Excerpt: Once Upon A Frontier Christmas
Anthology: All A Cowboy Wants for Christmas
Indian Territory 1872
Caroline Curtis hadn’t always hated Christmas. Only for the last two years, since Smith Jennings had died during a frigid December on his way home to Mimosa Springs from a cattle sale. The holiday had lost its appeal even though Caroline had put the past behind her.
Knowing she and her first love couldn’t be together even if he were alive sparked a melancholy that sometimes settled over her this time of year.
In another week, school would be dismissed for the holiday. She stacked up the last of her students’ slates, refusing to let her thoughts go to that awful Christmas.
Pushing away thoughts of Smith and the last time she’d seen him, she focused on the bare corner at the back of the schoolroom. So far she’d held off on the tree the children wanted, but it wasn’t fair to deny them based on her antipathy. Come Monday, she would probably have to relent.
Her gaze shifted to the small window on the wall adjacent to her desk. Though it didn’t snow every winter in this very southeastern part of Indian Territory, it was snowing now. Just as her friend, Della, had predicted.
It wasn’t heavy, but it was certainly enough to haze the day’s remaining light. While Caroline had finished grading essays, dusk had settled and the stove fire had died out. She should get home before daylight was completely gone.
After draping a thick wool shawl over her head, she shrugged into her heavy wool cape and buttoned it to the throat. She stuffed the essays into a battered leather valise she’d inherited from her mother, doused the lanterns then tugged on her suede gloves. Bracing herself, she opened the door, her breath cut when a powerful gust of frigid air stung her face and nearly ripped the door from her hand.
Holding on for all she was worth, Caroline stepped out and managed to wrestle the door shut. She snuggled her face into her cape, carefully making her way down the schoolhouse’s three wooden steps. Blasted by another surge of freezing air, she bowed her head against the sleet now mixing with fat snowflakes and angled down the side of the building.
The weather had been like this two years ago when Smith had sworn to return by Christmas Eve, but he hadn’t. And he never would.
Sad and a little vexed that she couldn’t get him out of her thoughts, she squinted through the swirling silver shadows, halting when she thought she saw someone.
A big man moved slowly out of the brittle twilight, making his way toward her leading a horse. He was bundled against the weather almost as heavily as she was and walked with a limp. Though Caroline didn’t know anyone with a bad leg, something about him seemed familiar. Still, she didn’t think it wise to be alone with him.
She stepped backward, intending to go through town so she wouldn’t be on her own.
“No, stop.” Though muffled, the deep masculine voice was familiar and had her heart stuttering in a painful rhythm.
Beneath the rush of the wind, the man sounded like… No. That was impossible.
Her pulse jumped. Sleet pelting her cheeks, she peered into the winter haze, unable to get a clear picture through the frosty light. The man was very tall and big-framed, wearing a deer-hide coat with a low-crowned black hat pulled low over his eyes and a bandana protecting the lower half of his face from the elements. It wasn’t her fiance, Ethan Galloway. Ethan was nowhere near that tall. How did this stranger know her name?
“I can’t see you.” Her voice was muffled through the shawl around her head. “Who is it?”
The man reached her, his eyes slitted against the weather. Even with them narrowed, she felt the intensity of his regard. The heat. His dark gaze moved hungrily over her face as he tugged down the bandana to reveal a whiskered jaw, chiseled cheekbones and a mouth she knew all too well. “It’s me.”
Smith! Disbelief and grief exploded in her chest, making her knees weak. She hadn’t had this dream in ages. Her entire body went numb.
“This can’t be,” she whispered. “You’re dead.”
“I’m not. See?” He reached out and folded her gloved hand in his.
Through the suede, she could feel the leather of his gloves, the hard strength of his hand. His touch felt so real.
Tears blurred her vision. She could barely speak around the lump in her throat. “Smith?”
“It’s me, sweetheart,” he said thickly.
Black spots danced in front of her eyes. She felt herself falling.
Then … nothing.
© 2012 by Debra S. Cowan
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books, S.A.