Authors: Erica Vetsch
“Maybe I’d better see him first.” Jesse tossed his coat at the hall tree. It missed the brass hook and slid to the bench below. “I’ll have to fess up to not sending the telegram.”
“No, Jesse.” Karen stopped him. “I’ll go in. I would have come even if you had cabled me David’s wishes. Perhaps you’re worrying about nothing. Our love is strong enough to survive this.” Karen loosened the cape from around her shoulders. She lifted her chin and squared her shoulders, giving Matilda a smile. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to see me, especially once I assure him his blindness makes no difference to how I feel about him.” She crossed the foyer and eased aside the heavy pocket door to slip inside.
He sat behind the desk in the large red leather chair, his beautiful brown eyes focused on nothing. “Is that you, Buckford?” Dark circles smudged the skin under his eyes, and a greenish blue bruise painted his right temple. Whiskers dusted his cheeks and chin, and his dark-brown hair stood up, as if he’d run his fingers through it many times. He rubbed under the edge of the white sling encasing his arm. “Who’s there?”
Karen stirred herself and walked toward him.
He must’ve heard her skirts rustling, for he asked, “Mother? I don’t wish to be disturbed now.” He pushed his chair back and braced his good hand on the desk to rise.
Before he could stand, she found her voice. “David?”
He flinched and leaned back in his chair. The skin tightened over his cheekbones, and the bruise stood out as the blood left his face.
“David, it’s Karen.”
He drew a long breath. “You were told not to come.” His flat, emotionless tone chilled her. So far removed from his usual affectionate, charming self, she blinked and searched for a reply. This man before her was a burned-out lamp. Only the charred wick and the smoked glass remained. “Why did you come when I told you not to?”
“David, I. . .” She didn’t want to bring his father and the unsent message into this. “I had to come. I had to see you.”
“Well, you’ve seen. You’ve done your duty, and you can rest your conscience.” He rose and faced her.
“My duty? What are you talking about, David?”
“You can go back to your life knowing you made your noble gesture and I refused. I’ve released you from the engagement, and you won’t be tied to a cripple for the rest of your life.”
A chill slid down her spine. This wasn’t her strong, brave, confident fiancé. This man was broken, his words jagged glass cutting her from his life. She touched his arm.
He jerked away and crashed against the chair, sending it bumping into the wall. She grabbed his wrist to steady him, and he flung her grasp away. “Don’t touch me. Don’t you understand? Everything has changed now. I don’t want you here.”
“But, David, I love you.” She lifted her chin and straightened her spine. “I can’t believe you think I would desert you. Nothing has to change.”
changed. It’s over. Just go.”
“David, this is far from over. I’ll leave you now, but know this: I love you, no matter what has happened to your eyes.” Karen fought down the lump in her throat. “I can appreciate the turmoil you must feel right now, but that’s no reason to throw away our marriage plans.”
He flinched then felt behind him for the chair. He eased down and covered his sightless eyes. “Just go away and leave me alone.”
She stood still, not wanting to give up the fight but not knowing what to say or how to get him to change his mind. On the ride from town, she’d been sure that once they were together David’s insecurity would vanish. It never once entered her head that he wouldn’t change his mind about calling off the wedding.
When she turned to leave the study, her legs seemed to belong to someone else. The hollow ring of her heels on the hardwood floor echoed as if from far away, and her hands were so cold the brass latch on the study door felt warm to the touch.
Jesse and Matilda waited in the foyer. Matilda raised her eyebrows. “What happened?”
Karen shook her head. “He’s adamant. The wedding is off.” A dozen questions and thoughts clattered in her head, but she couldn’t grasp any beyond wondering what she would do now.
Jesse’s mouth tightened. “This has gone far enough.”
Matilda turned to her husband. “What can we do? I thought things would get better, but they’re getting worse and worse. I hoped having Karen here would jolt him out of his misery and remind him that he was still loved, but. . .” She twisted the handkerchief in her hands.
Jesse scowled. “I think it’s time I had a talk with my son.” He marched to the door and slid it open.
Karen raised her trembling hand to her temple and closed her eyes. She drew a breath, hoping to shake off the feeling of being caught in a bad dream. But when she opened her eyes, the nightmare remained and her dreams fled.
Regret swamped David, pushing against his chest until he found it hard to breathe. It took everything he had not to call out for her, to cling to her and let loose the pent-up grief and fear that had stalked him since the moment he knew he would never see again. He choked back the rock-hard lump in his throat and forced himself to concentrate on holding fast to his decision not to marry Karen.
Heavy footsteps sounded in the hall and then the quick sliding of the door open and shut. Only one man in the house moved like that. David braced himself for parental wrath.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
Keeping the high back of the office chair between himself and the door, David didn’t answer. Karen’s perfume lingered in the air, reminding him of all he had lost. She deserved better than half a man, a shell, an object of pity. Any moment now she’d realize he was doing her a favor. And himself. Putting her aside before she had a chance to reject him.
“Leave me alone.” David’s throat tightened until it ached.
“Not till you face what you’ve done.”
“What I’ve done?” The chair swiveled toward his father’s voice. “You’ve got nerve coming in here to accuse me. I made my wishes regarding Karen clear.”
“You aren’t thinking straight right now. You don’t mean what you say. We all know you’re hurting, but taking it out on those you love isn’t going to get your sight back.”
“Don’t pretend to know how I feel.” David got to his feet, his fists clenched. Impotent humiliation sloshed inside him like kerosene in a can. “It’s your fault she’s here. You can deal with it.” Heat rose up his throat and raced to his hairline at the thought of Karen seeing him like this.
“Why are you acting this way? I raised you better than to be rude to a woman, much less a woman who loves you like Karen does, a woman you promised to marry.”
“How can you ask me that? I’m in no condition to take on a wife. What kind of husband would I be? How could I be the leader of my household? Karen might think she still wants to get married, but once she realized I’d forever be dependent on her, she’d regret her decision. Are you forgetting what happened with Uncle Frank and Aunt Bernice?”
Father sucked in a breath as if he’d been gut punched. “I told you never to mention their names in this house again.” His words hissed, and David pictured his father’s narrowed eyes and clenched teeth. “They’re dead. It’s finished. Karen would never do something like that to you.”
“Circumstances change people.”
“What happened fifteen years ago has nothing to do with right now. That’s over and done with, and we’ve all moved on.”
“If it’s over and done with, why don’t you ever talk about it? You want to act like it never happened, which is ridiculous considering Marcus is here as a reminder. You may want to think the situations are different, but I’m not willing to risk it. I’m not dragging this family down that road again.”
David followed his father’s movements, envisioning his scowling face and restless pacing. Then the movements stopped, and father turned toward him again. “So, what am I supposed to tell Karen?”
The pain in David’s head intensified, and his gut twisted. “If you’d have sent the telegram like I told you to, she would’ve stayed in Kansas City with her aunt.” He brushed his fingers against his temple, gauging the soreness that lingered there. “I’m tired. Please close the door on your way out.”
“You can’t hide from life forever, David. And I’m not doing your dirty work for you. You and Karen need to sit down and talk about this rationally. She deserves better than you’re giving her.” Boots clomped on the floor, and the door opened and shut with force.
David massaged his injured wrist in the confining bandages, resigned now to the persistent ache. A wave of panicked remembrance swept over him. The earth trembled, timbers snapped, rocks thundered and cascaded as the mine caved. Thick dust choked him. He coughed and staggered, bracing himself against the unstable walls, dropping his blueprints. A shattered brace hurled downward, landing on his wrist with a sick crunch and bouncing away. All around him men’s cries of pain and terror ricocheted off the rock walls. Despite the agony screaming through his arm, he staggered upright, trying to reach the injured. A blinding flash burst through his head when something crashed into his temple and everything went black.
He gulped, trying to force air into his lungs, to remind himself he wasn’t trapped in the mine, that he was alive in the study. For the past three weeks, everyone had been telling him he was one of the lucky ones. But the blackness still surrounded him. And it would forever.
There’s no reason why that shaft should have collapsed.
He bounced his good fist off the desktop. He had gone over the calculations again and again, and each time he concluded the structure should’ve been stable. As the mine’s engineer, it was his duty to see that things proceeded as safely as possible while finding the richest deposits of ore. The deaths and injuries from this disaster rested on his shoulders alone. His father hadn’t said so, and neither had anyone else, at least not in his hearing, but he knew the truth. Where had he gone wrong?
All his supports had been kicked right out from under him. Like the mine, his life had caved in, filling his interior with rubble where there had once been a strong support system. Where was his faith? Where was the surety he’d always had that God loved him and heard his prayers? He’d never been so alone and frightened.
God, You’ve got to help me. You’ve taken my sight. You’ve taken my future. The least You can do is help me solve this problem. Show me where I went wrong.
He rose and inched across the room until his hand hit the carved back of the settee. Rounding the rolled arm and claw-and-ball foot, he eased onto the upholstery. A sigh pushed out of his lungs as he slid to his side and put his head on the pillow.
Someone knocked and entered without waiting to be invited.
David stiffened. Did no one in this house know what alone meant?
“It’s me, David, Sam.”
“What do you want?” David clenched his teeth, in no mood to be berated by his younger brother.
“Just talk.” The chair at the end of the settee creaked, and something thunked the low table beside him.
He almost smiled. Mother forbade boots on the table, but she had yet to break either of her sons of the habit. Then he stilled. He would never see his mother’s disapproving stare again. “Have you come for your pound of flesh?”
“Nope, I just figured you could explain a couple things for me.”
The scent of fresh air and the outdoors filtered toward David off Sam’s clothes, something he hadn’t smelled in weeks. But then, Sam was free to come and go as he pleased, not imprisoned in darkness in this house. David pictured his brother, as unlike David as could be with his blondish hair and blue eyes, and his easygoing manner and take-life-as-it-comes outlook. Easy enough for Sam to take life as it came. Life had never pummeled Sam as hard as it had David.
“I’ll stoke the fire for you. It’s almost as cold in here as outside, and that’s saying something. The temperature is dropping like an anvil down an air shaft. Snowing, too.”
David fumed. He couldn’t even do something as simple as lighting the fire. He sat up, scowling. “Leave it.”
“Dave, you have to let some of this stuff go. Exploding like a pint of nitro every time someone tries to be nice to you is no way to live.” Logs clacked together, paper crumpled, and a match scritched on the hearth. Faint crackles and pops filled the air, along with the smell of burning resin. “There,” Sam said, satisfaction in his voice. “Now things’ll warm up in here. It’ll be more comfortable while we talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
Sam went on as if he hadn’t heard. “I had some time today, while I installed that new pump in shaft two, to do some thinking. I was thinking about that party we had here a couple of months ago.”
David gritted his teeth. His insides writhed, and his muscles tensed.
“Engagement parties are always the best kind, don’t you think? I tried to get a dance with the prettiest gal at the shindig, but she didn’t even notice me. She only had eyes for one fellow that night and saved every dance for him. And that fellow, well, the stars could have fallen from the sky and he wouldn’t have known.”
“What is your point, Sam?” David tried to ignore the broken glass tearing his heart.