Desperate to escape her past, Miss Journey Smith heads deep into Montana Territory. Then a terrible accident strands her in the tiny town of Walten during the Christmas season. The townspeople welcome Journey into their hearts and homes, leading her to dream of a normal life, full of happiness, holidaysand the town's handsome parson.
Enchanted by the troubled beauty, Zane Thompson knows Journey is not what she seems. But she can'tor won'ttrust him with her secrets, especially when her past reappears with a vengeance. Soon the parson must risk his life and his faith to offer Journey the greatest Christmas gift of allhis heart.
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September 1870, Montana
She'd pay ten dollars for a hot bath if she had it.
Journey wiped the grit from her eyes and slid from her horse. She felt as if she'd been born in the saddleand spent all of her twenty years there.
She checked her saddlebags. Eight dollars and some hairpins.
She scanned the town as it started to wake. Slowly the sun stretched over buildings, quiet and fresh as the barren peaks surrounding the settlement. Nothing like Savannah, still fighting to recover from the destruction of the War Between the States some five years past. Nothing like Independence, always bustling with folks coming from and going to parts unknown.
"It looks like we may be in luck, Gypsy," she whispered to her horse.
The shop she was looking for sat near the end of the streetone with a plain, honest front, a quaint little porch and a worn sign proclaiming General Store in faded blue letters. Underneath, smaller letters spelled out a wide variety of items.
Journey slipped along the shadowed side of the building and pulled a small silver mirror from her satchel. Dust muted the freckles over her round cheeks, and she debated as to which was the worse. Her skin had darkened over the miles, despite the broad-brimmed hat she wore. But no amount of color hid the exhaustion from her dark brown eyes. Pulling the hat from her head, she ran strong fingers through the curls that coiled around each other until she could feel the tangles before she touched them. She remembered the brilliant red of her mother's silky waves and wondered what had happened that it had translated to her as a dingy auburn, uncontrollable mass.
She tugged none too gently at her tight locks and poked hairpins in strategically. "If they catch me talking to you, Gyp, I guess it won't matter how civilized I look." She tugged the horse toward the front of the store.
Her dress barely showed its original flowered print and she didn't know how much shorter she could cut her petticoats to reinforce the material. But she brushed the dust off as best she could and looped the horse's reins around a post. With a deep breath she pulled on her shapeless hat and mounted the steps to the open door.
A cloud of grime swept over her worn skirt.
"Sorry, ma'am! I didn't see you there."
She drew her lips up in a gracious smile. So much for looking civilized.
The man stopped sweeping and leaned against the broom, nodding her through the doorway on his way out. "My wife'll be with you in a little bit, ma'am. Take a look around." Journey watched a grin peek from below his full mustache.
Whitened walls gave the store an open feel, much as the landscape did for the little town. An inviting stove glowed in the center near the back. Canned peaches, harness fittings and an odd conglomeration of pans and kettles rested on shelves and pegs behind the counters on either side. Barrels marked Flour and Sugar sat in front.
She tried not to notice the curious stares following her as she browsed her way along the bolts of yard goods, but still started when a young woman asked her, "Anything I can help you with?"
Pulling a bolt of navy broadcloth from the wall, she responded with a flash of smile, determined to be calm. "I'd like a dress length of this, please." It would cut into her meager funds, but a purchase always made an impression when she needed information. She'd need a new dress before winter anyway. Tattered hems made only wrong impressions.
She stepped toward the counter. Though she'd always been short of stature, the shopkeeper's wife dwarfed her by a good eight or nine inches. The woman must've been about her own age, judging from the smooth skin and bright green eyes. Honey-blond hair hung in a low tail down her back.
"I haven't seen you around here before," the lady said as she measured the cloth. Journey nodded when the woman glanced up. "I'm Abigail NorwoodAbby to most. Have you met my husband, Sam?"
"Yes, she did, I'm afraid," the low voice called from the porch. He wedged through the door and made a show of putting the broom in its corner space. "I gave her a right unfriendly greeting, though."
The woman shook her head in mock despair. "The one time I get him to sweep up in here." A sheepish grin drew across her lips. "Anyway, it's always nice to see a new face in town."
"Thanks," Journey said. She hoped her smile didn't waver.
"You visiting family?"
She shook her head, making a show of fumbling with the latches on her saddlebag.
"Just passing through, then?"
Sam Norwood stepped back into the room from what Journey guessed was a storage area. He smiled under his thick mustache again, and his eyes twinkled at his wife. "You'll have to forgive her," he said. "She has a soft spot for the curious cat."
A blush lit Abby's cheeks. "I didn't mean to pry. I just like to meet new folks. My apologies if I've overstepped, Miss ?"
"Smith Journey Smith. Actually, someone with a little curiosity could be exactly the person to help me." She breathed deeply, gathering any poise and confidence she could muster. "I wondered if you know where I might find work around here."
"So you're planning on staying? Most folks pass through on their way to Virginia City. What type of work are you looking for?"
"I've done a little bit of a lot of things. Tended children, waited tables"
"Ever done housekeeping?"
Journey stood steadily under Abby's gaze. She thought if she held her breath she could probably hear the gears whirring in the woman's brain.
Abby turned to her husband then, looking down slightly to meet his eyes. "What about Miss Rose? She's been hoping to find someone to help out around her house. I'm not sure what arrangements she's thinking on, but I could take you out there if you're interested."
"I'm not sure how long I'll be in town. I was thinking"
"Nonsense. Miss Rose is a fine woman. Once you meet her, you'll never want to leave."
"It's not that " Journey stammered.
Abby looked up from where she was cutting the thick cloth. "At least speak with her. You never know how well things might work out."
Journey searched for an inoffensive excuse. "I don't want to be a bother. If you'll direct me to her house, I'd"
"It's no bother at all. She lives on a ranch outside of town. Let me get my things and I'll take you there," Abby said, tying a string around the fabric Journey had purchased. "If you like, you can leave your trunks inside until you return."
Fear fluttered like a moth in her throat. "I'm traveling rather light. All I have is my horse tied out front. I'm certain I could find the place on my own."
As Abby patted the package and pulled her coat from a nearby hook, Journey caught her questioning glance but noticed it didn't stop her motion. "It'd be easier to show you. Sam knows I need to get out on days like this, anyway. He can handle the store for a few hours until we get back. I haven't had a chance to visit Miss Rose in a while myself. We'll take some sandwiches and have a nice little picnic. It'll give you a chance to get to know her."
"You can tether your horse around back, if that'll suit," Sam offered. "My wife's a natural guide, born and raised right here in Walten. Montana grows them pretty, that's for sure."
Journey forced her arms and legs to relax. There seemed no way around it, short of racing out the front door and galloping away on Gypsy. "If you're sure."
Sam moved back toward the storage room. "I'll hitch up the team. Oh, and, Miss Smith"
"Please, call me Journey."
A dimple joined the grin on Sam's face. "Journey, if things don't work out with Miss Rose, come back here. We can't offer much more than a cot, but we might be able to find some work for you."
She nodded once, turning her head in time to catch the knowing smile Abby directed his way. Journey wrinkled her brow, wondering what these people expected from her.
"Thanks. I'll just go and tie my horse around back."
"Wait! Take your clothon the house." Abby thrust the neat package her way.
"I don't need charity." Well, that wasn't exactly true.
But she heard the insistence in Abby's voice. "Not charity. I guess Sam owes you for the mess he swept over you. We can't be treating our customers that way or we won't have them long."
She studied Abby. She seemed sincere enough, and she had made a point of not noticing the tattered seams in her dress. "I appreciate your kindness," Journey said, looking away as she slid the wrapped cloth into her satchel.
"I'll meet you around back," Abby said.
Journey nodded. Their kindness overwhelmed her a little. Maybe Hank's training had become more ingrained than she thought. They were just the type of people he had always soughthelpful and unsuspecting. Fortunately for them, she'd rid the world of at least one of his kind.
Journey slid farther into the corner of the narrow wagon seat. Abby had peppered her with a dozen questions before they'd even left sight of town. The sparse grass crackled under the wagon wheel, and she considered her odds of surviving a leap of escape.
"How far to the ranch?"
Abby paused. "Oh, probably three or four miles. Did you live"
"It's easy to get caught up in the scenery here," Journey said.
"It is beautiful. Some folks complain about it being drab, with all the browns. They don't pay attention to the shades of the mountains in the light, or the pockets of sage tucked in everywhere. I've never wanted to live anywhere else. But listen to me jabber about myself. Where'd you hail from?"
"Yes, of course. I suppose most folks around here do, what with all the families settling in the area. What part?" Abby turned a smile her way.
Most folks took the hint when she answered in such an obviously vague way. "Well, I I traveled quite a bit before coming here."
"I've never been out of Montana," Abby said. "But my pa's family came once to visit "
Journey's attention wavered as she tried to ease her pounding heart. She considered making up something but hesitated. Lies had cost her plenty in the past. Weren't lies part of the reason she found herself here now? Hopefully the woman would lose interest.
"I'll bet you have a lot of stories about your trip west," Abby said.
"I suppose I'm one of those who'd rather hear the stories of other folks," Journey countered. She eased her lips into a smile, but it didn't come so easily to her eyes.
"Then Montana's the place for you. Plenty of storytellers around, waiting for a willing ear."
Journey nodded. She'd met grandmothers who adored their grandbabies less than this woman adored her home.
Tension quivered down her limbs. How could she end this line of conversation? "Youy'all do seem real friendly. I do appreciate your kindness."
Abby's thin fingers tapped her knee. "Oh, let me guess you're from the South, right? Maybe somewhere in Georgia? My aunt Beth lives there. I remember when I was little and she came to visit us. She had the most delightful accent. I just recognized a little of it there in your voice. Am I right?"
"I, ah, I am from the from the South, but"
"You'll have to describe it all for me sometime. I always hoped to go back and visit my pa's family, see where he grew up. He and my ma moved back last fall, so to hear about it would make them feel a little closer."
The wagon lurched to the right and climbed steeply, bringing a large two-story ranch house into view. Journey breathed in the dry air, glad for the break in Abby's too-friendly curiosity. She had to stay alert. If something so minute as a tint in her voice could connect her back to Georgia, she wouldn't be safe even through Christmas.
She examined the ranch. A sturdy barn with an empty corral faced the broad porch of the home, with about thirty yards of grass-pocked dust between. The bluff they'd crossed boxed around one edge of the property, but the view beyond scooped across the wide valley. Sage and scrub brush were the only thriving plants she could see across the landscape. The property was secluded from the casual traveler but not closed off.
A pounding hammer echoed and drew her attention to a broad-shouldered figure on the roof.
"That's ZaneReverend Thompson. He'd said he was going to see about patching some leaks for Miss Rose," Abby said. "The last time Zane visited, it rained, and he said he had to move three times when water started dripping down his back. Each time Miss Rose just pulled out another pot to catch it."
Journey knew what it was like to have to make do with what you had. She watched the man kneeling along the roof, sleeves rolled back over deeply tanned arms, shirt clinging between his shoulder blades despite the cool day. His dark brown hair glistened in the midmorning sun.
"You know him well?" She licked her dry lips.
"Oh, Zane and Sam grew up together. Their families came west together. I knew Zane long before he became our pastor. They say a prophet isn't honored in his hometown, but somehow Zane has made it work. He's a wonderful pastor, a true man of God. And of course those gray eyes of his don't hurt him, either." Abby patted her knee with a light laugh. "You'll get to hear him tomorrow." Journey forced another smile.
Tomorrow? She'd be long gone by then. She didn't need any pastor to make her see her guilt. She knew it well enough already.
"Journey? Is everything all right?"
She nodded, swallowing hard. Everything would be perfectjust as soon as Walten and all of its fine and overly welcoming citizens were miles of trail dust behind her.
Everything moved so fasttoo fast. Abby's chattering wearied her. She couldn't keep up. Journey rubbed her aching temples.
The wagon rolled to a stop beside the porch. "Hello, the house!" Abby called, climbing down over the wheel. Journey did the same and stood close to it.
"Thought I heard a wagon," a deep baritone answered. Reverend Thompson.
She watched Abby dig a sandwich out of the picnic basket and hand it to him as he stepped down the ladder and drank a dipper full of water. "We've come to share a lunch with Miss Rose."
"And this is?"
Journey felt his gaze as he unwrapped his sandwich. With a deep breath to steady her shaking, she tilted her head up to introduce herself. "Journey. Journey Smith."