The Dilemma of a Desert Rose (Preview)

Chapter One

“Do something!” Constance screamed. Countless people were running around the fire frantically, but nothing was getting done. The new sleeper car she and her family were meant to be touring was up in unstoppable flames, and her parents were hopelessly trapped inside.

“Help is on the way,” Uncle Rodney insisted, his hand on her shoulder. Anger raged inside Constance, knowing that her uncle could do far more to help than he was.

“Get them out, get them out!” her younger sister cried, clinging to Constance’s hand.

Fed up with all the inaction around her, Constance took matters into her own hands. She pushed her sister and Uncle Rodney away as she ran toward the burning structure. What was supposed to be a symbol of wealth and riches was now on the brink of turning to ash. Constance could hear Uncle Rodney shouting at her to stop, but she didn’t listen, intent on climbing the short ladder to what should have been the door of the train car.

Heat hit her like a blast of dynamite as she ran up the steps, but she pushed on. She swore she could see her mother’s desperate face on the other side, begging for help.

“Constance, come back!” Uncle Rodney shouted.

Her white-blonde hair blowing in the hot wind, Constance grabbed the handle of the train car door with both hands. Blinding pain seared through her entire body, but she couldn’t even find the breath to scream. Something hot hit her face, and she slammed her eyes shut, still fighting to open the door. The light of the fire shone through her thin eyelids and the screams of her parents echoed in her ears.

The light started to fade, and Constance started to struggle for breath. Finally, a pair of arms closed around her body and pulled her away from the train car. Then, everything went black.

“Do something!” Constance heard herself say as a warm breeze crossed over her face. The month-old scar on the side of her face seared hot as her eyes flew open. She had to blink a few times before her heart stopped racing, and she registered the sweet smell of the rose garden around her.

“Miss Constance, are you alright?” Mrs. Carter, the housekeeper, asked. “Do you need me to do something?”

“Oh, I… no, no, that’s alright. I just nodded off and… and had a bad dream,” Constance replied, trying her best to keep her voice from wavering. It was only half true. The vision that haunted her sleep was more of a memory than a nightmare. Only a month had passed since the horrific death of her parents, and Constance’s scars on her hands, her face, and her heart, were still fresh.

“That happens to me sometimes if I fall asleep sitting up. I can’t explain it, but if I’m not lying down, then sometimes it’s as if my mind wakes up, and yet my body is paralyzed in place. Terrifying. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be scaring you further, my dear. Here. Have some cool lemonade, smell the roses, and relax.”

Mrs. Carter handed Constance the glass of tart and sweet liquid, which she took gratefully. Seeing as the woman had been Constance’s housemaid since before the infamous train accident, Mrs. Carter likely knew exactly what was haunting the young lady’s dreams, but she was kind enough not to bring it up. It didn’t matter how much distance Constance and her sister put between themselves and the death of their parents back in Baltimore, the heartbreak still stung freshly every day.

“Your uncle was wondering where your sister was. You don’t know, do you?” Mrs. Carter asked.

“I believe she went to town. She ought to be back soon. What does Uncle Rodney want with her?”

Mrs. Carter started to say something back, but Constance’s ears suddenly felt as though she were underwater, being pulled down under by the ever-present memory of her parents’ death. Questions swirled around her mind, and even though they were queries she’d asked herself a thousand times before, they felt more pressing than ever.

How had it happened that her parents suddenly got trapped in the prototype of the sleeper car they’d been taking a tour of? She, her sister, and Uncle Rodney had been inside with them only seconds before. What had caused the doors to lock after them, and what had started the fire in the first place?

It had all been labeled an unavoidable accident, but nothing about it felt accidental to Constance. While he was alive, her father owned the largest rail car manufacturing company in the country. There could be nothing unintentional about their deaths, though many had argued back to her in the intervening weeks that no one but she, her sister, and her uncle stood to gain from the tragedy.

Uncle Rodney had taken over the company after the accident, though he wasn’t a particularly good businessman by any standards, and so he soon transferred over the managing responsibilities to a trusted advisor. Then, for seemingly no reason, he’d insisted on picking up and moving all the way to El Paso, Texas.

To say that it was a strange decision was an understatement. What was even odder was his lack of explanation. It was almost as if he wanted to get as far away from Baltimore as possible. He tentatively claimed that they all needed time away from Baltimore to recover, but Constance was skeptical. Uncle Rodney had purchased the house they were living in, which was not a temporary action.

Constance’s younger sister, Charity, had welcomed the fresh start. Constance, on the other hand, yearned for the life she used to know. El Paso was hot and strange, even if the estate their uncle had secured for them was twice as glorious as their old home in Baltimore.

“Constance? Constance!”

The sound of her own name being called out grew louder and louder in her ears, until Constance finally returned to the present. She looked up to see not only Mrs. Carter standing before her but Charity as well, having appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

“Yes? Yes! W-what did you say? Hello, Charity. Uncle Rodney wants to see you for some reason. Mrs. Carter was telling me so,” Constance said, trying to pretend she hadn’t missed a thing. She was fooling no one.

“Were you daydreaming again? I swear, it’s going to be the death of you. One of these days, you’re going to be walking along and you’ll be lost in thought, and then you’ll march yourself right off a cliff by accident. That’s why you have to stay by my side at all times,” Charity joked, sitting herself down beside Constance on the outdoor lounging chair. Mrs. Carter handed her a glass of lemonade as well and excused herself, explaining that she was needed inside to help with dinner.

“I wouldn’t dream of leaving your side,” Constance replied truthfully. There had been a moment when Constance had considered not going to El Paso with her sister and uncle. But without a husband and not yet in possession of her inheritance, the thought had quickly been pushed aside. Even if she had been married, however, the thought of abandoning her sister was out of the question. At times, Charity and Constance were like oil and water, but their circumstances had bonded them as tightly as any kindred spirits.

Charity tossed her golden ringlets over her shoulder and shot Constance an excited and mischievous look.

“What is it? What did you get up to in town besides the errands you were meant to run? Or is this about whatever Uncle Rodney wanted?” Constance asked before taking a sip of her lemonade. The sharp taste kept her mind focused on her immediate surroundings, keeping the wretched thoughts of rising flames at bay.

“Oh, you mean my look of glee? No, that has nothing to do with Uncle Rodney, I can promise you that. I may have… met someone.” Charity kept giving Constance the same significant look as if she was supposed to be able to read her sister’s mind. Sometimes it seemed like she could, but on this particular day, Charity’s face was illegible.

“That sounds… nice, I suppose. Who did you meet? A new friend, I hope?” Constance really did hope her sister had met someone to befriend. In the month since arriving in El Paso, both of them had rarely left the estate. They both naturally needed time to recover from the disaster and adjust to their new circumstances, but Uncle Rodney had been urging them both to start getting out of the house.

“Better! I met a boy. Or, should I say… I met a man. A real man, Constance!”

Constance shook her head in confusion. “A real man? As opposed to what, a puppet?”

“Oh, come now. You know what I mean! The buggy fell into a rut in the road, and Mr. Keller couldn’t get it out by himself. I was starting to think we were going to be stranded forever, but then the most handsome man I’ve ever seen came riding down the road atop a true steed. I knew from the second I laid eyes on him that we were saved.”

“Ah, I see what you mean now.”

“Constance, it was like something out of a novel! He’s got the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. Bluer than both of ours put together if you can believe it.”

“If you say so,” Constance replied, already skeptical of her sister’s exuberance. Charity was known for her skills of exaggeration. She was a storyteller by every definition.

“And his hair! I wish my curls behaved as beautifully as his do. His hair is dark, but it shines, even in the dead of night.”

“I thought you met him in the middle of the day,” Constance pointed out.

“Yes, but I can picture it at night. Don’t you have any sense of imagination?”

“What’s this mystery hero’s name?” Constance asked, ignoring her sister’s insulting question. Of course, she had a sense of imagination. It had taken a serious blow ever since real life had proved more horrible than she ever dreamed it could, but she was sure it would return in time.

“Butch Bilmington,” Charity crooned.

“That sounds like a made-up name.”

Charity turned to Constance with genuine hurt. “Well, it’s not. I didn’t make it up; he’s a real man, and I might be in love with him. For the first time in weeks, I felt like I could see a vision of what my future might look like, Constance. Don’t hold that against me just because you want company for your misery. I’m trying to make the best of things, and I have no intention of closing my heart off just because it’s broken right now. It’s not what Mother and Father would want.”

Constance felt her soul crack open as she listened to her sister’s heartfelt speech. Every word of it was genuine and Constance knew it. Just getting out of bed in the morning was difficult at the moment, so there was no sense in holding anything against each other. If Charity wanted to believe she was in love, then so be it.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make fun. I’m sure Butch Bilmington is a wonderful man, and I look forward to meeting him. Don’t listen to me. I just had a very strange dream and I… never mind. Tell me more about Butch. I assume he helped you get the buggy free again? What does he do for a living?” Constance asked.

“Well, I’m so glad you asked,” Charity replied, all signs of hurt having evaporated. “At first, I thought he must be a man of leisure, seeing as his suit was so fine. He didn’t look like the type of man who would want to get his hands dirty freeing a buggy wheel from mud, but he took one look at me and got straight to work. I’m telling you, it was love at first sight! I didn’t even have to ask him to help.”

“That’s very chivalrous of him,” Constance relented.

“We talked for ages. Poor Mr. Keller just had to stand there and pretend he couldn’t hear every word we spoke! It turns out that Butch’s father is the mayor, so he does a lot of work at town hall. I’m not exactly sure what kind of work, but from the sounds of it, he’s very dedicated to the future of El Paso. He promised to show me around, and I’m sure he would be more than happy to show you around as well.”

“Ah, Charity, there you are. I’ve been looking for you. You were supposed to be back from town ages ago,” Rodney Williams called out from the back porch of the house in his usual bellowing voice. Constance’s uncle was seemingly incapable of speaking in a subdued voice, even indoors. It made him the star of every room he walked into, and also managed to frequently give his nieces a headache.

“I’m so sorry I was delayed, Uncle. We were postponed on the road thanks to a rut the wheel got stuck in,” Charity explained.

Constance was surprised her sister didn’t immediately explain the virtues of Butch Bilmington to Uncle Rodney as well, but she kept the story to herself. The discretion was wise. Uncle Rodney could be unpredictable. It was impossible to tell what he might think of his nieces falling in love. It was perfectly plausible that he’d be thrilled, and just as plausible that he’d want to shoot Butch Bilmington’s knuckles off before he even met the man.

“I’m glad to see you got home safe and sound. Did you get our account set up at the general store?” Uncle Rodney asked.

Charity’s face blanched. “Oh! I’m so sorry. With all the fuss about the buggy I completely forgot!”

Both Constance and Uncle Rodney sighed.

“Charity, you specifically asked me if there was something you could do to keep busy, so I gave you a very important task. I was depending on you! If we don’t get our household credit set up, then the servants can’t go in for supplies. Why is that so hard for you to understand?”

Constance bristled at her uncle’s condescending tone, though she’d had a similar thought herself. Only she was allowed to scold her sister. From anyone else, it seemed mean.

“It’s alright. I’ll go into town now and handle it myself. I could do with a walk,” Constance said, putting down her glass of lemonade and standing up.

“You’re going to walk?” Uncle Rodney asked, shocked.

“Well, I don’t want to get stuck in the buggy on the road again,” Constance reminded him.

Uncle Rodney sighed and rubbed his chin, stubbly with the beard he’d decided to grow since arriving in El Paso.

“Don’t bother. I’ll send someone in with a note instead.”

“No, no, I insist. I want to get out of the house.” Constance took to her feet before anyone could say anything else about it, trying her best to leave the bad memories behind as she left.

Chapter Two

The road was just as rough as they’d said it would be. Levi could see El Paso in the distance, but he felt no closer to his destination than when he’d first spied the city an hour earlier. That was one of the perils of a flat landscape.

“Almost there, almost there,” he urged his horse, taking care to avoid the rougher parts of the unfinished road that should have been completed months ago. Equipment was strewn along the ditch, reminding Levi of why he had made the three-day trip in the first place.

Exhausted, he let his eyes close now and then, dozing off ever for slightly before a bump would shake him awake again. Only this time, it was the sound of a scream that forced him back to full alertness.

“Watch where you’re going!” He looked down to see a young woman who looked about five years younger than he, her face red with anger beneath her pin-straight white-blonde hair.

“I’m so sorry, miss, I didn’t see you there,” he apologized.

“Obviously not. You know, there are other people on the road. You practically ran me over! As if this road wasn’t dangerous enough already with all the ruts and debris left strewn across it. My sister’s buggy got stuck earlier today. I should think Rangers such as yourself would be doing something about it.”

Levi stared at the woman, only just now seeing how stunningly beautiful she was. Though her blue dress was simple enough, it was finely made and perfectly complemented by the red grit of their surroundings.

“Well, that’s, that’s what I’m here to do.”

She raised an eyebrow and pointed her strikingly blue eyes at him. “You’re going to fix the road?”

“Is that so ridiculous? You just suggested it’s what we Rangers should be doing anyway. I’m here to look into why the construction of the road from Houston has been taking so long. The governor suspects some wrongdoing in the matter.” Even as he spoke, Levi wondered why he was explaining all this to the woman.

She didn’t seem like the kind of person who would care. She looked more like the kind who sipped lemonade in rose gardens and complained about her husband not being home enough. Beautiful, a pain, and certainly not someone who gave a fig about the likes of him. He was used to the looks he got from folks not accustomed to seeing someone with skin as dark as his with a badge on his chest.

“That’s very good to hear,” she replied with a sharp nod of her head.

“I apologize again that I nearly—”

“Nearly ran me over?”

“I’m sorry. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No thank you. I’ll be fine from here on out.”

“Alright then. Good afternoon to you.”

With that, he trod past her, his thoughts moving to his destination. Soon, the city was all around him, and he was flooded with memories of his childhood. He’d never called El Paso home, but Mexico City had been where he’d spent his earliest days, surrounded by the same sounds and smells. Of course, El Paso was far smaller than Mexico City would ever be, making it the perfect place for his mother, an escaped slave, to disappear.

The sheriff’s office, where he was supposed to report, was a flat-roofed building on the west side of the city. Exhausted, Levi knew he wouldn’t be able to relax until he had at least half a conversation with the local sheriff.

His knees ached and his stomach gnawed with hunger as he dismounted and hitched his sturdy horse up to the post. A young boy was by his side almost immediately, offering to water and feed his horse for a penny or two. He looked scrawny, like he could use a good meal. His hair was long and uncut, and his clothes were three inches too small for him in the wrists and ankles. Though there was hardly anything in his pockets, Levi agreed, knowing that his horse deserved a good meal twice as much as he did.

Dust shook off his boots as he walked up to the door to the sheriff’s office, where he stopped, swearing he could hear some kind of blustery snore coming from inside. He slowly opened the door, and inside he saw exactly the kind of scene he hoped he wouldn’t find. The hot afternoon air was dusty, and the only person in the room—who Levi could only assume was the sheriff—had his head down on the desk and his hat over his eyes. The hat moved slightly with every snore that came gusting out of his nose.

Levi cleared his throat, hoping the noise would wake the sheriff, but he got no response. He doubled back and knocked on the door before slamming it closed. Nothing worked. Resigning himself, he walked right up to the desk.

“Hello!” he called out in his most booming voice. The sheriff interrupted his own snore, causing him to break out into a cough that finally woke him up. The older man with a mustache the size of a small snake stretching across his face looked up in surprise.

“What? Hello to you too. To what do I owe the- hang on, who are you?!”

“Ranger Levi Carson from Houston. Pleased to meet you. Sheriff Harrison, I presume?”

The man stumbled to his feet and nodded sharply. “Right. I got word you’d be coming, though I hardly think there’s any reason for it.”

“I’m here on instructions from the governor to get to the bottom of the delays on the road from—”

“Yes, yes, I know. What no one seems to understand is that projects like this take time. Weather causes unforeseen delays, not to mention the locals. Your so-called investigation will only slow things down even longer. Didn’t think about that, did you?” the sheriff said in a muffled, mumbled voice. It was only then that Levi noticed his breath reeked of booze. This was going to be a harder investigation than he’d originally thought.

“Sheriff Harrison, I hope you understand that I haven’t personally selected this assignment. I’ve been instructed to come here and do my job, just as I’m sure you would as well, especially if the governor himself had written to your department,” Levi explained, trying to keep his temper. Being so tired and hungry didn’t make it any easier.

“I just hope you remember who the sheriff and who the Ranger is here.”

“Right. Well, I think we’re both clear on that point. I’ll be back tomorrow morning to start my investigation officially, so if you could gather the appropriate papers in the meantime, that would be appreciated. I’ll want to go over everything.”

“Papers?” Sheriff Harrison asked, blinking obtusely, clearly not understanding what Levi meant.

“Your records. I’ll want to look at the records.”

“Records of…”

“Of who was working on the road, who managed the hiring and the scheduling, and when and where the money for the project was received,” Levi explained in disbelief. Either he was dealing with a complete idiot, or they did things very differently in El Paso. He knew such matters were more relaxed there, considering the size of the population, but he still expected there to be someone responsible.

“Right. Well, you’ll be wanting to talk to the mayor’s office for most of that. Or the bank, maybe? You’re talking to the wrong person.”

Frustration built up in Levi’s chest. It was likely going to take some weeks at least to get to the bottom of the mismanagement.

Such bureaucratic assignments were not normally given to Levi, but his sheriff in Houston had let on that he was suspicious that whatever was taking so long with the road had something to do with a darker, more dangerous crime. However, having finally met Sheriff Harrison, Levi was beginning to think that the whole case just came down to ineptitude and laziness.

“I appreciate your guidance, but I’ll still return in the morning to go over some more details. Perhaps I could get the help of one of your men if you have any to spare, seeing as I’m new to the politics of El Paso,” Levi said, doing his best to stay polite.

Sheriff Harrison leaned back in his seat again, mumbling something that Levi couldn’t hear and didn’t care to ask him to repeat. After a half-hearted goodbye, Levi left the sparsely furnished office, shaking his head in dismay.

He’d been with the Texas Rangers for almost seven years, and had had adventures that others would only ever read about in the newspaper. He intimately knew the sound of bullets whizzing by his ears, could talk to terrible criminals as easily as he could talk to heiresses, and had arrested more murderers than he could count.

Now that he was twenty-eight, a big part of Levi was ready to leave his days of adventuring behind. It was one of the reasons he’d taken on this case in El Paso. Faced with the dull reality of unchecked incompetence, he was beginning to regret his decision.

It took a moment once he got outside before Levi saw that the boy who’d kindly fed and watered his horse was still there, brushing down the flanks of the steed. It was the most attention the horse had gotten in some time.

“You don’t have to do that,” Levi said to the boy, who looked up eagerly with a smile too wide to be real.

“It’s my pleasure, sir! I can clean his hooves for you too. Only five cents. Cheaper than the price of a shoeshine!”

Levi knew full well that giving five cents to the boy would mean a leaner dinner that night. His next pay wouldn’t be arriving by mail until the next week if all went well. There was something about the boy’s techniques as a salesman that made Levi recognize a bit of himself in him. He looked like a scrappy young thing who knew the right things to say, and compliments to make, to earn himself enough to get food for the day.

“Why don’t I just give you five cents, and you go get yourself a meal? You’ve already done so much for me, and I can clean the hooves my—”

“Okay!” the boy interrupted before Levi could finish his offer. Levi laughed and handed over the money. Some would say he was spoiling the boy, but anyone who looked as skinny as he did deserved to be spoiled. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Too young to be working for his food, as far as Levi thought, though he’d been doing the same at his age.

“What’s your name?” Levi asked.

“Benny. What’s yours?”

“Levi.” He held his hand out and Benny shook it with all the gravitas of a thirty-year-old.

“How old are you, Benny?”

“Nine. How old are you?” he bantered back without skipping a beat.


Benny scrunched his nose. “Old.”

“I hope to be. It’s an honor to be this age, and I hope I make it a bit further yet. Where are your parents, Benny?”

The shine left the boy’s cheeks, and he withdrew, looking at the ground. “Not here.”

Levi knew enough to read between the lines. Benny was likely an orphan, or close to. By the looks of it, he didn’t want anyone’s pity, though he’d gladly take money and a warm meal.

Levi almost asked if he had somewhere to sleep that night, but he held his tongue. Benny had been fine long before Levi had shown up, and he’d be fine long after he left. It wasn’t fair for someone like him, just passing through town, to get close to the boy and then high tail and leave. Besides, if Benny knew what was good for him, he’d learned ages ago not to trust strange men.

“Neither are mine. Sounds like we’ve got a lot in common. Say, Benny, would you be able to point me in the direction of the closest hotel? Or boarding house?”

Benny looked him over, clearly gauging how much he thought a man like Levi was willing to spend on accommodations.

“I’ll take you to the boarding house. Since you paid me, and I didn’t even clean your horse’s hooves. How does that sound?”

Levi smiled. “That sounds perfect. Thank you, Benny. If you feel like it, you can point out your favorite parts of town to me as we go.”

He went to unhitch his horse, but Benny got there first, jumping slightly to get the reins off the hitching post before giving them to Levi.

“There’s a lot to see, but I’ll do my best. Come on, we’re going this way,” Benny said, running faster than Levi cared to go.

“You’re going to have to slow down for me. I’m an old man, after all.”

“Fine. You see that building? That’s the school I went to for a while. I don’t anymore. I get to do whatever I want to now. Sometimes I miss it, but most days I don’t. I still get to play with everyone.”

“That’s good,” Levi replied, wondering how long it would take before Benny would feel left behind. He himself hadn’t learned how to read till he was fifteen or so, but it certainly hadn’t been any schoolmaster who’d taught him. There wasn’t just one route to a good education.

“And that’s the Cielo Vista Church. Sometimes they give me food. They’re all really nice there.” Benny pointed to a little white church jammed between two taller buildings. Levi stopped in his tracks. There was something so charming about the church that he couldn’t take his eyes off it. Small enough to miss, like a diamond in the rough if you weren’t looking out for it.

A kind of peace fell over Levi. He didn’t worship often, but the sight of the humble cross reaching up toward heaven above the small building made him feel like he was in the right place. He could only hope it was the right time as well.

“Here’s the boarding house. Michael’s mother owns the place. She’s nice. You’ll like her. Maybe she’ll give you some food if you ask nicely, but you should always offer to do something for her first. It was nice to meet you, Mr. Levi,” Benny said, reaching out for another handshake.

“Very nice to meet you as well, Mr. Benny, and thanks for the tip. I’m sure I’ll run into you again soon.”

Benny took off without saying another word, darting between unsuspecting pedestrians, likely looking for the next person he could charm five cents off of. Levi thought to himself that against all the odds, Benny might just end up being a very successful man in his adult years.

Suddenly, El Paso didn’t seem so drab.

“The Dilemma of a Desert Rose” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Haunted by the sudden, mysterious death of her parents, Constance “Connie” Williams finds herself thrust into the dusty, sun-scorched streets of El Paso, Texas. With her younger sister Charity in tow and a heavy inheritance to manage, Connie battles not only her grief but the daunting responsibility of protecting their future. Longing for the simplicity of her dream—a quiet life running a bookshop—she instead navigates a labyrinth of obligations and the treacherous undercurrents of a new, unwelcoming world. Her heart, guarded yet yearning, wonders:

Could love be her solace amidst the chaos?

Levi Samson Carson, a rugged Texas Ranger with a soul shaped by hardship and survival, finds himself in El Paso on a mundane assignment. Little does he know his life is about to intertwine with Connie’s in the most unexpected way. Marked by resilience in the face of adversity as the son of an escaped slave, he has developed into a man of strength and charm. Yet, he harbors a deep longing for a connection that transcends the fleeting and solitary nature of his current existence. When his path crosses with Connie’s, sparks of an unexpected romance ignite…

Can he let down the walls he’s built around his heart?

When Charity falls victim to a terrible plot, Connie and Levi are thrown together in a desperate quest to save her. As they confront these challenges, the bond between them deepens, blossoming into a love born of peril and shared courage. With so many forces arrayed against them, can their burgeoning romance survive?

“The Dilemma of a Desert Rose” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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