Lincoln Martin saluted the bride and groom with his half-empty bottle...then he downed the rest of the beer in a series of hasty gulps. He’d much rather pump the alcohol straight into his veins -- saving all that time and energy it took to absorb it through the stomach -- but that would ruin Wil’s wedding and Sally would get pissed at him if he did anything stupid, and his new sister-in-law got pissed at him three weeks ago when he mentioned that she’d better stop with the fudge brownies or she wouldn’t fit into that pricey wedding dress. She threw her muddy boot at him and then broke down crying in the middle of the kitchen floor in a flood of pregnancy hormones because he'd unintentionaly called her fat. Wil had gotten upset with him over that, too. It wasn’t Linc’s best moment. In fact, he’d not had any best moments for a while. So instead doing something stupid -- like ranting and raving that this should be his wedding and that should be him out there dancing with Macie, the woman he loved to the ends of time -- Linc drank his beer in peace in a dark corner of the stable, his butt nearly sliding out of the old kitchen chair as he stretched out his long legs in front of him.
The wedding reception was in full swing, though the sun had only passed it’s zenith about two hours ago. There was a lot of daylight still to come, and a lot of pleasantries that Linc would prefer not to stomach through, but Sally insisted, and Wil backed her up, so Linc was only obliged to force a smile and keep as much sourness out of his tone as possible. Of course, at this point, the ceremony was done with, the cake had been cut, and pictures had been snapped. Linc’s job was done. As Best Man, he stood next to Wil all day, but now Sally’s got her hooks in her new husband, and Lincoln was allowed to sulk in his corner without bother.
The newlyweds slow danced in the middle of the stable floor, oblivious to everything. Fast-paced two-steppers twirled and waltzed in circles around the bride and groom, but Wilson and Sally only saw each other. Linc watched as his brother lovingly caressed Sally’s cheek, bending to softly kiss her on the lips. Wil’s other hand slid down to run over Sally’s gently blooming stomach, which only reminded Linc of a memory he'd much rather forget, and he decided he couldn’t stand to watch the celebration any longer. He’d been a gracious host long enough.
Grabbing two more longnecks from an ice-filled metal trough, he slipped out the side door of his horse-training stable, escaping the wedding reception that looked as though it would last all afternoon and into the night. Wilson and Sally were happy, and Lincoln was happy for them, but he didn’t handle weddings very well...or anniversaries or Valentine’s Day or anything related to marriage, couples or love.
In fact, he’d not been with a woman -- romantically, socially, sexually, or otherwise -- in almost four years now. But he passed the forty mark on his last birthday, and since the woman he was supposed to spend the rest of his life with was no longer...here...
Don’t think about her...
Linc uncapped a bottle and guzzled the amber liquid. It hit his empty stomach like a flash-flood of cold fizzies. He hung his head, letting the pain in his chest subside and the beer take over, numbing him as the smooth draw of a violin bowed out a slow rhythm inside the stable.
Forty. Too old to be out skirt-chasing, and too young to spend the rest of his years alone. But he really didn’t have a choice at this point. He didn’t choose to be alone, yet he can’t change the past either. Linc raised his eyes to glance around what was left of his land. After selling the majority of the ranch last autumn, he maintained a fraction of a fraction of the original spread located outside of Kansas City, but it was enough. He had his house and his stable and enough acreage to keep a few horses of his own. Not to mention the hefty bank account that would see him into retirement.
It was his...all his, and he owned it alone. Lived here alone. Worked the small piece alone. Slept alone, ate alone, rode out on Egaeus alone. Four years ago, he had plans for this land, but that was before Macie had been killed by a rogue stallion. All those ideas for expansion and the training program...all that had been before his heart and life had been torn to shreds...but in return, Wil got to meet and fall in love with Sally, so though there was pain and regret and hatred for that small turn of events, there was also tidbits of joy tossed in there. Just not his joy.
Across the expanse of his pasture, he could see the bulldozers and work crews clearing out what had once been part of his family’s land. Another failure of his. He lost Macie. He lost his brother for years until Wil finally forgave him. And he lost his heritage...all because of his pride. If only he’d gotten rid of that damn horse. If only he’d admitted that he’d been wrong to try to train that damn horse in the first place, which only ended up killing Macie. But no. Firestorm had been purchased to begin his legacy in the Martin family of ranchers as a world-class equine breeder. Oh, yeah. His legacy. Now look what he’d been left with.
No Macie. No ranch. His stupid pride and his stupid legacy. All his. And he owned it alone.
Linc tossed the empty bottle on the ground. Someone would pick it up later, and he staggered away from the sounds of laughter and music and happiness. His boot heel caught a tuft of grass, and he nearly snorted dirt as he reached out for something to keep him on his feet.
Whoa. How many had he had already? Blinking steadily, he thought back...and grunted as he ran out of numbers.
Okay, I’m drunk. So what? I’ll go down to the pasture and sleep it off under my tree and Egaeus will keep watch over me...and Sally would never know, and I’ll just start this pattern all over again tomorrow.
It’s not like his family didn’t understand. They did. He lost the one true love of his life, and now he was just trying to shut out the searing pain inside him. They understood completely. In fact, he’d been accepted by Sally’s family with open arms as well, and he’d never forget the dinner party last night where Sally’s niece, Eve, and Eve’s fiance’, Clint, took one look at him and spent the whole night keeping him company as though three lost souls finding one another. That had been a strange night, but it only enforced Linc’s theory that everyone was cool with his bouts of drunkenness. He had a reason, after all. And he never left his ranch, so he couldn’t hurt anyone by his body-numbing process.
Linc finished the last beer as he reached the pasture gate. Egaeus, his best pal, met him there with a snicker and a huge, OMG-Not-Again rolling of his dark eyes, and helped Linc walk down the sloping field to the stand of willow trees near a small pond. Linc dropped against the fold of roots on the grass, kicked off his boots, and tipped his hat over his eyes. He passed out before his hand fell to his chest.
The joy could go on without him.
Amber sat on the top rail of the fence, watching that tall man stumble down to the pond with his fingers gripping the blond mane of the caramel-hued horse next to him. She remembered him from the wedding, though she doubted he’d ever remember her. That was Wilson’s older brother. The one that everyone talked about, but no one was supposed to talk about. The one that was drinking himself to an early grave because his girlfriend died a few years ago. It was sad, really, and Amber, through her special talent, knew more about him than she probably should, but it was difficult to ignore the gossipping lips of everyone at the wedding today. She noticed how everyone's eyes followed him during toasting of the newlyweds, and she noticed that no one wanted to be bothered with him after the traditional festivities were finished. And that no one else seemed to realize that he'd been sitting in the corner of the stable for almost an hour, marinating his liver in booze, but Amber noticed just about everything anyway. She always had.
And since she really couldn't enjoy the reception in the same manner as everyone else, she followed Lincoln Martin outside -- mainly because she was bored and he was quite pleasant to look at -- and watched him take off on his own. Amber understood people like him, those who didn’t want to be around crowds, slipping out the side door without notice. She, herself, was another body everybody seemed to forget about until it was too late. Probably because she didn’t talk much, or when she did, she kept her words to a minimum to keep the levels of inconvenience and uneasiness down.
Digging in her ever-present leather hip bag, she retrieved a small package of sunflower seeds and poured some into her mouth. A nasty habit of hers, she knew, but people tended to not start conversations with someone spitting shells on the ground. She sucked off the salt, cracked them with her teeth and spat the seed carapaces out into the dirt. Then she drank from her water bottle, feeling the corners of her mouth lift up in a crooked smile as Lincoln Martin fell to the ground under a tree. The horse stamped his hoof impatiently and flared his nostrils, visibly huffing like he was reprimanding a tiresome, spoiled child. Amber thought it was the funniest thing she’d seen all day.
In all honesty, Amber thought he was quite an interesting creature. Lincoln, not the horse. No, the big brother of the groom seemed full of surprises and secrets. And all the whispers from across rooms over the course of the day could not hide them from Amber. She saw every word spoken about him...every word spoken about everyone, actually. And yet, no one realized that she now knew. Because no one, except her own family, knew she had almost twenty-five years to perfect her lip-reading skill...and if they said it, Amber “heard” it.
Yup...Amber Hayes was deaf.
Growing up unable to hear the world around her, she spent most of her childhood alone, reading in her bedroom, off in worlds of her own imagination with explosions of color and movement and words. And now, a good portion of her more recent adult days were spent alone as well -- thank God! Her parents finally came to the conclusion that she was old enough to not be coddled anymore. At twenty-eight, it was really starting to get embarrassing to explain why she still lived at home, even though she had a really good reason for it. But of course, now that she was free, she took the first job she’d been offered, as an archival specialist for the Kansas City Public Library...in Missouri, far enough away from her hometown of Little Rock, but not across the globe to worry her family, and hence the reason she was even at this wedding.
In reality, she didn’t know any of these people. Her sister, Chloe, was friends with the bride, and considering as how Chloe and her husband, Daniel, helped her move up here to a small studio apartment around the corner from her new job, Amber agreed to come along and help them with the new baby during the wedding, but Chloe retired up at the house a while ago to nurse the little bugger, which usually took forever, so Amber got some time to herself to study and contemplate the drunken Mr. Martin.
To think, Amber reflected as Lincoln’s horse stood proudly and watchfully over him...that animal had more sense than the man passed out on the ground under it. Amber’s blue eyes fell upon Lincoln Martin. He was handsome, she’d be the first to admit that, but he had to be ten years older than her, taking into account the slash of gray at each temple and the rugged lines of wear and tear around his mouth and eyes. Still....she mused, remembering and smiling at how the dark denim of his dress jeans hugged his rear and the crisp white of his tuxedo shirt enhanced strong shoulders and a solid chest...he looked pretty damn good for a drunk, aging cowboy.
She’d not had a lot of experience with men, but she knew bad news when she saw it. And Lincoln Martin had bad written all over him. However...Amber’s eyes twinkled. Now that she was out on her own, she’d better figure out the dating world pretty quick. That cowboy down there could probably teach her most of it. Not that she’d ever proposition him, of course. He was too old for her. She should be looking at nice, early-thirties men, with solid careers and a good grasp of how the deaf community works. Amber thought that if she flashed one sign at him, he’d trip over his boots to get away from her.
The thing was...he was a really nice man. Amber remembered every word of his speech as Best Man, and she recalled how easily he smiled and laughed before he’d started on his drinking binge. And of course, he had that surprising side to him, too, that she discovered earlier. When she’d gone to the bathroom up at his house before the reception, she noticed a dog-eared book of Gothic poetry and shorts next to the bathtub. After washing her hands and fixing her hair, she flipped through it. Poe’s “A Dream Within A Dream” was marked, along with W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.”
For a moment there, she assumed that the book had been dropped by someone else. Then she scanned the rest of the bathroom, looking for the issues of Sports Illustrated or American Cowboy, and saw neither, so she blinked at the book of dark fiction, opening up to the title page and saw Linc Martin scrawled on the inside cover, and blinked at it again. And of course, that only prompted Amber to sneak down the hall in his massive log cabin and peek into the private suite at the far end of the upper landing.
His bedroom was a shrine to his bookcases and his bed. That was all Amber had time and courage to see. Three full walls of the room were lined with built-in shelving and laden down with books of every size and color and type, and his bed was a gigantic creation of meticulously hand-carved posts of Brazilian wood, anchoring each corner of a blue-on-blue crazy quilt that Amber yearned to get a better look at. Every other part of the house described western and cowboy and man, with its rough-hewn log furniture and leather upholstery, but that one room...that bed and that quilt and the book still in her hands as she peeked inside the private life of Lincoln Martin, was a small glimpse of the real man who had slunk away from his brother’s wedding because he couldn’t bear to watch the happiness.
Call her a thief, but that book was in Amber’s bag right now. She had every intention of returning it, but she wanted a little time to read through some of the stories and poetry -- especially since she had nothing else to do until this thing was over -- and figure out why a man like Lincoln Martin read Poe and Blake and Anne Boleyn. Up until now, the problem had been finding a place away from everyone to read the stolen book without people questioning her.
She glanced back to the stable from her perch on the fence. Considering the distance and the angle of the sloping pasture... She hopped down, backtracked and looked out... Yup, no one can see him. Which means, no one would be able to see her if she went down there and sat under those trees, too. Crawling through the fence rails, she told herself she was just going down there to keep an eye on the drunk man -- make sure he doesn’t decide to go swimming or anything -- and read through the paperback, but she knew the real reason.
Amber smirked as she trotted down the hill. She wanted to know if cowboys were really like the ones in the stories...if this slept with his boots on.