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Opis ebooka A Mountain Christmas Romance - Misty M. Beller

A Christian Historical Romance novel.Stripped of the family so important to his Viking heritage, Matthias Bjork is now on the hunt for his sister. Despite combing the entire Wyoming Territory, he hasn’t found any substantial leads regarding his sister’s whereabouts, but he has discovered a most unusual woman. This woodland nymph who’s come to work for his good friend in the quiet town of Mountain Bluff is like no one he’s ever met.Opal Boyd has finally found the haven she’s longed for all her life, in a most unlikely place—working for a German couple in this remote Wyoming mountain town. She learned long ago that most men couldn’t be trusted, but when a mountain man stops in the boarding house where she works, he seems to have the respect and affection of the two people she’s learned to trust implicitly. And the more she comes to know Matthias, she struggles not to trust him the same way the others do.When he shares the magical experience of his family’s traditional Viking Yule celebration, she can’t help but fall a little more in love with him each one of the twelve days of Christmas. But when Matthias’ search for his sister takes an unexpected twist, Opal is forced to make a choice that will alter the course of her life—no matter which answer she chooses. When Matthias’ decisions land Opal in danger, what must he sacrifice to rescue her? 

Opinie o ebooku A Mountain Christmas Romance - Misty M. Beller

Fragment ebooka A Mountain Christmas Romance - Misty M. Beller

A MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS ROMANCE

Misty M. Beller

PRONOUN

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Epilogue

Chapter One

About the Author

Dedication

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Epilogue

Chapter One

And don’t miss Misty M. Beller’s

Book 1

Book 2

Book 3

Book 4

Book 5

About the Author

Dedication

WyomingMountain Tales

Book 4

Misty M. Beller

Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy;

at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.

Psalm 16:11 (KJV)

~ ~ ~

Would you like a free ebook from Misty M. Beller? The Lady and the Mountain Man has over 1,000 five-star reviews and I’d love to give you a copy.

Get it here: http://bit.ly/2gvrW1a

CHAPTER ONE

~

November 7, 1867

Mountain Bluff, Wyoming Territory

The thrill of speed pulsed through Matthias Björk as he leaned low over the horse’s neck, the wind whipping the coarse, white mane across his face. He reined the gelding around a boulder, then wove through the scattered pine and spruce trees. He knew from experience the creek would appear ahead once he rounded that cluster of cedars.

The horse dodged right to skirt the evergreens, his muscles bunching as he anticipated the coming leap over water. The animal loved adventure as much as Matthias, unafraid to grasp a thrill wherever he found it.

The trees cleared, revealing the narrow chasm through which the creek ran. He tightened his legs around the horse, lifting out of the saddle to signal Karl into a jump.

But a flash of white underneath them caught his focus. A person?

The gelding had already begun his leap, and Matthias’s shift in focus threw the animal off balance. As they soared over the gap between the banks, a squeal sounded beneath them, high pitched like that of a woman. Then a large splash. Had Karl’s hooves struck her?

He didn’t have time to wonder long, for his distraction had altered the momentum of the horse’s jump. Karl’s front hooves landed on the far shore, but as his rear hooves should have struck solid ground, the animal’s back end seemed to scramble, then sink down as he fought for purchase on the bank.

Matthias leaned forward, trying to use his weight as an anchor to help the horse stay up on the bank. But Karl continued slipping, shifting backward as his hooves clattered against the rock surface of the four-foot cliff.

A scream sounded from behind, then the fury of splashing water. The horse was losing the battle to stay on the bank. Matthias kicked his boots free of the stirrups, scanning the area for the best place to leap off. The chasm containing the stream wasn’t more than four or five feet wide, so he would likely be dashed against the rocks on the far side if Karl fell backward.

He swung his leg over and pushed away to the left, trying to land on his feet in the water. His boots hit the icy stream with a splash, but the rocks littering the bottom threw him off balance, toppling him into the creek.

Cold.

Nay, freezing. The frigid liquid stole away his breath and nearly his senses.

But Karl’s frantic thrashing helped restore the latter. Matthias scrambled away from the panicked horse, who had landed on his side and was struggling to rise in the small enclosure between the rock walls.

A figure moved on the other side of the horse. A woman standing in the creek bed, hand extended to the flailing animal. “Easy, boy. Don’t struggle. Easy, there.”

Her crooning seemed to work because Karl stilled. His heavy breathing filled the air as he lay in the water, sides heaving.

The woman approached, still murmuring. As she grabbed the reins, Matthias eased to his feet. Creek water dripped from his clothes and ran down his left side, which had been submerged. Numbness spread through his hands and feet, both from the wintery air and the water, mostly run-off from snow higher in the mountains.

He ignored the bite of cold and eased toward the horse as the woman attempted to maneuver him into a position that would make it easier to stand.

“When he tries to rise, pull him that way.” Matthias motioned toward the left bank.

The woman looked up at him as though she’d just now noticed his presence, her eyes piercing with a crystal blue stare. His heart panged. With her blond hair and delicate features, she looked much like his sister probably would now that she’d grown. And Alanna would be about this woman’s age, or maybe a little older.

He studied her, but she turned away to urge the horse again. Still, Matthias couldn’t shake the power of the woman’s presence. Could she be his long lost sister? The only living family he had left? He’d been searching so long, finding her on this remote trail would be just like God’s sense of humor.

Yet, a tiny part of him—the part of him that was all virile male—hoped that the beautiful creature helping to extricate his horse from the icy water was not a blood relation. In fact, her elfin features made her almost seem like a woodland nymph, like in the myths of old, the stories his parents had passed down from their Viking forefathers. Of course, the woodland nymphs were only legends, not flesh and blood like this damsel.

“Stand clear!”

Matthias leaped backward at the woman’s call, jolting to the present as Karl gave a mighty lurch and scrambled to his feet, assisted by the woman’s pull on his reins as she guided him to the only available space in the creek bed.

“Good, boy.” She stepped forward to stroke the horse’s neck as he heaved, water dripping from his winter coat where he’d lain in the stream.

Matthias moved to take the reins, trying to ignore his own wet clothing and the water sloshing in his boots. “I’ll take him.”

She handed over the leathers but remained at Karl’s neck, stroking the thick, wet hair and crooning.

Her nearness raised all the hairs along his arms, which were already goosefleshed from the chill. He stepped back, away from Karl’s head. Away from the woman.

He had to refocus on what needed done. “From whence do you hail?”

She glanced at him, a curious light touching her crystal eyes. “Mountain Bluff. And you?”

“Nowhere.” ’Twas his standard answer to that question. Nowhere. Many places. He’d wandered for so many years, he wasn’t even sure what it would feel like to belong in a place.

She raised her fair brows, which were almost exactly the color of varying strains of fresh honey. But at the moment, the perfect arch of those brows clearly communicated her wary frustration.

“Nowhere, sir?” If he’d not caught the message portrayed by her expression, the exasperation dripping from her tone said it well enough.

He shrugged. “I hail from these mountains. What are you doing so far from town?” This spot must be at least an hour’s trek on foot.

“Gathering herbs.”

Now it was his turn to raise his brows. “In winter?”

She studied him as though taking his measure. “My apologies for startling your horse.” She turned back to Karl and offered him a final pat, then stepped back.

As she moved away, a noise sounded like the squeak of wet leather. Matthias glanced down at the hem of her practical brown skirt as she stepped from the water. “Your shoes are soaked. Do you have a horse to ride back? You can’t stay out in this cold long.”

“I’ll be fine.” She hoisted herself up over the bank’s edge. Matthias lunged forward to help, but then stopped himself as he was faced with a skirt and shoes that gave no safe place to position his hand to help. She accomplished the feat with impressive grace though, and pushed to her feet.

Matthias gathered both his wits and Karl’s reins. “Are you here alone, then? Your husband allowed you to wander so far unescorted?”

“I have no husband. I work for a family there, and as I said, I’m gathering herbs to replenish our supplies.”

As she spoke, she scooped up a basket he hadn’t noticed on the ground, then rummaged through it, not sparing him a single glance.

But her words pricked Matthias’s memory. The last time he’d stopped at Mountain Bluff, Vatti Shumeister had mentioned the woman they’d hired to help Mutti Shumeister with her baking. The lady had been away visiting relatives at the time, but…could this fair-haired nymph be her? He’d pictured a plain-faced spinster, too vinegarish to find a husband, even in this land crawling with eager bachelors.

He eyed her. “Do you work for the Shumeisters?”

She jerked her head up. “You know them?”

He nodded. Vatti and Mutti Shumeister were the closest to family he’d had for years. Other than his sister, of course. Which was why he had to find her.

He turned back to Karl. “I’ll need to lead him downstream to a place where the bank is not as steep. Then we’ll take you home.” If she belonged to the Shumeisters, she had now become his responsibility. And he certainly wasn’t going to leave her alone and on foot so far from town.

He left her there and led the horse downstream. They found a place about thirty yards from the woman, and Karl seemed as eager as he was to escape the icy water. But as they trudged back on dry ground, the water squished in his soggy boots. It would be a long ride to Mountain Bluff.

The woman was kneeling over her basket when he and Karl reached her side.

He vaulted into the saddle, then extended his hand. “Give me your basket first, then I’ll help you climb up.”

She spared him a glance, and the disdain in her eyes made it clear she didn’t plan to accept his offer. “I’ll return on my own when I’m ready.”

He didn’t lower his hand. “I can’t leave you out here. Haven’t you gathered all the herbs you need?” What could she possibly find in this season, with all the plants barren of leaves?

She straightened to her feet and started walking away.

Exasperation simmered in his gut. What was wrong with this woman?

He nudged Karl forward to follow, then reined in when they came abreast of her. “Miss. I’m not leaving you out here. If there’s more to gather, tell me and I’ll help. Or I can even come back for it.” That would be the more pleasant option, given the fact that his toes had already benumbed and his boots had stiffened as though developing a shell of ice.

“I don’t mean to cause you trouble, sir.” She didn’t give him a moment’s notice with the words.

He let out a huff. “You’re causing me more trouble by refusing than if you’d just hand me the basket and climb on the horse. Not to mention you may have the power to save my damp feet from frostbite if you make haste.”

She turned a startled gaze on him, studying his face first, then lowering to his boots. Her shoulders slumped as though she’d eased out a sigh, and she handed the basket up to him.

When his hand touched her cold one, a warmth spread up his arm, washing through him to his toes. He did his best to ignore it as he secured the basket onto his saddle so that nothing would fall out.

She seemed to be experienced with horses as she fit her boot into the stirrup and swung up behind him.

He gave her a moment to settle, then nudged Karl forward. ’Twas harder than he’d expected to ignore the warmth of her behind him, even though she sat with a gap of several inches between them.

She didn’t speak, and he allowed an easy silence to settle, enough for him to mull over a few things that had struck him as odd. “It seems like you’ve ridden a horse before.”

He waited. She didn’t speak, so he waited longer.

Finally, she said, “Yes.”

That was all? He hadn’t asked a direct question, but her response was more than short.

“Did you learn to ride after you came to Mountain Bluff?”

“No.” At least this time, her answer was more forthcoming, although edging even closer to rude.

But her curt response gave him the impetus to push farther. “Where did you live before coming to this place?”

“My cousin and I came from Pennsylvania.” Her voice softened this time, coming out almost meek. And something about the tone sent of pang to his chest.

“Is that where you learned to ride? In Pennsylvania?”

“Yes.”

Again with the one-word answers. But she still had that melancholy tone that made him want to cease his inquisition.

Once more the silence settled, and he tried to find his easy rhythm, the peace that always came on the trail, riding through the scrawny pines with rocky peaks rising all around him.

But the calm in his spirit seemed elusive this time. Maybe ’twas his body so stirred from the nearness of such a lovely woman. Or maybe ’twas the fact he couldn’t seem to draw her into conversation. Not that he was terribly experienced with women. In fact, he rarely interacted with the fairer gender except for the occasional boardinghouse matron or cafeteria serving girl, and he didn’t usually give half a moment’s consideration to what they thought of him. But something about this woman made him crave her good opinion.

Or maybe he just wanted to hear that smile in her voice, the one that lit her features when she’d stroked his horse.

“Have you ever owned a horse, Miss…?” He searched his mind for her surname. Had Mutti or Vatti ever mentioned it? She didn’t fill in the gap, so it seemed he’d have to ask outright. “What is your name?”

“Miss Opal Boyd.”

He took in a breath for patience, then let it out. “Have you ever owned a horse, Miss Boyd?” It seemed she would make him force every syllable she would deign to offer.

“Yes, Mr. Björk.”

He looked over his shoulder to study her. “How do you know my name?”

She shrugged. “I assumed that’s who you were. You didn’t introduce yourself, but the Shumeisters speak of you often.”

He couldn’t help the warmth that flowed through his chest. Not only did they think of him when he wasn’t there, but they even mentioned him. But he only allowed a small nod as he turned back to the trail.

After another quarter hour, the silence had officially stretched his nerves taught. The land leveled out, opening to a wide valley and open trail. This particular area spread for almost a mile. The perfect landscape to pull Miss Opal Boyd from her reserve.

Perhaps. It might be worth the effort.

“You should probably hold on tighter for this stretch of land.”

Her body stiffened behind him. “Why?”

“It would just be a good idea.” Let her shake loose a bit if she didn’t want to take his advice. They’d start slowly enough that he could make sure she didn’t actually slide off Karl’s back. But just in case… “Actually, you might do best to hold around my waist.”

The noise in his ear sounded like a snort, not something that would escape the mouth of a woodland nymph.

He bit back a smile as he pressed a heel into Karl’s side.

The gelding pushed into a canter, and Miss Boyd’s snort was replaced with a squeal. He reached to grab her coat so she didn’t slide off. At almost the same moment, she gripped the sides of his own coat, jerking him back with the momentum of the horse’s speed. He reached for the horn and was barely able to keep them both on the horse’s back.

Karl never slowed through it all, and when they’d both regained their balance, Matthias crouched low and gave the horse his head. Miss Boyd had finally taken his advice and now clutched tightly around his waist.

The wind whipped at them, bringing an icy chill that made his senses spring to life. The horse’s white mane flapped in his face, raising the scent of the wild that always centered him. His mouth found its usual grin, possibly heightened by the pretty woman clinging to him.

Too soon, the end of the valley loomed ahead, and he straightened, easing back on Karl’s reins. Behind him, Miss Boyd leaned away, although she didn’t release her clutch around his middle.

When Karl settled back to a walk, Matthias turned to glimpse her. Would she be angry? She’d been hard to read, so maybe she was one of those uptight schoolmarms who didn’t know how to enjoy a carefree moment.

He turned to see. She was tucked so tightly against him, it was hard to catch more than a glimpse of her grin. She noticed him looking and eased back, not quite meeting his eye. The way her lower lip was tucked in her teeth didn’t hide her smile, though. Not when a twinkle lit her crystal blue eyes.

And that twinkle did funny things in his chest. Stirring up a sensation he’d do best to shun.

CHAPTER TWO

~

OPAL SLIPPED FROM THE BACK of the horse the moment Mr. Björk reined in behind the Shumeisters’ boardinghouse. The elegant white gelding had been mannerly, which was more than could be said for its owner. Her legs still shook, whether from the fear of riding pell-mell through the wilderness, barely hanging on behind the saddle, or from the effort of clinging to the horse and man. What kind of rogue was he?

The Shumeisters had always spoken of him in the most endearing terms, almost as if he were their own child. Although this ruddy, broad-shouldered man more closely resembled a warrior than a child, with the golden scruff of his beard and his hair curling at the nape of his neck.

She’d learned long ago that men weren’t trustworthy, and his actions on the ride back proved that point well. She certainly couldn’t rely on him to protect her sensibilities.

He dismounted after her, then reached to unfasten her basket. He handed it over with a roguish tip of his mouth. “Tell Mutti and Vatti I’ll be in shortly.”

Mutti and Vatti? Did he mean Mr. and Mrs. Shumeister? The strange words rolled off his tongue in the same way the older couple spoke their German. Maybe he was related to them.

She nodded and escaped into the house.

Mrs. S. stood at the work counter when Opal entered the kitchen and looked to be rolling some kind of meat into a pastry. The tangy scents of dill and vinegar wafted through the room, easing the knot in her chest. This place had the power to settle her spirit like no other.

Certainly not like Riverdale, the manor house where she’d lived from birth until midway through her eighteenth year. This was a real home, a place her heart could rest. Find peace. Who would have thought her haven would be this little boardinghouse and bakery in a tiny mountain town tucked in the Western wilderness?

’Twas as Mrs. S. had said, often, God’s ways only made sense in hindsight.

The older woman turned to her as Opal placed her basket on the table. “You found ze winter savory plant and ze willow tree? You have no trouble with ze bark?”

“No trouble with the bark.” She lifted the cloth covering her basket to reveal strips of bark she’d cut from the willow tree near the creek.

Mrs. S. nodded as she turned back to her work. “Gut.”

Opal stepped into the large pantry and pulled down the jars where they stored willow bark and winter savory, then added her newest harvest to the scant supply in each. After resealing the lids and replacing the canisters, she tied on her apron and reached for the bowl of dough she’d mixed that morning. It had risen nicely in the constant warmth of the kitchen.

An image of the fair-haired warrior flashed through her mind. “Oh, I met Mr. Björk while I was out.”

Mrs. S. stopped her work and looked up, peering over her spectacles at Opal. “You met our Matthias?”

She could still feel his lean strength under her arms as she clung tight during their ride, and a burn rose up her neck. Keeping her focus on the bread dough as she kneaded, she tried to maintain a casual tone. “He provided transportation for my journey back from the creek. Or rather, his horse did. ’Tis quite a fine animal. Have you seen it?”

She didn’t usually prattle on so, but maybe the tumble of words would distract the matron from Opal’s angst about the man.

“Ja. Karl is a fine steed. Good like the man.”

Opal flipped the dough over and pressed the heels of her hands into the floury underside.

Mrs. S. seemed willing to let the subject drop, too. How wonderful that the woman knew how to appreciate the comfort of silence.

They worked that way for a good quarter hour before Mrs. S. straightened from the strudel she’d prepared and wiped her hands on a damp towel. “I’ll go see what’s keeping him.”

“He’s probably still settling his horse at the livery.”

Mrs. S. murmured something as she left the room, but whether she spoke in English or German, her guttural accent made the word come out as an indecipherable growl.

Another quarter hour passed as Opal finished with the dough and separated it into pans to rise again, then mixed a batch of sweet rolls. Today being Wednesday, the mercantile owner’s wife would expect a delivery before their evening meal. Most of the town had regular deliveries coordinated, mostly of the thirty-six loaves of bread they baked each morning, but also of the various other baked treats.

Mrs. S. had developed a thriving business for herself. It was enough to keep them both busy baking and Mr. S. scampering about town making deliveries. ’Twas a wonder the couple hadn’t keeled over from exhaustion when it had been just the two of them trying to accomplish it all.

A noise sounded in the back of the house, and Opal watched the kitchen doorway as the Shumeisters’ voices blended with a deeper male vibrato that must be Mr. Björk.

She pulled her focus back to her work and pressed out the dough in preparation for cutting lengths to roll. She shouldn’t worry about the whereabouts of their guest. A strand of hair slipped loose from her braid, tickling her chin, so she pushed it behind her ear with her shoulder.

The voices became more distinct as the group neared the dining room.

“I’ll stoke ze fire and start roasting ze meat. Go clean yourself up.” Mrs. S.’s voice had taken on a motherly tone.

Mr. S. said something too quietly for her to decipher, then a moment later, his wife shuffled into the kitchen.

“Matthias brought us a deer for fresh meat.” She held up a bundle large enough to fill both her hands. “He keeps us supplied, he does.”

As Opal helped prepare and cook the meat, fresh juices made it seem like the venison had just been stripped from the carcass. Had he hunted it after she’d left him in the yard? Even if it had sat an hour or so, it seemed like the meat would have dried more than it had.

By the time they had dinner ready, the kitchen had grown warm with the savory aroma of jerked venison.

“Go call our menfolk to ze table.” Mrs. S. used the back of her wrist to brush back a strand of wiry gray hair that had slipped from her kerchief. Juices from the meat shone from her hands from where she’d been slicing the roast into thick slabs.

Opal wiped her floury hands on her apron and moved to Mrs. S. “I’ll finish that. You call them and sit down to enjoy your supper and our company.” With any luck, she could stay busy in the kitchen and not have to sit at all. ’Twas not that she didn’t enjoy the Shumeisters. She’d come to love them immensely in the several months she’d worked here. And Doctor Howard, their only regular boarder, was a good-hearted, fatherly man. Besides, his work kept him busy, so he often missed the evening meal and came home with exhaustion lines deepening the grooves in his face.

No, ’twas not the doctor or the Shumeisters she was hoping to avoid. Something about their newest guest unnerved her. Actually, most men unnerved her, but his effect held something unique.

Maybe ’twas the way a kind of virile manliness seemed to emanate from him. Or maybe ’twas the way the Shumeisters seemed to adore him. She wasn’t jealous of their affections. Of course, she wasn’t. After all, they’d known him much longer than she’d been working for these good people.

After setting out the dishes and food in the dining room, she was able to tuck herself away in the kitchen for a good part of the meal, scrubbing used pots and cleaning up from the day’s baking.

The door between the kitchen and eating area opened, and Opal turned to see what Mrs. S. would need. Probably a refill of the spicy tea they liked to drink in the evenings.

But the blond head that peered through the doorway didn’t belong to Mrs. Shumeister. The room shrunk as Matthias Björk carried the kettle in and placed it on the stove top. “I’m afraid we drank all the tea, but I’ll brew some more.” He glanced at her, his gaze taking in the soapy water that covered up to her elbows as she scrubbed the big pot.

“Aren’t you going to come eat?” Innocent confusion puckered his brows, then melted away as his eyes narrowed. “I won’t bite. Promise.” He turned to the barrel of clean water, obviously knowing exactly where to find it, lifted the lid, and ladled out enough for a pot of tea. Then he reached for the canister of dried herbal leaves Mrs. S. had imported from a specialty retailer in Boston. ’Twas, it seemed to Opal, their only luxury.

She turned back to her work as Mr. Björk replaced the lid on the kettle. She listened for his heavy tread moving back to the dining room, but only the crackle of the fire in the cook stove greeted her straining ears. She turned her head slightly to view him from the corner of her eye.

He leaned against the wall near the cook stove, one foot cocked and arms crossed over his chest. He noticed her sideways glance and tipped the corner of his mouth. “Have you learned to appreciate tea at every meal yet?”

She turned away quickly so he wouldn’t see the way his roguish look affected her. But the flip of her stomach was unnerving nonetheless.

Thankfully, he seemed oblivious. “You can’t spend time around Mutti and Vatti without learning to like tea. Dree is ostfreesenrecht. Have you heard Vatti say that?”

Opal couldn’t help turning to him as the image flashed through her mind of Mr. S. with a dainty mug in his hand, a twinkle in his faded blue eyes. “Three is their right.” It pulled a smile from her just thinking about it. Both of them religiously drank three cups of tea at every sitting, as though their entrance into heaven depended on it.

Mr. Björk’s mouth curved in a gentle smile, his gaze drifting into a memory. “They’re good people, the Shumeisters. Best I’ve found.”

Something about the wistfulness in his tone, or maybe the hint of longing in his eyes, made her look away. She should force her focus back onto her work before the burn in her throat grew into tears. She knew what ’twas like to feel that longing. That craving for a family. For someone to care.

Opal had it in her cousin Tori. And it seemed like she’d found it here with this quiet German couple. This haven they’d provided her, this safe place to live and be loved, ’twas a dream she’d never thought could come true.

But…oh, she had to stop thinking about this or she’d not be able to hold back her emotions. A warm drop slipped through her lashes and down her right cheek. She blinked the rest of the moisture back and stiffened her spine. The only way to hold the tears at bay was to change the topic of conversation.

“’Tis been how many months since you were here last? Five?” She scrubbed harder at a spot of burnt potato on the cast iron base of the pot.

“That’s right. You were visiting family, I think?”

She nodded. “My cousin. She lives near her husband’s family at a stage stop on the Oregon Trail. They’re expecting an addition to their family in a few months.” He probably didn’t care about that last detail, but it slipped out anyway. Maybe because Tori’s last letter still sat fresh in her mind. Maybe she could pen an answer tonight after the chores were finished.

“Do you have other family in the territories?”

How had they gotten onto this subject? The last thing she wanted to discuss with this Man of the Overpowering Presence was her family. Other than Tori, her father was her only living relative, and some days she wished she didn’t have to claim him.

Despite his lack of attention during her growing up years, she never imagined Father wouldn’t care when she completely disappeared from his life. He’d not come to find her after she and Tori had left home in the middle of the night. Not attempted to rescue her when his villainous steward chased after them. He didn’t seem to care at all whether she was safe.

Yes, some days she’d rather be an orphan like Tori. That would be easier than fighting the sting of tears that still threatened every time she thought of her father’s complete apathy.

~ ~ ~

Later that night, when all evening chores were finished, Opal still lingered in the quiet kitchen. This room had become her favorite, and even now the yeasty scents made the place feel warm and cozy.

Voices murmured from the other room where Mr. and Mrs. S. sat with Mr. Björk around the grand fireplace. She’d been invited to join them but begged off saying she was so exhausted, she planned to retire to her chamber soon.

And she would, after she wrote to Tori. She preferred the warmth of the kitchen to her room. With no hearths above stairs, the rooms tended to stay cold now that winter had come upon them. Especially after the sun disappeared each evening.

After gathering paper and pen from the corner cabinet, she pulled out a chair at the little work table and settled in.

Dearest Cousin,

Your letter made me smile, as always. How wonderful that you’re feeling the baby move so much now. I can only imagine what ’tis like to feel the flutterings of new life growing inside. I can’t wait to snuggle your tiny babe myself. Only a few more months now. I’ll come right after Christmas so I’m sure to be there when your precious little one arrives to greet us.

Something interesting happened in Mountain Bluff today. Well, not actually in MB, but not far outside of town. Do you remember my telling you about the mountain man who provides meat for the Shumeisters? They speak of him with such affection, almost as if he’s their son. He last came when I was visiting with you, but he came again today in a most startling way.

I had walked to a distant creek to gather willow bark and winter savory when he came galloping up on his massive white horse, almost like the knights of old. He and the horse attempted to jump over the creek but didn’t realize I was kneeling beside the water until too late. The horse startled, and man and beast both ended up in the stream. Fortunately, neither was injured.

Opal nibbled the top of the pen. At least, she didn’t think they were hurt. She’d checked the horse herself, but could Mr. Björk have been wounded and tried to conceal it? If so, at least he had the doctor here to consult.

If he would. He seemed like the type of wilderness man who would ignore his injuries in an attempt to conceal any weakness—maybe even to his own harm. But why was she even worried about this? He’d simply slipped off his horse while the animal fell into the creek. Mr. Björk was more likely to suffer from frostbite than a wound.

And he had mentioned that possibility. With wet boots, icy temperatures, and the sharp mountain wind, he may have sustained permanent damage on the long ride back.

She placed her pen on the table and started to rise, then stopped herself.

He was a grown man. He’d even had opportunity to speak to the doctor before the man retired to his chamber for the night. If Mr. Björk needed medical attention, he could seek it himself.

He wasn’t her responsibility.

CHAPTER THREE

~

MATTHIAS STEPPED IN THROUGH THE back door the next morning with an armload of wood, the tune of a mountain birdsong on his lips. The aromas emanating from the kitchen were enough to make anybody sing—man or bird. No matter how much he traveled, he’d not found a cook in all the western territories who could make sourdough bread like Mutti Shumeister. And she had a loaf ready for breakfast each morning he was there.

After using his shoulder to push through the kitchen door, he took in the flurry of activity before depositing the load of oak logs he’d cut short enough to fit inside the cook stove’s fire box.

Mutti sat at the table rolling some kind of thin pastry, and Miss Boyd worked at the taller counter.

“Hallo, Matthias. You are hungry, ja?” Only the twinkle in Mutti’s eye gave evidence of her smile.

“I could eat ten loaves of your famous bread.” He rested a hand on each of her fleshy shoulders, then leaned down to plant a solid kiss on her cheek.

“Nein, go on.” She waved him off in the flustered way she usually responded to his affections.

He chuckled and patted her shoulder as he straightened. They did this same song and dance every time he came, and ’twas fun to see the red creep into her face as she pretended not to enjoy the attention.

“How can I help? I hope you saved a job so I can work for my food.” He turned to scan the room, his gaze stalling on the lithe form of Miss Boyd as she wrapped bread loaves in a cloth bundle.

She’d pulled her blond hair into a braid, which hung almost the length of her back. A glorious length, and the tips looked feathery soft where they flared out from the ribbon she’d used to fasten the end.

“You can make ze deliveries zis morning.” Mutti waved to the cloth bundles Miss Boyd had already prepared.

He nodded and moved to the packages next to Miss Boyd. A light scent of apples laced with the yeasty flavor of the bread, and their combined aroma filled his senses enough to make him lightheaded. Maybe he was just hungry, but the woman’s nearness seemed to overpower his every thought.

Miss Boyd tapped the bundles as she instructed him. “This goes to the leather shop. This to Mr. Williams. And these to the mercantile. Oh, and we have some for Mr. Lefton at the livery, too.”

Matthias cringed. Not that man.

“Nein.” Mutti’s sharp call made them both look up. “Not the livery. Gunther will deliver that one. Only the others.”

Matthias didn’t look at the maiden beside him as he reached for the bundles. He hated the way the Shumeisters tried to shield him from that oaf. But they didn’t want trouble, and as long as Matthias stayed under their roof, he would abide by their strictures. Besides, the man was their paying customer, and he couldn’t jeopardize that income.

The burn of Miss Boyd’s stare heated his face, but he ignored it as he gathered the packages and turned toward the door.

~ ~ ~

Opal and Mrs. S. had breakfast ready by the time Mr. Björk returned from his deliveries. Mr. S had shuffled out not long after the younger man with the delivery to Mr. Lefton at the town stable. It still made no sense why Mr. Björk couldn’t have taken it all, but when she questioned Mrs. S, the older woman had only shrugged. She wasn’t usually talkative, but when she didn’t want to answer a question, it was impossible to get a word from her.

Mr. Björk sat at the table with the doctor, sipping coffee while the older man filled him in on recent events around town. Doctor Howard worked his way through a plate of meats, cheese, and bread slathered with blackberry preserves, but Matthias hadn’t loaded anything on his dish. It appeared he planned to wait until Mr. S. returned to break his fast, a thoughtfulness the older man would appreciate.

Opal was just bringing the coffee pot to refill their mugs when the front door crashed open. “Doc. Come quick.”

Little Benjamin from the mercantile staggered into the room, panting and gripping his side. This wasn’t the first time he’d come running for the doctor, and his presence always tightened a knot in Opal’s stomach.

Doctor Howard wiped his mouth with a serviette as he rose from the table. “What is it, Ben?”

The boy glanced at Opal, then turned back to the doctor. “Mr. Shumeister. He got knocked down by Big Dan at the livery an’ he’s hurt bad.”

Opal’s foot snagged in the carpet, and she stumbled forward to the table. Grabbing the edge, she righted herself and set the coffee pot onto its surface with a clatter. The image of the big bay stallion at the livery filled her mind’s eye. The stallion that had a reputation for wildness. What had Mr. S. been doing close enough to the animal to be knocked down?

She headed for the door and Benjamin as the others gathered around the boy. “How badly is he injured?”

“Don’t know for sure. He was holdin’ his arm an’ groanin’, so Mr. Lefton sent me runnin’ to get you.”