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About the Author
A Rocky Mountain Romance
Misty M. Beller
Remember ye not the former things,
neither consider the things of old.
Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; Shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43:18-19 (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
Near South Pass City, Wyoming Territory
This storm had the power to ruin his journey.
The ashen snow clouds hung thick in the sky, which meant Zeche Reid wouldn’t have much time before the blizzard hit. Icy dampness seemed to hover in the air as it captured his breath, and even his exhales hung like leaden clouds, harbingers of the coming threat. Chipmunks had been scurrying all morning, hopping from pine to spruce to cedar, searching for the last remaining acorns. All the signs bespoke snow. A lot of it.
He stared out across the rocky peaks of the Wyoming mountains. Snow blanketed most of the pinnacles, but others stored the white only in nooks and crags. In the valley beneath him, patches of brown grass peeked out from the frozen covering. The plants would be buried soon enough.
Which meant he needed to find a place to hole up.
He’d been hoping for a cave, but he may have to settle for that rock overhang just visible on the side of the mountain opposite him. Nudging Biscuit forward, he shifted with the gelding’s unsteady gait as they maneuvered the winding deer trail around the rocky cliff side. A lone flake almost the size of his thumbprint drifted down in front of them.
He’d covered a lot of ground these past weeks since leaving the icy chill of the Sweetwater River. But there was still so much to see and explore in these mountains. Now that his sister, Mara, and her husband had taken on most of the horses and training from their family ranch, he no longer bore that responsibility. And his youngest brother, Ezra, could handle the stage stop on his own, especially as things slowed down through the winter months.
There was almost nothing holding Zeche back. No one who needed him.
The chance he’d been waiting for had finally come. An opportunity to strike out on his own and explore as far into these Rocky Mountains as he and Biscuit could go before spring. Unfortunately, the going had proved slower than he’d expected, especially with several snowfalls making the trails slick. But slower travel gave him more time to take in the views. More time for the majesty of this mountain wilderness to sneak into his chest and take hold.
New snowflakes followed the first, falling in steady procession as he rounded the crest of the mountain and the trail descended more steeply. Something below caught his eye, and he reined in.
With smoke curling from a rock chimney attached to the side of the wooden structure, it looked as out of place in this desolate land as a glass storefront. Yet, the structure seemed to snuggle into the trees around it as if it had always been there.
The building sat several hundred feet away from him, near the bottom of the mountain where the ground leveled out.
You never knew what kind of people would be living this far out in the remote mountains. Should he avoid the place altogether? He could still head on to that rock overhang and wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with these folks.
But as a gust of wind found its way between his neck and the hood of his buckskin coat, he could almost feel himself nestled in that warm room near a crackling fire, his hands curled around a mug of hot coffee. The imagined smell of the savory brew crept into his senses and he nudged Biscuit forward.
The snow fell in earnest now, its icy drops pricking the exposed areas on his face. Maybe they’d even have a hot stew cooking. He’d not tasted stew since leaving the stage stop. Ezra’s cooking skills weren’t the best, but the boy could brew a pot of soup without burning it.
As he neared the spot where the ground leveled off—about thirty feet in front of the cabin—Zeche reined his horse to a stop. He should announce his presence before he moved close enough to knock on the door. Didn’t want to get shot.
“Halloo, in there. Anyone home?” They had to be home, with the smoke seeping from the chimney and mingling with the snowflakes as it rose.
A long moment passed, and he wet his lips to call again. “Halloo, in the cabin. I mean no harm.”
The door cracked open, as if those were the magic words. But then it didn’t move again. The six inches or so of darkness revealed nothing inside. But it was wide enough that a gun could be trained on him. And who knew if the ol’ coot with his finger on the trigger was sane or crazy.
“I mean no harm,” he called. “Just looking for a place to wait out the storm.” Another moment passed. This was fruitless. He should have bypassed the cabin altogether and headed on to the overhang he’d spotted on that other mountain. At least then his fate would be mostly his to control, not tucked in the hands of some half-crazed mountain hermit.
He was about to tell the person in the cabin to never mind and have a nice day, but the door opened wider, halting his throat from working up the words.
A soft glow of light cleared the shadows from the doorway, and a skinny form slipped through the opening onto the cabin’s small porch.
The person stood tall and lanky, wrapped in a fur coat with the hood pulled up around his face. And the man did, indeed, hold a rifle targeted at him. Loosely, anyway. The stock was tucked into his shoulder with the barrel pointed Zeche’s direction, but the man didn’t peer down the sights to take aim.
“I mean no harm,” he tried again. Maybe this situation could be resolved yet. Although the prospect of spending the next several hours—and possibly the night—with this suspicious, rifle-pointing recluse held less appeal by the minute. He shouldn’t have expected different.
“I was just looking for a place to ride out the storm.” He scanned the structure, his eyes locking on something in the rear. “If you have a lean-to in the back, I can stay there with my horse.”
The figure stood for another moment. Maybe studying him. Maybe the man couldn’t speak.
“Settle your horse in the back and come inside the cabin.”
Zeche’s gaze flew to the fellow’s face. That voice. It wasn’t the baritone of a man at all. That softness had to be…
He squinted, trying to make out the features tucked inside the hood of the coat. Dark eyes stared back at him, framed by a feathering of dark hair and a dainty, pointed chin. Even from this distance, how could he have missed the pretty, angular lines of a woman’s face?
He almost reached for his hat to doff it but stopped as he realized he wasn’t wearing one. Only the hood of his own coat. He pushed Biscuit forward, keeping his gaze on the woman through the thickening snowfall.
She still held the rifle pointed in his direction, but her head shifted for a second, as if she were scanning the tree line to her right. Was she alone here, waiting for someone to return?
Of course. Her husband would be out checking traps or gathering more wood. And the last thing Zeche wanted was to be caught inside the cabin with the man’s wife when he returned. He could stay out with the animals till then, and the distance would likely set the lady’s mind at ease.
He reined Biscuit in about a dozen feet in front of the cabin. “I’ll stay in that shelter out back with my horse until your husband comes back, ma’am. I appreciate your hospitality.”
He studied her for a reaction, expecting to see relief bring that rifle barrel down a hair. He’d come close enough now that he made an awfully big target. Even if she wasn’t aiming exactly, she’d likely hit him if she pulled that trigger.
But the set of her shoulders stiffened, and the rifle secured deeper in the crook of her shoulder. “Leave your horse in the back and come inside.” That was a command if he ever heard one, even though it’d been a long time since he’d had to take orders from a female voice. Even his sassy sister didn’t talk to him like that.
The woman stepped to the side as if clearing the way for him to enter, although the rifle was still pointed right at him. Best do as she said and take the offer at face value. She was probably extra nervous without her man here. Although it didn’t look like her hands shook on the gun. Which was good for him.
He nodded his acquiescence, keeping his bearing casual as he reined Biscuit toward the back. “Much obliged, ma’am. I’ll be in shortly.” Maybe she’d settle down once she saw she had nothing to fear from him.
He settled his gelding with the bay mare already inside the lean-to built off the back of the cabin, then hung his saddle and bridle on the rail in the little feed room. Another saddle hung there already. Not a sidesaddle, but he should have expected as much. Any woman who lived out here would have to give up feminine frippery.
“Are you coming in?” The woman’s voice drifted around from the front.
Zeche couldn’t help the hint of a grin that pulled at his face. “Coming now.” He gave Biscuit a final pat as the horse munched the hay piled along the back wall. “My presence hasn’t been wanted so much in a month of Mondays,” he muttered, chuckling while he slipped out the back gate.
The snow fell thickly enough to limit his vision as he tromped around to the door. The structure seemed to be built solidly, and not too long ago, either. The wood had weathered only a little, maybe a year or so old.
He knocked, and a muffled call from inside seemed like it might have said, “Come in.” Pulling the latch string, he eased the door open and peered into the darkness.
The woman stood by a big fireplace looking up at him as she stirred something in a pot hanging over it. “Don’t let all the heat out.”
“Right.” He stepped inside and pushed the door shut behind him, making sure the latch fell in place. His eye caught the snow piled on his shoulders. Should have brushed off before bringing the wetness inside.
“You can warm yourself here by the fire. My father will be back shortly.”
Her father? Not a husband as he’d assumed. Or maybe both lived in the cabin. That might be likely out here where survival depended on the entire family.
He glanced around the place. It was small but orderly. The fireplace held court at the far end of the room, with a stone hearth and a carved mantle spanning the width of the opening. A row of books lined the mantle from one side to the other. A cot nestled in the corner, with the blanket folded neatly on top.
The woman was still bundled in her coat, but the hood hung down her back, revealing smooth dark hair tucked under the buckskin.
She turned to him again, her black brows raised as she pointed to the chair nearest the fire. Near her.
He wasn’t really that chilled, not with his thick animal-skin coat, buckskin clothes, and fur-lined gloves, not to mention the woolen underclothes and stockings he wore beneath it all. But it was probably best to do as she asked.
He eased down in the armchair near the fire. But this spot brought him uncomfortably near to her as she continued to stir whatever was in that pot.
She didn’t seem to notice it, though. Just kept her back to him as she worked.
Only a couple feet separated them, and he was close enough to see a couple inches of blue cloth hanging below the bottom of her leather coat. The fine weave of the fabric seemed at odds with the buckskin of her pants. His eyes roamed upward, to the straight rise of her spine, the square of her shoulders, the way the lamplight behind her made her black hair shimmer.
He tried to picture her face again but couldn’t. How old had she looked? She’d mentioned a father. Did that mean she’d grown up in these mountains? From the elegance in her bearing and the luxury of that blue cloth, it didn’t seem to be the case.
So what was she doing out here?
He leaned back in the chair as his gaze dropped down to his dirty buckskins. It would have been nice if he’d taken time for a shave at least once since leaving South Pass City.
~ ~ ~
Gretta Michelly struggled to focus on the stew as the muscles bunched tighter through her shoulders. How would Father react to a stranger in their cabin? He’d been doing so well these past weeks. Forgetting the memories that haunted him. The rhythm of their new life in this peaceful place seemed to help.
But today it appeared the world had invaded them once again. Or at least this roaming mountain man had.
She strained to hear outside the cabin. Surely Nyx would bark to alert her of their presence. That little dog seemed to have an extra sense about how to help her father. Then she could meet them at the door and explain about their guest. Her father would probably welcome the company.
As long as he wasn’t surprised.
She couldn’t make out any sounds from outside, only the crackle of the fire in the cabin and the scraping of boot leather on wood as the man behind her shuffled his feet. It’d been so long since anyone new had been in their little home.
That must be why this man seemed to fill the place with his presence, soaking up all the air so her pulse raced in her chest.
She probably shouldn’t have allowed him to come in, shouldn’t have trusted a perfect stranger. But his look hadn’t stirred fear in her chest. And she’d become astute at judging men at a glance—at least in gauging the level of danger they presented. Three years working in war hospitals had fine-tuned that ability.
She shifted her head sideways to peek at him. He was more handsome than she remembered.
And he was staring right at her.
She whipped her head straight again, then reached for a bowl from the shelf, willing her face not to turn red. “The stew’s ready.” After ladling out his portion, she turned to hand him the dish, keeping her gaze lowered.
But what was she doing? This man was no different from any other God had created, no matter that he raised goose bumps on her arms with his presence. He deserved treatment no better or worse than she would give her father.
Inhaling a deep breath, she raised her gaze and pasted a smile on her face as he took the bowl from her hands. “This should warm you.”
The ruddy hue from the cold had mostly faded from his warming face, giving her a clear view of the strong lines there. He wasn’t as old as she’d first assumed. The beard only gave that appearance. Now that she had a good look at him, she realized he couldn’t be much past his early thirties. And there was something about the intensity in his dark eyes that made her stomach flip.
“Thanks.” He glanced down at the bowl, then back up at her, then over to the shelf where she’d retrieved the dish.
She stared at his bowl, then a jolt of realization pulsed through her. “Let me get you a spoon.” The heat flared up her neck again as she turned away.
When would Father be back? Being alone with this man was making her lose her good sense.
THE DOOR CRASHED OPEN, AND Gretta whirled to face the intruder. Father’s leather coat appeared, but the relief it brought was broken by the rifle he aimed and the twisted anger on his face.
In the space of a heartbeat, a figure lunged in front of her, blocking her view. The stranger’s broad shoulders loomed before her, his arms spread as if to keep her locked behind him.
Nyx’s yips pierced the air, and she jumped up on the tips of her toes to see over the man’s shoulders in front of her. What was wrong with Father now? She had to get to him and stop his irrational actions. The crazed look in his eye meant he must be acting from a memory. But if she didn’t bring him back to reality now, he might accidentally hurt someone.
Dipping low, she slipped under the stranger’s arm and darted forward, then slowed as she neared him. “Father.” Holding out a hand, she tried to catch his eye. “Father, it’s me. Gretta. You’re all right.”
He never looked at her, just squinted down the barrel of his gun at their guest.
She reached out and touched his shoulder, ready to jerk back and away if he turned the rifle her direction. He would never hurt her on purpose, but when the memories took control, he lost connection with what was really happening around him.
The moment she touched him, he blinked and turned his head to look at her.
Relief sagged in her chest. “It’s me, Father. We’re all right.”
He blinked again, then straightened. His eyes scanned the room, stalling when they landed on the stranger. He squinted at the man. “Who is he?”
She stepped closer to her father, her heart lifting at the familiar tone in his voice. He’d pulled out of the memory. “He’s passing through and needed a place to wait out the storm.” She grabbed the barrel of the rifle and carefully extricated it from his hands.
Nyx whined at their feet, and she reached down to stroke the dog’s short, black hair. “You cold out there, boy?”
He licked the heel of her hand, and she straightened. Their poor guest. What must he think about this welcome? She’d let herself get distracted from listening for Father, and the result could have been deadly.
Straightening her shoulders, she looked over at the visitor, forcing her mouth into an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry about that, Mr.…” She hadn’t even asked his name yet.
“Reid. Zechariah Reid.” A wary gaze cloaked his features. He’d done some quick moving to jump in front of her when Father had barged in, and the man probably didn’t like that she’d disregarded his protection. But she was the only one who could handle Father when the fits overtook him. And the sooner he came back to himself the better.
Father breathed out a long breath, the sound of it a little shaky. But it seemed to put him fully in control of his faculties. He stepped forward and extended his hand to the man. “Antonio Michelly. Glad you made it out of the weather. It’s getting nasty out there.”
Mr. Reid’s gaze flicked to her, then back to her father. He slowly gripped the outstretched hand, but the look on his face said he thought he might be sealing his own fate with the contact.
A sudden urge welled in her chest to pull the man aside and explain all the reasons why Father suffered the attacks. The awful things he’d been forced to see and do during the War Between the States. Those living nightmares would haunt any man, even someone as strong as her father.
Father motioned to the chair Mr. Reid had occupied. “Have a seat.” He turned and scanned the room as though still trying to get his bearings.
Gretta slipped around him to the fireplace. “Come warm yourself, Father. The stew is ready.”
After removing his coat, he settled into the chair she usually occupied, across from where Mr. Reid sat. “You live around here?” He leaned forward to rub his hands in front of the fire.
“Just south of the mountains, on the Sweetwater River.” The man’s deep tenor still held a reserved edge.
“You’re a ways from home then. What brought you this far north?” Father’s tone tried for genial, although Gretta picked up on the faint undertone of wariness. She wouldn’t have caught it if she didn’t know him so well.
“Really? You’re an adventurer then?”
A dry chuckle. “Don’t know as I’d say that. Just…finally found the time to get up to the mountain country.”
She placed the bowl in her father’s hands, then reached down to pick up the empty dish and spoon beside Mr. Reid’s seat. He must have dropped it on the floor when he’d sprung to her defense. “I’ll refill it for you.” She darted a glance at his face.
“Thanks.” The expression in his eyes held a sadness she hadn’t expected. Or maybe it was yearning? What must this man think about them?
“Winter’s not a time people usually head into the Rockies. This is already our fifth snow of the season.” Father sent her a smile as he swallowed his first bite of stew. “Good soup, daughter.”
Gretta nodded, then handed their guest his second helping and turned back to fill bowls for Nyx and herself.
“Thank you, ma’am. It does hit the spot.”
She nodded as she placed a dish beside the dog curled next to Father’s chair.
Mr. Reid’s voice sounded again, this time addressed to Father. “My brother and I run the Rocky Ridge Stage Stop, and winter’s usually the slow time. It was my first chance to get away.”
Father nodded, then silence settled over the room, broken only by the crackle of the fire and the sounds of wooden spoons scraping bowls as the men ate. She turned with her own dish and eased down to perch on the stone hearth. They only had two seats in the place, save for the beds. The lack of chairs wasn’t usually a problem, because they rarely hosted guests. And that was best.
“No, sit here.” Mr. Reid rose to his feet and stepped aside, motioning her toward the chair he’d been occupying.
She looked up to meet his gaze. “No, you sit. You’re our guest, Mr. Reid. And you’re weary from traveling.”
A hint of a smile softened his dark eyes, and a corner of his mouth pulled the slightest bit. “Call me Zeche. And I’d rather be closer to the fire.”
It’d been so long since a man other than her father had offered chivalry. And when he looked at her with that polite earnestness, what power had she to refuse? She pushed to her feet and took the chair he offered.
He eased down onto the spot she’d vacated and turned his attention back to her father. “Have you lived out here long?”
“A little over a year.” Pa shifted a quick glance her way as he took another bite. She nodded in silent agreement. If he wasn’t going to offer any more information than that, she wouldn’t either. They both wanted to forget the life before this land. Most of it, anyway.
“So you’ve experienced a mountain winter before.” Zeche’s voice deepened as he looked to her.
Her smile came a little easier this time. “Yes.” As different as it had been from the winters in South Carolina, she’d thrived on the beauty of the mountains covered in snow. Bundling up in her furs and setting out on snowshoes to the creek. Riding her mare to the lake, which was covered in a thin layer of ice. And especially snuggling with a mug of hot tea in front of the fire. She was made for this life. If only it hadn’t taken tragedy to bring them here. But she could be thankful for what they had left.
He cocked his head for a second, studying her. “It’s going to be quite a blizzard this time.” He turned back to her Father. “Are you stocked up on food and firewood? I imagine we’ll be snowed in for at least a couple days.”
Father nodded. “We’ve worked all summer to prepare.”
Mr. Reid—er, Zeche—tilted his head again, like he couldn’t quite figure them out. A lock of brown hair slipped over his brow, giving him a rakish tint. Then he seemed to shake himself out of his wondering and looked down as he scooped out the last bite of stew. After swallowing the bit of elk meat and broth practically whole, he straightened and breathed a contented sigh. “Well, Miss Michelly. That’s the best meal I’ve had in a long while.”
He pushed to his feet and, bowl in hand, strode toward the door.
~ ~ ~
Zeche breathed in a lungful of frigid air as he slipped outside. The icy blast was exactly what he needed to clear his head. Maybe it was the heat from the fire inside, or maybe it was that woman’s presence so near him, but something had pressed on his chest so that he could barely breathe.
She was a beauty, no doubt about it, with those dark, expressive eyes and her regal bearing. She and her father both looked to have Italian or Spanish blood in them. Probably Italian with a name like Michelly. And Miss Michelly carried more poise in her chin alone than most women held in their entire person.
But what had possessed her father when he’d charged into the cabin like a she-bear fighting for her cubs? The man was lucky Zeche’s rifle hadn’t been within reach. His heart had nearly stopped in his chest when Miss Michelly slipped out from behind him and approached the danger. Hers had been the magic touch, though. She had a way about her that would calm any man.
So, what was she doing out here in the mountain wilderness, a week’s ride from the nearest tiny town? They surely had a story. But then, didn’t everyone?
Squatting in the snow at the base of the porch, he scooped the icy crystals into his bowl and scoured the dish and spoon. He should have offered to fill a bucket of water for her or do something else useful. He had to do something to earn his keep while he was here.
~ ~ ~
As night fell, Zeche kept an eye out the cabin’s lone window at the thick snow blowing through the darkness. The wind howled around the little building, making him more than thankful he’d found haven here instead of a cleft in the mountainside. Biscuit probably felt the same way in the shed out back.
He should go check on the horses one last time before he bedded down for the night.
Turning, he stepped to the door, glancing toward Miss Michelly and her father. They each occupied a chair by the fire, and both of them seemed enamored with the books they read.
Mr. Michelly’s was a thick, leather-bound tome, which looked as dry as the biscuits Mara used to make before her husband taught her how to cook a decent meal. At least he’d glimpsed a few sketches in Miss Michelly’s book, and it wasn’t quite as thick. How did they sit and read for hours at a time? No wonder books lined the mantle above the hearth.
“I’m gonna check on the horses.” He slipped his hands through his coat sleeves and worked the buttons, then grabbed his gloves and the lantern by the door.
Miss Michelly looked up. “Would you like assistance?”
He couldn’t help but raise his brows at her. She would offer to go out in that mess? “No, ma’am. I’ll be back shortly.” He had to get out of this cabin before he paced a hole in their floor.
A quarter hour later, he’d worn the edge off his nerves by tromping through the two feet of snow that had piled around the edges of the cabin. He’d had to stay close enough to run his hand along the wall or he might have lost his way in the blowing snow. All the signs about this being a nasty storm had been correct. Nature rarely got that kind of prediction wrong. You just had to know how to interpret the language.
He stomped his boots and brushed the snow from his coat before slipping into the cabin. The heat that blasted his face made his skin tingle, but it was a welcome sensation after the numbing cold.
Mr. Michelly jerked up from his book at Zeche’s arrival, and the little dog jumped to its feet beside his master.
Zeche worked to school his movements as he shucked his gloves and slipped out of his coat. Surprises seemed to unsettle the man. He nodded to him. “Animals are bedded down for the night.” His gaze wandered to Miss Michelly’s chair, but it was empty.
A flash of movement caught his eye behind the seat, near the cabin’s front wall. She sat on her knees, working on something, and as he peered into the dimness, he realized it was a pallet of blankets.
He glanced to his bedroll, still lying where he’d tossed it beside the door. “You don’t have to worry about that, ma’am. I’ll just lay out my roll.”
She spared him a glance. “These are extra quilts.” And as she turned back to straighten the blankets, he couldn’t help but notice the way her blue cloth tunic outlined her slender curves. She certainly didn’t dress like any woman he’d ever seen. Her tunic hung almost to her knees, with the buckskin pants covering her legs below it. That getup was probably easier to work in than a full-length gown, and she was plenty covered up, but…
He pulled his gaze away as she straightened.
“There. I think that’ll work for you, but if you get cold, we have more blankets in that trunk.” She pointed toward a corner lined with three different chests.
He’d be more than fine with what she’d laid out, so he didn’t ask for clarification. “Thanks.”
She started to push to her feet, and his brain slipped into motion. He lunged forward, offering his hand to help her stand.
She took it, not quite meeting his gaze. The warmth of her hand permeated his skin, warming all the way up his arm.
He cleared his throat. “Sorry my hand is cold.”
That seemed to fluster her, and red crept across her cheeks. The moment she had her balance she pulled away. “There’s hot water if you want tea.”
He glanced at the blankets spread on the floor, then out the dark window. “Think I’ll just bed down if that’s all right.”
She looked back at the pallet, but he couldn’t read her expression. “Of course.”
ZECHE’S EYES JERKED OPEN, BUT he forced his body to remain still. The noise might have been in his dream, but it might also be a threat outside the cabin.
There. It came again. Muffled, and from a different direction than he’d first thought. He struggled to orient himself.
A moan sounded. Almost a cry. Like a male voice pitching high in agony.
Zeche craned his neck to find the source of the sound. Something moved across the room, in the pallet where Mr. Michelly lay. It was the blanket writhing, as though the creature underneath struggled.
He pushed his blankets aside and jumped to his feet, scanning the room for any other movement.
The man’s outcry propelled Zeche forward, but he forced himself to slow a few feet from the bed.
“Mr. Michelly. Wake up.” He spoke in a loud whisper, trying not to startle the man any more than the nightmare already had.
Michelly thrashed again, hitting the wall beside him with a strong elbow. That was likely the wall to his daughter’s chamber, if Zeche understood the layout of the cabin correctly. If he didn’t silence the man soon, she’d be awakened, and none of them would get a decent night’s sleep.
“Mr. Michelly.” He pitched his voice low, but louder than the whisper.
“Ah!” This time it was more like a yelp, and the man’s body jerked as if a bullet had slammed into him.
“Mr. Michelly.” Zeche stepped closer, reaching out to grip the man’s shoulder.
“No.” The woman’s voice pierced the air, stilling his hand and jerking his shoulders back.
“Let me wake him so he’s not surprised.” Miss Michelly padded closer and slipped between him and her father. “Father, wake up. It’s me. Gretta.” She settled a hand on his forehead. “You’re hav—”
The covers shifted just as Miss Michelly’s body jerked down.
She cried out in surprise, and Zeche lunged forward to grip her shoulders before he could stop himself. But as he tried to pull her back, resistance held her.
“Ow.” She squealed the word, and he stepped sideways to see what held her.
The man had a grip on her arm with one hand. The other had gripped the back of her neck and was pulling her head downward.
“It’s me, Father.” Miss Michelly dropped to her knees on the floor, probably trying to ease the angle of her father’s grip. In a tight hiss, she said, “Mr. Reid. Stand back so he’s not threatened.”
So her father wasn’t threatened? Seemed he was the one doing all the threatening. But Zeche took a single step back, even as his muscles bunched to lunge forward, prepared to intervene if the man did anything further to hurt his daughter.
She seemed to take a deep breath, then did the last thing he expected. She began to sing. In a quivering voice, she started into words that took on a waltz cadence, but he couldn’t make out the lyrics. It sounded almost like a different language.
But the melody seemed to loosen her father’s angst, and he fell back against the bed, releasing his hold on Gretta.
Her voice gained strength, rolling with the rhythm of the melody. It had to be another language, because none of the sounds formed words he knew. Yet he found himself swaying to the one-two-three tempo of the song.
Her voice swelled in what must be the chorus, and Gretta’s hand slipped up to stroke her father’s brow. Even in the shadowy darkness, Zeche could see Mr. Michelly’s eyelids drift open. His hand grappled across the covers, reaching for her free one. She slipped her fingers around his old, gnarled knuckles as she brought the song to a soft close.
Mr. Michelly’s breath eased out in a long stream that filled the stillness of the cabin. Not even the dog moved until the older man pushed up from the bed to a sitting position.
His hair stuck out in angles as he looked from his daughter to Zeche. “Well. Looks like I woke us all.” The room was too dim to see the nuances of his expression, but the way his shoulders sagged made Zeche want to step forward and reassure him. Even though the man’s nightmare had endangered his daughter.
For that matter, he didn’t know for sure Gretta hadn’t been injured. Depending on how strong her pa’s grip had been, she might have bruises from the ordeal. He looked over at her. “Are you hurt?”
She ducked her gaze. “No. Not at all.” But her exhale quivered. “Go on back to bed now.”
Zeche rubbed the back of his neck, his pulse not even close to settled. “Not sure I’ll sleep yet.”
She looked up then, glancing from him to her father. “Would you like tea?”
Mr. Michelly sighed again. “That would be nice.”
“I’ll light a lantern.” Zeche turned away from the pair, as much to give himself some breathing room as for them.
Gretta’s dressing robe swished as she moved behind him.
So many questions burned in Zeche’s chest as he lit a lantern using an ember from the fireplace, but he wasn’t quite sure how to ask them. The older man obviously had some kind of illness, and it appeared to make him dangerous.
Gretta wasn’t safe here alone with her father. But he couldn’t contemplate what to do about that until he had more details. He needed to get her alone for a discussion, but how did he do that with a blizzard outside? The only doorway in this room led into what he assumed was her sleeping chamber. And that certainly wasn’t an option.
Maybe in the morning he could find an opportunity.
~ ~ ~
The sound of metal scraping against metal pierced Zeche’s sleep, and he jerked up from his covers. But his fuzzy brain took a moment to make sense of what his eyes took in.
A figure bent over the fireplace, her hands working silently as she coaxed a fire from the coals. Even focused on her work, Gretta held herself with a bearing that snagged his attention and held it.
His mind still hadn’t come to grips with why a woman so obviously cultured would lock herself away in this wilderness, where she had access to only the barest of essentials, even for a reason so noble as to care for her father. They didn’t have a cook stove, which forced her to cook over an open fire. And she seemed to be unmarried, although if she lived back east, she would have suitors lining up and down the street to seek her hand in marriage, regardless of the fact the eastern cities were so recently torn by war.
It was hard to guess her age. At first he’d thought she was around his own—thirty—mostly because of the astuteness in her gaze, a guarded look, the kind that came only from experience. But as he’d studied her face while she read the night before, the firelight had glinted over her smooth skin. She couldn’t be much older than five and twenty. Maybe a year or so younger than his sister, Mara.
She turned then, and her eyes rounded as she caught him watching. He should look away, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to. Her mouth tipped at the edges, softening her face with a smile that made his gut flip.
Then her gaze flicked to the other side of the room where her father lay. She pressed a finger to her lips. The worry that glimmered in her eyes brought back memories of the night’s trauma in full force.
He nodded, then pulled his focus away from her face. He needed to get moving. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d lain abed while the woman of the house was up and choring. Of course, it’d been a while since they’d had a woman in the house. Not since Mara was married over a year ago.
As he pulled himself upright and pushed to his feet, Gretta went back to her work. Making coffee, it appeared. He stepped closer to peer into the carafe. Yes, those looked like coffee grounds. She’d served tea last night, but he’d been hoping for the strong stuff this morning. Would have offered his own from his saddle pack, if he needed to.
She glanced up and caught his gaze as her movements stilled. Her dark eyes rounded when she saw how near he was. He’d not meant to approach so close, yet part of him didn’t want to retreat. She was…pretty, to say the least. And he’d not had opportunity to be around a beautiful woman in longer than he could remember. That must be why his lungs didn’t seem to work quite right.
His gut tightened as he wiggled his toes in his stockinged feet. He’d not even put on shoes yet. Taking a step back, he forced his mind to think through the jumble of his thoughts. “I’m, uh, going outside for a minute. I’ll feed the horses while I’m out.”