On the run with two small children and a third due within weeks, Adeline Spencer fears the approaching blizzard will seal their fate. An abandoned cabin is an answer to her prayers. She hopes it will shield them from both the storm and the enraged brother-in-law hot on her tail. But when a stranger knocks at the door, she is convinced they have been found by one of Ward’s lackeys.
Blamed for the death of his friend, Sheriff Jonah Hale is determined to prove himself worthy of his badge, even if it means riding into a blizzard to check on a crazy miner. When Jonah reaches the cabin, he’s caught off guard by a pretty and very pregnant young woman wielding a skillet. Bound to a chair while the storm rages, and as Christmas settles in around them, he must find a way to earn Adeline’s trust…and perhaps her heart.
Clear Creek County, Colorado
Cold air bit his cheeks as snow pelted him. Jonah Hale pinched the bridge of his nose in an effort to stifle a sneeze. He had to be a special kind of fool to allow the women of church to persuade him to plod through the woods on his horse during a brutal storm.
Not persuade. Bully.
He wiped his face with the back of his glove-covered hand. Men had lost their way in weather not half as bad. Had he known the storm would turn this fierce, he’d have waited a day or two. If he didn’t freeze to death, the miner, Don Hanson, might just put a bullet in him this time.
Feed the hungry. Help those in trouble.
Except for the occasional drink at Seth’s saloon, that old loon Hanson didn’t want anything to do with the residents of Hollow Creek. That’s why he stayed in the remote cabin.
Granted, under different circumstances, Jonah would’ve saluted the women’s concern over the miner, but it was difficult when heavy clouds and darkness loomed.
Shivering, he pulled the collar of his duster another notch higher and licked his quivering, parched lips. Please Lord, let me reach Don’s cabin before I freeze to death.
Freezing to death couldn’t be as bad as what Mattie had suffered. Images of the building collapsing stabbed Jonah. Emotion clogged his throat. He rocked in the saddle and shook his head. “Easy, boy. Don’t dump me now.”
The stallion snorted and its ears flicked to and fro.
Patting the muscled neck, Jonah blew out his breath. It appeared in front of his mouth in white puffs. Urging the animal forward, he lifted the lantern high to study the dark surroundings. The light did little to penetrate the dense shadows and massive swirling snowflakes. Annoyance at the cold bubbled inside him. Although born and raised in Colorado, he’d never witnessed anything quite like this. He ought to be in the boardinghouse, his mouth watering over the venison stew his aunt served on Mondays.
No use complaining. Here he was, fighting aggressive winds and guiding a horse through knee-deep snow. His stomach rumbled, taunting him for refusing the sandwiches his aunt offered on his way out. Just dandy, Jonah.
Frost gnawed at the tip of his nose and the wind pinched his ears, and he pulled his scarf up to cover the lower part of his face. Reared in Clear Creek County, he knew the woods as well as the star pinned on his chest, but in this weather, nothing appeared familiar. The possibility that he was lost mocked him. It was a harsh likelihood to face, considering he could barely make out a foot ahead. He squinted and, standing up in the saddle, studied the intimidating shapes of pines. Lord, I’d be obliged if You’d give me some kind of sign down here.
The blinding snow slowed for mere moments, enough to reveal a faint flickering in the distance.
“Hallelujah!” Jonah slapped the mount’s side. “We’ll be out of this storm in minutes.”
The light disappeared—blackness cloaked the world ahead of him once again. But not before he directed his horse toward the cabin. All around, tall evergreens swayed to and fro. A branch snapped nearby. He rested his hand on the butt of his holstered Colt as the hair at the back of his neck rose. The wind carried the howls of wolves, perhaps the very pack that had attacked a local peddler two nights ago.
His horse’s hind legs buckled and he fell hard onto his haunches. Jonah grabbed the saddle horn to keep himself from flying back. The stallion snorted and tossed its head.
“Come on, it’s not much farther, boy.” He dismounted. With the reins in one hand, he untied his saddlebags with the other and slung it over his shoulder. They trudged through the snow, leaving a track of foot and hoof prints in their wake.
A loud crack split the air. The stallion reared. Jonah fell back, dropping the lantern and missing a hoof by mere inches. Before he could grab the reins, the animal took off.
Jonah slapped the snow and pushed to his feet. The mount’s shape disappeared as darkness swallowed it. Lifting the lantern, he didn’t need to see it to know it was broken and no longer useful. He rounded his shoulders and, dipping his chin to his chest, resumed his journey toward the cabin marching like a wounded soldier.
Please let Don be sober.
The lean-to, warm from the fire in the cabin, welcomed him. Two paints lifted their heads at his entrance, ears twitching. A mule continued to eat its dinner at leisure. Impressive and well-looked after animals. No wonder he saw a light. Someone had filled up the hay and poured fresh water for the animals. Had Don bought horses? Nah. He thought them ornery. Maybe he was sheltering travelers.
Jonah stroked one paint’s side. How long would he have to stay cooped up with crazy Don?
Wrapping his arms around his chest against the vengeful wind, he hurried to the door and pounded on it. “It’s me, Jonah Hale.”
The wooden slab creaked open on leather hinges. No sooner had he set foot inside, when his boot caught and he went tumbling forward. His hands and knees connected with the cold floor. Before he could gather his wits, excruciating pain exploded in the back of his head and shot down his neck. All energy left his body. Stars flecked his vision and he crumpled to the floor.