Read an Excerpt
Inky darkness crowded Joseph Drake from every side. It shrouded him like a thick coat, with power so substantial that it was almost suffocating. Its bleakness mocked his vulnerable state, sending humiliation barreling through him with avalanche force.
He hated this. Every bit of it. He could barely stomach the thought of asking for help or being pitied. And he loathed the idea that those helping him would be monitoring his each and every pathetic move.
Drawing in a steadying breath, he braced himself against the pitch blackness as he sat on the edge of the feather mattress, clutching the thin sheet in his hand. He was so dizzy. His head swam and his ears rang incessantly, deepening his bad mood. He couldn't have imagined how unsettled he'd still feel after being on bed rest for three weeks. Raising his hands to his head, he slid his fingers over the fresh bandages shrouding his eyes. How he wished he'd just wake up and find that his accident in the woodshop had been a horrible nightmare.
"God, please," he pleaded, his throat thick with emotion. "I need my sight back."
When Ben, his older brother by two years and a doctor in Boulder, had removed the wraps yesterday, Joseph had been confident that he'd be able to see again. But that confidence had vanished like some taunting wraith as he'd frantically grabbed for any image through the thick, dark cloud.
He'd tried to stay calm, but deep down he'd felt a crumbling begin at the very base of who he was. All along he'd minimized his injury. After all, it could be too soon to tell any permanent outcome—and Ben was new to doctoring. The thought had crossed Joseph's mind more than once that maybe Ben was a little green around the edges and lacked experience.
He'd reasoned it all, but the prospect of being permanently blind staked out his soul like a dank, stony grave marker. And the huge furniture order he'd taken on just days before his accident lay like dead flowers crushed into the fresh turned dirt. He'd cushioned the deadline when he'd signed the contract, but with his brother, Aaron, being the only one working in the woodshop for the past three weeks, the padding had been jerked away hard and fast.
Fighting to remain hopeful, he pushed himself off the bed, his cracked ribs protesting with the movement. He inhaled sharply, digging his toes into the rag rug's nubby texture.
His jaw ticked with instant irritation as a distant chorus of giggles wafted through his open window. It didn't take much to conjure up the origin of the twittering noise. He could see it now… a cluster of bonneted women standing in front of the hotel. Lined up like flowers for the picking, just another batch of mail-order brides brought in to help populate the west.
It was downright demeaning, in his book, the way they'd set themselves on display like that.
When a knock sounded on his front door, he startled. Clad in just underclothes, he lurched forward, struggling for balance as he probed for the wall where his clothes were hung.
Ben's strong urging that Joseph gradually ease back into life on his own whipped through his mind like a warning knell. But bandages over his eyes or not, Joseph was a twenty-seven-year-old man, and like a caged animal, he craved independence and freedom. Privacy.
"I'll be right out," he yelled after another knock sounded.
His fingertips brushed against sturdy cotton fabric and he sighed with relief. He pulled on his britches and boots, then shrugged into his shirtsleeves, although a new level of frustration assaulted him as he intently focused on lining up the five wooden buttons with buttonholes.
Eight years ago he'd built his own home, but now he could barely dress himself. He shuffled out of the bedroom, galled at having to give such simple routines a second thought. Groping along the wall, his breathing grew shallow as each awkward step echoed over the hardwood floor—a mocking reminder of his vulnerable state.
When his leg knocked hard into something, Joseph flinched, reaching down to steady the imposing piece of furniture. His hands careened into the small table and tipped it over, sending a loud bang reverberating throughout the quiet house.
"Joseph? Are you all right?" Ben rapped at his door again.
He stooped to right the piece. "I'll be right there," he shot back through tightly clenched teeth.
Hands quivering, he felt the satin-smooth finish. He'd always prided himself in this well-known trademark, but now he wondered if he'd ever be able to resume his profession.
And his plans to marry and have a family… None of that was certain now. If his vision didn't return, there was no way he'd saddle any young woman to life with a blind man.
Humiliation cloaked him soundly and offending images of himself stumbling through life alone and without sight intensified his bad mood.
When Joseph finally reached the front door, he fumbled for the handle, then eased it open. A gust of fresh air hit him square in the face, reminding him just how long he'd been down.
"Mornin', Joseph!" Ben clapped him on the arm. "Sorry. I didn't mean to hurry you, but you said you didn't want me barging in anymore, but then when I heard…" Ben's voice trailed off. "I see you made it up and about."
"Were you expecting something else?" Joseph retorted.
"Not exactly, I guess."
Joseph tried to push aside his sour mood as he caught the rumble of a buckboard rolling slowly by in front of his house. "What brings you over? I thought you gave me a clean bill of health yesterday." Sliding a hand up the front of his shirt, he checked for misaligned buttons.
"How are the ribs? Are they giving you much trouble?"
"I feel fine," he lied, ignoring the constant dull ache and the comment he could swear he overheard from inside the wagon, regarding his bandages. His accident had probably been the talk of the town for the past three weeks.
"Well, your color is better. Not bad for a man who's been through what you have. Are you sure you're feeling strong enough to tackle things today?"
"I said I'm fine." Joseph furrowed his brow. "But if I didn't know you better, I'd think you were expecting me to trek up the Flatirons with you. That's not likely to happen."
"Believe me, a quiet day in the mountains sounds great after visiting with ol' Donovan Grimes. The fellow's hearing must be just about gone, the way he shouts. My ears are still ringing." Ben shifted his booted feet on the porch floor. "By the way, Aaron said that Ellie had planned to bring dinner tonight, but she's not feeling well. I'm going to check in on her after this."
Joseph grew immediately concerned for his sister-in-law. She was having a difficult time of this first pregnancy and he knew it weighed on his younger brother Aaron. Especially now that he was carrying double the load in the woodshop with Joseph being laid up.
"Tell you what, I'll just have the hotel diner make you up a plate and deliver it to you. How's that sound?"
Joseph balled his fists. "I said yesterday that I'd take it from here."
"I'd accept the help if I were you," Ben urged. "Soon enough you'll be begging us to have a little pity on you and bring over some good, home-cooked meals again."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Stepping outside, he closed the door behind him so Ben wouldn't get any ideas of staying for a visit.
Ben cleared his throat, a trait Joseph had begun to recognize over the past three weeks as a nervous gesture. "Remember when we talked, shortly after your fall, about getting you training in case you don't—"
"Whoa. Whoa." He swiped beads of perspiration forming on his brow. "We talked? I think you mean you talked. I didn't agree to anything."
"I know how adamant you are about being independent—I want that for you, too. But you'll get there quicker with training," Ben finished as though racing to get it out.
Gritting his teeth, Joseph plastered himself against the door. He'd prove to his older brother that he could make it on his own, but he couldn't even seem to move his feet enough to turn and stalk back inside. Truth be told, he was scared to death to take a step forward into the darkness.
And he'd never been afraid of anything.
"What are you getting at, Ben?" A bout of light-headedness assaulted him and he struggled to keep his balance as he stood to his full six foot, three inches. "What's going on?"
Ben sighed. "Promise me you'll hear me out before you go jumping down my throat, all right?"
"I'm not promising you anything." Joseph tightened his fists. "Just tell me what you did. Now!"
"I—I arranged for a teacher to come out from Iowa."
"You did what?"
"I arranged for a teacher to help you," Ben declared with a little more firmness. "I know you don't want to do this, but you need to give it a chance."
"It's a waste of time. My vision is going to return."
"I hope you're right. You know that I've read everything I can get my hands on. But like I told you yesterday, the more time that passes with no change, the less chance there is for restoration," Ben said, his voice tight. "I know this has to be hard, but if your vision doesn't return, what then?"
That question had staked out territory in Joseph's mind for the past three weeks. That his entire life could be permanently altered infringed on his well-planned life like some dark omen.
In a softer tone, Ben continued. "Will you refuse help even when it could make things easier for you?"
Every muscle shuddered with anger. "I—don't—need—help!"
Even as the declaration crossed his lips he knew he might be deceiving himself. But the thought of being trained in the simple aspects of life rankled like nothing else. He'd always been self-sufficient. Always.
Joseph forced himself to stop shaking. "Wire the man and let him know he doesn't need to waste a long trip like that."
Awkward silence draped heavily between them, making Joseph's skin prickle and a foreboding creep down his spine.
Ben sighed, slow and heavy. "I—I can't do that."
"You can't send a telegraph wire?" His pulse pounded in his ears. "Why not? It's not that hard."
When his brother stepped back, Joseph loosened his fists, unfurling them one finger at a time. Ben could be stubborn, but so could Joseph—and he had a long history of winning arguments.
"Miss Ellickson," Ben called out toward the street. "Why don't you come on up."
Joseph froze. "Tell me what's going on," he demanded, his heart slamming against his chest. "I mean it, Ben."
Ben came to stand directly in front of him now, so close that Joseph could smell his brother's subtle, clean scent. "Your teacher arrived by stage two days ago."
Hearing the faint clicking of boots across the boardwalk, a trembling shook Joseph to the core. Unbidden, he pictured an old schoolmarm clad in a dowdy brown dress, a severe knot of mousy-brown hair clinging to the back of her head and rimmed glasses perched on her long nose.
His jaw muscle ticked. "Why wasn't I informed? This is my life we're talking about here."
"You'll probably never forgive me for this. And I knew that you'd refuse, no matter what sense I tried to talk into you. You're stubborn, Joseph, too stubborn for your own good. As your brother and doctor, I made the decision for you."
"That's just great! I get to have my life planned by you now." Joseph gave a mock laugh. "I may have lost my vision for a while, but I haven't lost my mind. Send the woman back!"
Just shy of Joseph's height, Ben leaned closer, his voice dropping to a stern whisper. "I also knew that as a perfect gentleman, you wouldn't give this dedicated young woman a hard time."
The distinct sound of the front gate clicking shut and the woman's slow, light steps coming from the walkway sent Joseph's heart racing inside his chest. His breathing grew ragged.
"Listen, Joseph, she comes highly recommended, with a glowing letter sent by the school she's been working at for the past five years. She's Sven and Marta Olsson's niece," Ben added as though that tidbit of information would make him agree.
Well, he was anything but agreeable. The last thing he wanted was some teacher coming in and watching him stumble around his own house.
He tensed, only faintly aware of his sore ribs. "It's a waste of her time," he said in a harsh whisper.
Ben firmly gripped Joseph's shoulder. "Whether you gain back partial vision or no vision, she can help you right now. She's used to this."
"Used to what? Seeing someone make afool of himself?"
The soft treading of the woman's shoes up the stairs sent a quaking through Joseph's entire being. Beads of sweat trailed down his forehead, soaking into the bandage.
"I wouldn't be so quick to make a judgment," Ben urged. "You never know, she might just be the answer to your prayers."
The answer to his prayers? Katie mused silently.
Clutching her instruction books tight against her chest, she stepped up to the porch and stared at Mr. Drake who stood legs braced wide, fists clenched at his sides and his chin set in stubborn defiance. She slid her gaze up, noticing that even though bandages shrouded his eyes, they couldn't hide the fact that he looked none too happy. An unmistakable, aggravated scowl creased his forehead.
The answer to his prayers… I'm probably more like his worst nightmare, she admitted, swallowing hard.
Hope had bloomed on the long journey from Iowa to Colorado, but now uncertainty choked out eager anticipation like a dense thicket of weeds invading tender spring flowers. Never had she questioned her ability to teach and certainly she'd never shied from taking on a challenging student, so why should she now?
"Miss Ellickson, I'd like to introduce my brother, Joseph Drake." The twinkle in the doctor's gray-blue eyes belied his simple brown attire and had put her at ease when she'd met him yesterday, but now he appeared anything but confident.
Slipping her fingers over each fine pearl button trailing down her powder-blue waistcoat, she grappled for confidence. "Good morning, Mr. Drake. I'm pleased to meet you."
When she reached for his tight-fisted hand, he drew back as though she'd seared him with a hot iron. His mouth was set firm and hard. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, his leg muscles bunching beneath camel-colored britches. And as he drew his shoulders back, his chest stretched wide, revealing a well-defined muscular build beneath a white cotton shirt.
Embarrassment flushed her cheeks and she quickly averted her gaze to the fresh coat of dark gray paint that gleamed like icing on the porch floor.