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Opis ebooka The Lady and the Mountain Fire - Misty M. Beller

A Christian Historical Romance NovelClaire Sullivan has a soft spot for helping those in need. So when her widowed grandmother becomes blind, Claire is determined to travel to the Montana Territory to care for her. But she never imagined the country would be so wild compared to her North Carolina home. Even the local doctor doesn't seem to have a kind bone in his body.Doctor Bryan Donaghue has worked day and night for two years to help the people of this wild Montana mining town. But no matter how hard he pushes, his efforts don't seem to make a difference in the quality of the townspeople's lives. Even the sassy granddaughter of the blind widow won't heed his instructions.But when disaster strikes their rough mining city, Bryan's drive to help may have taken him too far. Can Claire overcome her deepest fears to save the man she's come to love?

Opinie o ebooku The Lady and the Mountain Fire - Misty M. Beller

Fragment ebooka The Lady and the Mountain Fire - Misty M. Beller

THE LADY AND THE MOUNTAIN FIRE

Misty M. Beller

MISTY M. BELLER BOOKS, INC.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Lady and the Mountain Fire

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

Epilogue

About the Author

Dedication

Contents

Title Page

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

Epilogue

Did you enjoy this book?

Other books by Misty M. Beller

About the Author

Dedication and Copyright

THE LADY AND THE MOUNTAIN FIRE

~

Mountain Dreams Series, Book 3

Misty M. Beller

And he said unto me, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

2 Corinthians 12:9 (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

June 22, 1877

Butte City, Montana Territory

Claire Sullivan hated fire, but the magnificence of this flaming sunset took her breath away. Hues of crimson, amber, and magenta lit the evening sky as they outlined the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Such a far cry from the green rolling hills of the North Carolina home she’d left two months ago.

She stood on the front porch of the café where she’d stopped for directions and scanned the area. Everything about this mountain town loomed wild and larger than life. Not just because of the peaks easily seen beyond the buildings on all sides, but also because of the rough-looking men in workers’ garb filing in and out of the café door beside her.

Claire inhaled another deep breath. The woman in the café, Aunt Pearl, had said Gram’s house stood just two doors down, facing the street behind the little restaurant. Gripping her skirts, Claire gingerly descended the two stairs to the dusty road. She nodded to a man who’d stepped aside, waiting to climb those same steps. “Good evening, sir.”

His head bobbed a single nod. Her gaze flicked to his face, then skittered away before he could mistake her for staring. A layer of black soot covered his strong features, and the muscles in his jaw flexed as he waited for her to move out of the way. Claire straightened her shoulders. Apparently, he couldn’t be bothered for a simple greeting. Were all the men in Butte so rude?

Following the directions the woman in the café had detailed, Claire found the path that formed a sort of alley behind the buildings and came to the little whitewashed house Gram had described in her letters. Would Gram be home? The trip from North Carolina to the Montana Territory had taken weeks longer than Papa expected. Gram was probably beside herself with worry by now.

Claire swallowed as she rounded the corner of the house and stepped onto the narrow porch lining the front. She ran both hands down her wrinkled, blue traveling suit. She looked so rumpled and stained after five days in that stage coach traveling from Fort Benton, it was a good thing Gram couldn’t see her. Claire winced. No, it wasn’t a good thing. Losing her eyesight was terrible. If only Gram had been in North Carolina with them, where Papa could have treated her eye disease effectively. He could have made a difference. Not let her go blind like these mining town snake-oil doctors had done.

Facing the door with its peeling white paint, Claire raised her fist and knocked. Three solid taps. Lord, please let her be happy I’ve come. She hadn’t seen Gram since she was five years old, but reading Gram’s letters through the years made Claire feel like she’d talked with her face-to-face. When the last letter had arrived, penned by Gram’s neighbor because Gram had lost her sight, Claire’s heart had tugged so hard, she couldn’t resist. Her grandmother needed help.

Claire glanced at the window to the left of the door. No sounds from inside. Was Gram not home? The steady rhythm of wagons and pedestrians drifted from behind her, the townspeople going about their business. Surely Gram wasn’t out there alone. It wasn’t safe. How could a blind woman traverse these streets on her own?

Claire knocked again, this time louder. More forceful.

A scream sounded inside. The crashing of metal.

“Gram!” She grabbed the wooden knob on the door and twisted, ramming her hip against the wood to force it open. She needn’t have tried so hard. The door swung easily, and Claire stumbled inside, staggering to catch her balance with the force of her charge.

A flash of fire blazed to her left. A tortured moan filled the room as Gram stumbled back from the stove.

Flame leaped at least a foot off the stove’s surface.

Claire’s mouth went dry, and her feet sank into the wood floors like they were weighted with millstones. She closed her eyes against the images the blaze summoned. She had to think. Had to help Gram. Forcing her eyes open, her gaze darted around the room. What could she use to put it out?

The coffee pot on the back of the stove. Lord, please let it be full. Claire used the hem of her skirt to protect her hand as she gripped the handle and dumped the contents over the fire. About a cup of liquid and damp coffee grounds drizzled out, but it was enough to steal the power from the blaze. She smashed the base of the pitcher over the remaining flames again and again until they were nothing but acrid smoke.

“Who? Who is it?” The weak voice from behind jerked Claire’s attention.

She spun to find Gram, bent over at the waist and clutching her right hand to her abdomen.

“It’s me, Gram. Claire. Are you hurt?” She inched toward her grandmother, then pressed a cautious hand to her shoulder. “Can I see your hand?” Claire slid her fingers down Gram’s sleeve and closed on the frail forearm.

“Hurts.” Gram’s word was more of a gasp as she pulled away from Claire.

“I know. I need to see how badly you’re burned. I can help.” Gram eased her resistance, and Claire finally pulled the injured hand out where she could get a better view of the palm. Crimson skin peered up at her, mottled in spots by white blisters.

Claire’s throat closed as the sight merged into another image, seared into Claire’s mind. Huge splotches of deep red covering the young flesh of her childhood friend. She sucked in a breath. Gram wouldn’t die from this burn. Not like Mandy. She couldn’t.

“Get…water.” Gram’s voice quavered like it might crack.

“Yes.” Claire scanned the room. There was a basin on the counter. She ran to it, dipping her finger in the edge. They needed cold. The water looked relatively clean, but warm from the summer evening. Better than nothing.

“Come sit at the table.” She deposited the basin, then gripped Gram’s elbow and led her toward the chair.

Gram’s milky eyes stared straight ahead as the fingers on her good hand gripped the wood. She eased herself into the chair.

Once Gram was settled with her hand in the basin, Claire stepped back. “Stay here while I get a doctor.”

“No need. There’s some cream in the bedroom. Just have to wrap it.”

Claire’s gaze wandered back to the hand in the basin, the seared red palm peeking up from the water. “Gram, this burn is really bad. You need more care than I can give you.” Something to ward off infection for sure.

The lines on Gram’s forehead deepened. “We don’t need to bother them.”

“It won’t be a bother, Gram. We need medical help.” Lord, please let me find someone competent. Don’t let me regret forcing this. “Stay right here, and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

She didn’t give Gram a chance to object as she rushed for the door.

When Claire stepped off Gram’s porch, she pulled up short. Where to find the doctor? The lady at Aunt Pearl’s Café would probably know. Claire hiked her skirts and ran back the way she’d come.

She was panting by the time she charged through the front door of the café. A few people at nearby tables glanced up, but the steady murmur of voices never wavered. Claire searched the faces for the woman she’d spoken to before. Or anyone who looked like they belonged to the establishment. But she found no one.

Skirting the tables, she marched toward a curtain that probably marked the kitchen. As she grabbed the fabric to pull it aside, the cloth jerked from her hand. A woman charged through, and Claire jumped to the side just in time. The look of shock on the woman’s face turned to horror as she swayed, twisting to balance a full tray in her left hand and a pitcher in her right. Claire’s instincts kicked in, and she reached for the tray. Just in time. Her hands closed on the edges, holding it steady. “Let me have it.”

The woman—the one who’d given her directions to Gram’s house—eased the tray down as Claire took possession of it.

“If you set it back on my hand, I can balance it. Ye just gave me a fright, is all.”

Claire held tight to the wooden sides of the heavy tray. “No, ma’am. I’ll carry it to where you need.”

The woman’s shoulders sagged. “Thank ye, dear. Set it on the corner right here.” She motioned toward a table on the second row where two men in rumpled vests and bowler hats had watched their entire exchange.

The woman turned back to her. “Now, can I help ye with somethin’?”

Claire’s mind sped. “I need a doctor. My grandmother burned herself. Bad. Can you tell me where the clinic is?”

Aunt Pearl twisted to eye Claire as she poured coffee into a mug for one of the bowler hat men. “You’re in luck. Doc Bryan’s right here.”

Where? Claire glanced at the men under the hats. The one facing her had a mustache that hung over the corners of his mouth like the roof on a house, making his face look especially long. Was he the doctor?

“Doc Bryan, this is Alice Malmgren’s granddaughter. She’s aneedin’ ya.” The long-faced man didn’t look up at Aunt Pearl’s words.

A wave of the woman’s hand brought Claire’s attention to the table beside them. A soot-covered man wiped his fingers with a cloth and stood, scooting his chair back with a single fluid motion.

He was a doctor? Claire squinted at him. The man she’d met by the café stairs after her first visit. The one who couldn’t be bothered to speak a greeting.

“Doc Bryan’s the best you’ll find anywhere.” Aunt Pearl patted his shoulder like a doting mother.

Claire cringed at the black grime that must surely be on the woman’s hand now. Could she trust this ruffian? Perhaps she could find an apothecary and treat Gram herself?

Too late. The man moved to the aisle, a black physician bag in his hand. His shoulders sagged, as though the case weighed a hundred pounds. He raised his eyes to hers, their brown depths surprisingly clear. He wasn’t as old as she’d first thought. Thirty, perhaps. Maybe less than that, though who could tell under the grime.

“Is she at home?”

The doctor’s voice shook Claire from her thoughts. “Yes, follow me.” She charged forward and slipped past him.

“I know where she lives.” The sardonic tone in his voice caught her up short. Claire twisted to peer at him. Did his rudeness have no bounds? He strode close behind her. He might run her over if she didn’t get out of the way. Claire squared her shoulders and strode toward the café exit.

She had to half-jog to Gram’s to keep up with the man’s long strides. He didn’t seem to be trying to leave her behind. Just going about his business without regard to her or anything else besides his purpose. Lord, please let his doctoring skills be better than his bedside manner.

At the very least, she’d get salve and bandages from him and care for Gram herself. Heaven knew she’d wrapped her share of injuries when she made house calls with Papa.

With only a quick tap on the door, the doctor twisted the handle and pushed inside. Claire stopped to catch her breath on the threshold as she watched him scan the room.

He strode toward a washstand at the end of the worktable.

Claire moved to Gram’s side and watched as he scrubbed his hands, bits of gray lather flicking onto the counter.

After he’d dried them on the cloth, he stepped to the table and knelt by Gram’s side. He murmured something Claire couldn’t hear as he reached for the burned hand and pulled it from the water to examine.

“Silly me,” Gram said. “I touched the stove top when I knew better.” The lines on her face folded to a grimace as he fingered the fiery red skin. “Oh,” she hissed.

Claire stepped closer. “Don’t make it worse. Be careful with her.” Her fingers itched to jerk the man back. She gripped them in fists to fight the urge. For now.

“When you do something,” the doctor said, “you don’t go halfway, do ya?” He kept his focus on Gram as his deep voice rumbled. He rested her hand palm-up on the table while he dug for something in his bag. There was a hint of a brogue in his tone. Maybe Irish?

He pulled out a small bottle, removed the cork, and placed the glass in Gram’s good hand. “Take a little swig of this, and you’ll feel better.”

“What are you giving her?” Before Claire could stop her, Gram obeyed.

At last, the doctor applied salve and wrapped the palm with a long bandage. Claire caught a quick glimpse of discolored spots on the angry red skin before she pinched her eyes shut against the sight. But the images in her mind were worse. Seared flesh, burns so deep they looked almost purple.

Spinning around, she forced her eyelids open and stared out the window. Anything to distract herself. A woman trudged down the street, one hand holding a basket, the other clutching the wrist of a red-haired boy. A swelling in the woman’s abdomen signaled the pending arrival of a new sibling within a few months. Would it be a brother or sister to the child?

“There now,” the doctor said. “A few days with that on, and you’ll be good as new.”

Claire spun at his words. He’d worked in silence until now. Not a very talkative chap, was he?

“Thank ye, Bryan. I’m feeling better already.” Gram patted his shoulder with her good hand.

Claire cringed. What was it with ladies touching this man’s dirty shoulder? Of course, Gram had no way of seeing how filthy he was.

Even though he’d washed his hands, his face could use a good scrubbing. And his clothes? It’d take two tubs of water to get them clean.

“You can finish washing up while I help Gram to bed.” No sense in giving him an option in the matter.

He only nodded as he closed the leather case and stood. His knees cracked like an old man’s. Maybe he wasn’t any younger than thirty. Claire bit back a smirk at the frightfully unkind thought. Sorry, Lord.

~ ~ ~

Bryan Donaghue scrubbed the soap over his cheeks and forehead, closing his eyes as much to enjoy the clean lye scent as to keep out water. Too bad he couldn’t dunk his entire head in the little tin wash basin. What he wouldn’t do for a big tub of warm water in front of the cook stove like Mum used to prepare when they were kids.

With the suds rinsed off, Bryan eyed the stained white cloth on the counter. Had he left those gray smears when he’d washed earlier? How much more damage would he do now? This dust from the mine was like a plague, infecting everything within reach. He ignored the cloth and scrubbed a palm down his face, then shook his hands dry.

He turned to lean against the ledge while he waited for Mrs. Malmgren’s pretty visitor to come out of the sleeping chamber. News of her arrival hadn’t reached him before tonight, although Mrs. Malmgren had chattered about her coming for months. The feisty older woman got around pretty well without her sight, but it was a good thing family finally came to help her. What took them so long?

Of course, the snooty lady hadn’t done such a great job keeping her grandmother safe so far. She may be a pretty thing, but she’d do better to help her grandmother instead of being rude to people who were trying to do that very thing.

He glanced around the dingy room. When had she arrived? It must not have been long ago. Either that or she could do a better job of cleaning, too.

Bryan forced out a long sigh. That wasn’t fair. She’d traveled thousands of mile to help her grandmother. He was just so blasted tired, he couldn’t think straight.

He crossed his arms and allowed his chin to drop to his chest. Every bone and muscle in his body ached. He’d spent most of the afternoon at the Travona mine, helping pull timbers off trapped workers after a nitroglycerine explosion blew too early. Several broken limbs, but no deaths. This time. How many would die in the next explosion? He had to stop the dangerous conditions before it was too late.

He inhaled a deep breath, then released it slowly, allowing his lungs and shoulders to collapse. After pulling injured people from the mine and stitching their wounds, he didn’t have it in him to offer hospitality to a newcomer in town. He’d have to make it up to her later.

“How much do we owe for your services?”

He jerked his head up at the snippy female voice. The woman seemed a bit low on good manners herself. Was that what all people were like back in…where was she from? South Carolina?

Bryan pushed away from the work counter. “I’ll add it to her tab. Your grandmother pays at the end of the month.” He scooped up his case and headed for the door.

“Can I…offer you coffee or”—she gazed around the messy kitchen, seemed to falter—“or something before you go?”

Bryan slowed as he neared the door and turned. “Don’t bother. Pearl will have my food saved at the café.”

“Suit yourself.”

Ouch. He hadn’t meant his words to come out so short, but she didn’t have to be rude. Why was he letting her rile him? With a flick of his glance, he took in the room. “You might want to clean up around here. If her burned skin gets dirty, she could lose the hand from infection.” He gave what he hoped was a polite nod, yanked the door open, and strode outside.

Sleep. He’d apologize after some sleep. But for now, it took every ounce of his self-control not to slam the door behind him.

CHAPTER TWO

Claire clasped her hands and leaned into the stretch, bending sideways to avoid bumping into the wall at the head of the bed. One by one, each of the muscles in her shoulders and neck pulled out their kinks from yesterday’s long stage ride to Butte City. What an evening it had been, finding Gram with her hand so badly burned. Then the run-in with that sullen doctor. He may be handsome—in a rugged mountain sort of way—but he could certainly do some studying in the arts of kindness and sympathy. And cleanliness.

How would Gram feel this morning? She sat up in bed. Gram. Claire patted the blanket beside her. Empty. Her chest pounded. How had Gram gotten up without her waking?

Throwing the covers aside, Claire swung her feet to the floor. The coolness of the wood made her toes curl. “Gram?” Darkness swallowed the windowless bedroom. Had she overslept? She pulled the latch on the door and crept into the main room of the small house. “Gram?” No movement. No sound.

God, please don’t let me lose her already. Claire scurried through the room to the front door. Maybe Gram had gone to use the outhouse they shared with the residence next door.

Claire stepped onto the porch and stopped short at the figure in the rocking chair to her left.

“Clara Lee?”

Claire pressed a hand to her chest, exhaling a long breath. “Gram. You gave me a start.”

A smile tipped the corners of the older woman’s mouth as her unseeing eyes faced the distance. “Thought I’d wandered off and got lost, did you?”

Good thing Gram couldn’t see the heat radiating from her face. Claire stepped over and sank into the matching rocker beside Gram. “I didn’t realize I’d overslept so much.”

Gram motioned toward the view in front of them. “I try to be up for the sunrise every mornin’, and visit with the Lord.”

Claire took in the distant horizon. Brilliant ambers, pinks, and indigos melded together where the sky met the mountain peaks. The summits were shadowed on some sides, while other sections radiated the reflection of the dazzling sky. “Oh my.” Such paltry words for the magnificence before them.

“I told your grandpop it didn’t matter where he built our home, just so long as I could see the sun rise over the mountains each mornin’. He always said every day’s a new beginning.” Gram’s voice quivered with memory.

Claire glanced over and smiled. A glimpse of Gram’s milky eyes brought reality into clear focus. Gram couldn’t see this sunrise. Wouldn’t see any more of these spectacular starts to the day. She reached over and grasped the wrinkled hand.

Gram seemed to read her thoughts. “God’s given me so many wonderful memories, Clara Lee. Now it’s my time to bless Him back. Sometimes I think I’d get so caught up in the beauty of the sunrise, I’d forget about the One who made it for me. Now, my focus is on Him.”

The leathery hand squeezed around Claire’s fingers, and Claire fought down the knot in her throat. What a special woman her grandmother was.

After a while, Claire pushed to her feet. “I suppose I’ll get started on breakfast.”

Gram patted her arm as she walked by. “I usually have toast and an egg, darlin’, but fix whatever you like.”

“That sounds fine.” Claire cringed as she stepped into the house. She couldn’t let Gram know how hard that simple request would be. Eyeing the cook stove that had been the scene of so much turmoil the night before, she forced herself toward it. Would there be enough coals left so she could just add wood? Lord, please let there be coals. Give me strength. She’d known she wouldn’t always have Mama to tend the fire, and the day had come. She could do this.

The stove door was warm to the touch. A good sign, but it still raised bumps over Claire’s arms. Several white coals sat in a cluster inside the fire box, and Claire exhaled a shaky breath. Thank you, Lord.

Beside the stove lay a stack of split wood, and next to it, a smaller pile of kindling. Who kept Gram supplied in wood? She must pay a lad to help, for how could Gram possibly manage this herself? At home, Papa bartered services with a family down the road. Ready firewood in exchange for the medicine their son needed to quell his breathing episodes.

As Claire loaded the small strips of wood into the firebox, she steeled herself against the red glow of the embers coming to life. She had to overcome this fear. Today. It couldn’t cripple her any longer. She had work today and people to help. Namely, Gram.

The embers flickered into flame, and Claire closed the iron door against the red glow. At least it was started now, and she could focus on a more pleasant task. Cooking.

After a simple breakfast of eggs and toast, Claire unwrapped Gram’s burned hand, applied the salve the doctor had left, and redressed the wound. Gram kept her mind distracted from the obvious pain by prattling on about how wonderful Doc Bryan and his younger brother Doc Alex were. How Alex finally got smart and married up with a sweet little mountain gal who fit him “better ‘an two chicks in the same egg.”

“It’s special when ye find the man God made fer ya, Clara Lee. More than special.” She patted Claire’s cheek as Claire tied the loose ends of the bandage in place. “When ye find him, don’t waste time. Treasure every moment God gives ye.”

Before Claire could decide how to answer, Gram sat up straighter. “Well, best we start on the bread for today. I’m gettin’ a late beginnin’, but with the two of us, we’ll make quick work of it.”

“Bread?” Her mind stumbled over the sudden change in topic.

Gram rose and shuffled to the work counter, then groped along until she found her apron. “Yep, I bake a dozen loaves each mornin’ fer Pearl to use in the café. She’s got her hands full, what with her niece leavin’ town. The money she pays helps cover expenses around here.”

Claire glanced around the room. It was small and sparse, only slightly larger than their kitchen back home. The work counter, washbasin, and cook stove spanned one wall, and the table and four chairs held the center of the room. A pair of upholstered chairs on the opposite wall served as the remaining furniture. The floral pattern on the seats and backs looked worn and a little shredded, most likely due to many long evenings passed there. She could picture Gram in one, her hands busy with needlework. Claire had only met Grandpop once when she was five, but could envision him now with white hair and wire spectacles as he read to Gram.

A clatter behind jerked her from the happy scene. She whirled to see Gram unfolding a flour sack. A tin bowl sat on the counter beside her with a spoon handle sticking out. That must have been the clang. “Let me help you with that, Gram.” She strode to her grandmother’s side and pulled the sack closer so they could both reach it. “You tell me how much to measure out and I’ll do it for you.”

Gram’s good hand settled over one of Claire’s. “Darlin’, there’s nothin’ I’d like more than fer you to work in the kitchen with me. But you don’t have to do things for me. Work alongside.”

“But your hand…” Claire’s lower lip found its way between her teeth. “Sorry. What can I do?”

“How about you stoke the fire so it’ll be ready. Then you can measure out the sourdough starter. I always make a mess o’ that gooey stuff.”

The fire. She had to overcome this. Claire moved to the fire, picked up a decent sized log, opened the door to the fire box, and closed her eyes as she shoved the wood inside. There. Claire dusted her hands and turned to work on the bread.

They settled into a comfortable rhythm, and by the time Claire pulled the eleventh and twelfth loaves from the oven, her feet ached from standing so long. But they’d really accomplished something. As she set the steaming fare out to cool, Gram finished wiping off the work counter, shook the crumbs into the scrap bucket, then draped the cloth over a hook.

“What say we sit and rest?” Claire picked up the list she’d been making of supplies they needed. “Can I refill your coffee?”

“Thank ye, dear. That’d be nice.”

Claire filled her own mug, too, but frowned at the stuff. Cool milk would be nice right now. Maybe she could add it to her notes.

While Gram nursed her brew, Claire recounted the items she’d scratched on the paper. “I have sugar, potatoes and lard. Thought I’d get milk, too. Are there other staples we need for meals? Beans? Beef?”

She glanced up to see Gram shaking her head. “Put the baking supplies on the café’s tab. I have enough of the rest. Get a pint of milk for yourself, but none for me.”

Focusing her gaze on Gram, Claire absorbed the words. “You don’t like milk?”

Gram’s mouth pinched. “No, honey. Coffee’s fine for me. I don’t need it as rich as this, either.”

Something didn’t smell right here. She’d take a good inventory of the shelves before she left. “So when should I take the bread to Miss Pearl’s?”

One side of Gram’s mouth tipped up. “You’d best call her Aunt Pearl. She’s not been a ‘Miss’ for many a year, but she won’t talk about the Mister. She’ll be expectin’ ya soon. She’ll be even happier if you’re early, so she don’t have to worry ‘bout the bread comin’.”

“Would you like to walk with me?” Claire examined her grandmother as she debated the wisdom of the offering. Gram’s shoulders stooped as she leaned both elbows on the table.

“Believe I’ll let you enjoy the town on yer own this time.” Gram stifled a yawn. “Me old bones would do well with a nap before we start bakin’ the pies for tonight.”

Claire’s brows rose as her stomach tumbled. “Pies?”

Gram’s smile was thinner than it had been that morning. “Yes, Clara Lee. I make the bread for lunch and somethin’ sweet for after dinner.”

Poor Gram was working herself into an early grave.

After Claire helped Gram to bed and sorted through the foodstuffs, the inventory of needed supplies grew into a lengthy list. Was money a problem? Or simply the challenge in getting to the store?

Claire removed her apron and swiped a hand to straighten her skirt. No matter the reason, Gram wouldn’t go without again. Not as long as Claire Sullivan was here to help.

~ ~ ~

Aunt Pearl did seem thankful to have the bread before the lunch rush started. She flitted about the kitchen like a whirlwind. Claire hated to make her stop so she could ask for directions to the mercantile.

Aunt Pearl didn’t stand still though. While pulling a tray of chicken pies from the oven, she rattled off the two turns and street names.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Claire backed from the room.

Aunt Pearl glanced up with a nod, then turned back to stir the gravy on the stove.

Lanyard’s Dry Goods turned out to be larger than Claire expected for the rustic town. With a long picture window on either side of the door, it spanned half a block. How hard must it be to get glass all the way to Montana, especially considering the week of travel in the back of a wagon traversing the mountain country.

She stepped through the front door, but no bell announced her presence like the mercantile back home. Perhaps that was too much trouble to ship. She bit back a grin.

So many familiar smells rushed at her in the densely packed store, Claire paused at the head of an aisle to savor them. Leather. Wood. A dusty whiff like quilts long stored in a trunk.

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

Claire jerked her eyelids open and glanced around for the source of the voice. A man stood behind the tall counter. About her age with a trim red mustache, freckles stood out against his pale skin.

“Um, yes.” She squared her shoulders and stepped to the counter, pulling the list from her skirt pocket. “I need to have these items delivered to my grandmother’s house. Mrs. Alice Malmgren on Ottawa Street.” Holding the paper so he could see, she pointed to some of the entries. “The supplies I underlined will be used for Aunt Pearl’s Café, and should be charged to her account. The remainder should be posted to my grandmother’s tab. I imagine you’re familiar with that arrangement?”

She paused to take a breath, her heart beating a rapid staccato. Would he think it strange for her to be purchasing items against the café’s account? Shouldn’t she need some kind of written authorization for that? This man didn’t know her from Queen Elizabeth.

His orange brows knit as he studied the list. Then without meeting her gaze, he turned toward a doorway behind him. “Just a second, ma’am.”

Claire laced her fingers together. Did that mean he was gathering the supplies? Shouldn’t he have more questions for her? Should she stand here and wait? She’d caught a glimpse of bolt goods on a long table and would love to examine the fabrics. Maybe they’d have some material she could use to recover Gram’s chairs. And wouldn’t new curtains do wonders to cheer up the place? A yellow floral would be nice and pleasant.

Just as Claire turned that direction, the door through which the clerk had disappeared opened again. She swiveled back. A tall, brawny man with a dark mustache and sideburns appeared, sleeves rolled to reveal sinewy muscles. The apron he wore did nothing to soften his toughness. He caught her gaze with raised brows. “Mrs. Malmgren’s granddaughter?”

“Yes.” Claire stepped forward and dipped a quick curtsy. “Miss Claire Sullivan.”