by Pat Pritchard
A Western Romance Short Story
December 25, 2013
When timber baron Reuben Burke finds himself at the seaside Hotel del Coronado—a forced vacation arranged by his siblings—he discovers he's forgotten how to relax. For the last ten years he's been too caught up in raising his younger brother and sister and building up the family business in Seattle to have time for himself, much less romantic attachments. But a chance encounter on the beach with a young widow from San Diego puts his life on a new course. Not only is Charlotte Darnell beautiful, she understands the burden of putting a family's needs ahead of one's own. When the two step out on the dance floor together, they share more than a waltz. In that magical moment, they find love. But can they find a way to bridge the miles that separate them?
The distant echo of waves crashing against the shore lured Reuben farther down the path. He'd intended to take only a short stroll to sharpen his wits for the day ahead. Instead he found himself wandering through the elegant gardens surrounding the Hotel del Coronado and on toward the sandy beaches.
What was he doing so far from home? He belonged in his office overseeing the company or out in the woods swinging an axe alongside his men. But home was more than a thousand miles to the north, and all this free time hung heavily on his hands.
He stared out in wonder at the endless expanse of the Pacific. His acute interest in the vista before him came as a surprise; he was certainly familiar with life lived near the water. After all, he made his home near Seattle, where the timbered skirts of the Cascade Mountains drifted down to the water's edge.
The cold chill of Puget Sound had its own dark beauty, but he had to admit the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean certainly drew the eye. He was strangely tempted to find a comfortable spot and lose himself in the endless rhythm of the waves, but he was due to meet with a pair of local builders soon.
With no little reluctance, he turned to retrace his steps when he was brought up short. He'd been too lost in his own thoughts to notice that he was no longer alone, although the feminine intruder seemed unaware of his scrutiny.
It was rude to stare, but the impulse to look was stronger than good manners. There was an appealing elegance about her, from the lace of her parasol to the graceful cut of her deep red gown, which flowed from her narrow waist down to brush gently against the sand at her feet.
Perhaps he should alert her of his presence. Before he could say a word, she let her parasol drop to her side and slowly lifted her face toward the sky, as if to drink in the warmth of the early-morning sun. He wasn't a man given to poetry, but at that moment he sorely regretted not having the words to describe the simple beauty of the scene before him.
He quietly backed away, retreating to the path that led to his hotel. Feeling more energized than he had in days, it was time to get on with the business at hand. After all, he'd come to California not only to vacation but also to sell timber. There was no time in his life for sightseeing or mysterious women on sandy beaches. But for the first time in longer than he could remember, he wished there was.
Charlotte knew she'd been caught looking a bit foolish, but she refused to be embarrassed about it. If that man was too stuffy to appreciate the warmth of the sun, too bad. In the normal course of things, she carefully protected her fair complexion because of an unfortunate tendency to freckle. Surely she could be forgiven for a momentary lapse in caution while she was on holiday.
She stared after the stranger as he disappeared into the greenery of the hotel gardens, regretting that she'd gotten only the briefest glimpse of his face before he turned away. Closing her eyes, she considered what she could remember. Strength, first and foremost. It was there in the way he moved and how his shoulders filled out his jacket. Although his clothing was stylish, she suspected he had more than a passing acquaintance with physical labor.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she wondered at the intensity of her reaction to a total stranger. Perhaps her friends were right. Maybe at long last, she was once again ready to have a man in her life.
The thought erased the last vestige of her smile. She turned her back to the gardens and the mysterious man. Three long years had passed since she'd last known the pleasure of a man's arms and the sweetness of his kiss. She'd loved Richard and missed him still. Before his death, he had made her promise not to waste her life alone and mourning him.
At the time, she would have agreed to anything if it eased his passing. To give herself credit, she had slowly learned to take pleasure in the living of each day and working in her small millinery in San Diego. Yet satin ribbons and feathers were no longer enough to hold her interest; she wanted more. She needed a man. Maybe not a husband, but a man nonetheless.
Slowly she walked back across the stretch of sand. Although she'd used a different route to the beach, following the path the stranger had taken felt right. For a second, her footsteps faltered. Was she being foolish to believe that she was ready to set a new course for her life? Part of her sincerely hoped not, and with renewed resolve, she left the beach behind and entered the lush beauty of the hotel gardens.