go back. I love him, Pa, I really do.”
“You’re sure?” he said. “It’s not all this finery we’re surrounded by?” Hal liked Heath and he was sure his daughter wouldn’t be swayed by money alone, but he felt it was his duty to ask.
“No, Pa. I love all of this, of course. I’m only human after all. But, Pa, you’ve seen him and heard him and talked to him. He’s so…I mean, he’s….I just love him.”
Hal smiled at his daughter and said, “I can see it in your eyes when you look at him, Punkin’, and in his when he looks at you. I do have reservations about leaving you here in his home unescorted.”
“Sally said that she would stay in the house until we’re married. Heath asked her. I promise to you, on my honor, it will all be very respectable.” she told him.
“Well, I guess Heath has thought of everything.” Hal said and Hazel giggled again.
“He did, Pa.” she said. “He really did.”
“So, is she staying?” John asked.
“If she doesn’t, I’ll kill myself.” Heath told him.
John rolled his eyes. “You’re so dramatic.”
Heath grinned. “I know, but it’s true. I can literally no longer imagine my life without her in it.”
John knew Heath wasn’t kidding. The hard part was that John was beginning to have the same strong feelings for his best friend’s soon to be fiancé. He felt like a terrible person. Heath finally had one chance to be happy and instead of just being happy for him, all John could think about was how he wished that he had answered that ad himself. John would never do anything about it now. He cared too much about Heath. He was corresponding with a woman now, and she was fine but since he had met Hazel, he’d not been able to stop himself from comparing them. He hoped that feeling would go away once she and Heath got married and the newness of the situation wore off.
“John?” he heard Heath calling his name. He had been lost in his thoughts.
“What?” John said.
Heath smiled. “What were you thinking about? You were a million miles away.”
“Oh, nothing.” John said. “I was thinking about a letter I got from Natalie.” She was one of the girls John had been corresponding with.
Heath clapped his friend on the shoulder and said, “Perhaps a doubl
e wedding will be in order?”
John forced a smile and said, “Perhaps.” Hazel came down the stairs then. She was dressed in a dark green dress and had the top of her hair pulled back in a matching green ribbon. The rest of it lay in spiral curls to her shoulders. Her green eyes danced as she looked at Heath and John was so jealous that he hated himself. He wanted to marry her.
“Good morning.” she said with a dazzling smile. Heath went to meet her at the bottom of the stairs.
He kissed her hand and said, “Good morning, Sunshine.” She noticed John then, as if he had just come into the room.
“Good morning, John.” she said.
“Good morning, Hazel.” he told her. Then, looking at Heath, he said. “I’m going to go check those fences.”
Heath barely acknowledged him as he left, not being able to take his eyes off of Hazel. When John was gone, Heath said, “You are the loveliest vision I have ever seen.”
Hazel actually felt herself blush. “Thank you. I’m glad you think so.”
Heath gave her a quizzical look and said, “You really have no idea how beautiful you are, do you?”
Hazel shrugged. “Vanity is a sin.” she said. Heath laughed and said,
“Then I suppose at least I’m going to heaven for lack of my own. Come, let’s have breakfast.” He led her to the dining room, where Hal joined them a few minutes later.
After they finished eating, Hal said, “Has my daughter told you what she’s decided?” Heath looked at Hazel hopefully. He hadn’t had the nerve to ask her, for fear she wouldn’t give him the answer he so hoped for. “No, sir.” he said.
“I’m going to stay…if you’ll still have me.” she said. Heath had to laugh at that. If he would still have her? He felt like, at this point, he may die without her. He wanted to dance and sing. He wanted to kiss her…so badly. Instead of doing any of that, he looked at Hal as if they had something cooked up between them and Hal nodded. He slid out of his chair to the floor on one knee at Hazel’s feet. Taking her hand in his, he looked into her lovely green eyes and said,
“Hazel Lynn Morgan, will you do me the honor of making me the happiest, luckiest man alive and being my wife?” He had already asked Hal for his blessing the evening before.