He had dismissed her. Rose could feel it. He waited for her to leave the restaurant ahead of him, but she might as well not have been there at all. She wanted to run away, to do anything rather than go back and suffer the humiliation of seeing him choose Berthilde or Peaches over her.
But pride made her walk at his side. Pride enabled her to hold up her head. Pride put steel in her nerves for the announcement she knew would destroy her last hope.
“You sure took a long time,” Peaches said when they reached the sheriff’s office.
“She didn’t tell you any lies about us, did she?” inquired the Widow Hanks.
“Ya,” agreed Berthilde Huber.
“Miss Thornton merely had some questions she wished to ask without the whole town as an audience. And I had a few questions to ask her.”
“I bet we got a few boys in town who could give you the answers,” Sulphur Tom quipped.
George couldn’t say what made him react so sharply to the old man’s ribbing. But whatever part of his mind Sulphur Tom prodded into action, he got more of a response than either of them anticipated.
“I have a natural respect for anyone who’s reached your advanced age,” George said, directing a chilling stare at the irreverent Tom, “despite the obvious ill-treatment you’ve given your body”—howls of appreciative laughter came from the bystanders, including Sulphur Tom himself—“but your longevity will be severely jeopardized if you insult Miss Thornton again. Now if you will hand me your agreement,” he said turning to Rose, “I’ll sign it before all these witnesses.”
Rose handed him the agreement, her surprise lost in the furious response of the people gathered around, most especially Miss Peaches McCloud.
But no one was more shocked than George himself.
Rose couldn’t remember when she had been more miserable. Every part of her body ached. After staying overnight in Austin, George had insisted upon leaving at dawn in order to make the return trip in one day. He had given her the choice of traveling on horseback with him or following in a wagon. Her response had been automatic. She would ride with him. Now she wondered if she hadn’t made the wrong decision, on more than one count.
In addition to being certain that she wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week, she hadn’t been able to carry on much of a conversation. It had been a monotonous trip. George seemed moody, cold, uncommunicative. He had answered all her questions, but he hadn’t tried to pretend he wouldn’t have preferred to ride in silence. At times his answers had verged on rudeness. Clearly he had another side, one not nearly so pleasant as the face he showed in Austin.
And he had demons, too. She could tell he had been wrestling with something for the last two hours. At first she thought he might tell her about it, but now she knew he wouldn’t. George was not the kind of person to confide in others. He rode with his eyes straight ahead, oblivious to his surroundings.
And to her.
Rose had heard about the brush country, but she’d never seen it. Now she wondered how anything, man or beast, could live in such a place. They seemed to be traveling between impenetrable thickets that extended as far as the eye could see. Sometimes miles went by before they came to an opening, a small savannah in this tangle of mesquite, chaparral, prickly pear, wild currant, cat’s claw, and a dozen other varieties of low-growing trees, bushes, and vines, all bearing sweet-scented flowers and succulent berries, and nearly all armed with vicious thorns. Rose didn’t know how cows and deer, even pigs and turkeys, could hide in such a briar patch. She couldn’t conceive of how a man and horse could ride into that tangle and come out alive.
After living in a town all her life, she was unnerved by the isolation of the brush. She hadn’t seen a house all day. It was as though they were the only people on the face of the earth. She didn’t know if she could survive this far from people. Not with George acting as though he were made of wood.
A widening path drew her attention from the brush. Rose could make out a building in the distance. She felt her pulse quicken.
“It’s not much of a house,” George warned her. “We had hardly moved here when the war broke out. With Pa and the two oldest boys gone, Ma was lucky to hold things together.”
Rose realized, a little surprised, that he had never mentioned his parents before. “I thought…you never said…you led me to believe…”
“Ma died three years ago. The house will be entirely your responsibility.” They might as well be discussing some military maneuver for all the feeling she could sense in his voice. He didn’t even look at her.