“How do you know my father?” Fiona’s voice sounded as raw as
“I don’t. I never met him until this day, although I grew up hearing tales about him and myfather. And I know who you are, Fiona O’Rourke.”
A terrible roaring filled her ears, louder than the blizzard’s wail, louder than any sound shehad ever known. The force of it trembled through her, and she felt as if a lasso weretightening around her neck. Her dreams cracked apart like breaking ice. “Y-you know me?”
“Aye.” Gently came that single word.
“But how? Unless you are—” Her tongue froze, her mind rolled around uselessly because sheknew exactly who he was. For she had grown up hearing those same tales of her da and another
man, the man whose son now towered before her. “No, it can’t be.” “Ian McPherson. Your betrothed.”
Books by Jillian Hart
Love Inspired Historical *Homespun Bride *High Country Bride In a Mother’s Arms
“Finally a Family” **Gingham Bride Love Inspired Heaven Sent *His Hometown Girl A Love Worth Waiting For Heaven Knows *The Sweetest Gift *Heart and Soul *Almost Heaven *Holiday Homecoming *Sweet Blessings For the Twins’ Sake *Heaven’s Touch *Blessed Vows *A Handful of Heaven *A Soldier for Christmas *Precious Blessings *Every Kind of Heaven *Everyday Blessings *A McKaslin Homecoming A Holiday to Remember *Her Wedding Wish *Her Perfect Man Homefront Holiday *A Soldier for Keeps *Blind-Date Bride
JILLIAN HART grew up on her family’s homestead, where she raised cattle, rode horses and scribbled stories
in her spare time. After earning her English degree from Whitman College, she worked in travel
and advertising before selling her first novel. When Jillian isn’t working on her next story,
she can be found puttering in her rose garden, curled up with a good book and spending quiet
evenings at home with her family.
I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever. —Psalms 52:8
Contents 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 Questions for Discussion
Angel County, Montana Territory,
“Ma, when is Da coming back from town?” Fiona O’Rourke threw open the kitchen door,shivering beneath the lean-to’s roof. Please, she prayed, let him be gone a long time.
A pot clanged as if in answer. “Soon. And just why are you askin’?”
“Uh, I was just wondering, Ma.” Soon. That was not the answer she had been hoping for. Her
stomach tightened with nerves as she set down the milk pail and backed out the door. She wantedto hear that Da had gone to his favorite saloon in town for the afternoon, which would give herplenty of time to fix the problem before her father returned.
“You are still in your barn boots?” Ma turned from the stove in a swirl of faded calico.“Tell me why you are not ready to help with the kitchen work? What is taking you so longoutside today?”
The word lazy was not there, but the intonation of it was strong in her mother’s fadingbrogue. Fiona winced, although she was used to it. Life was not pleasant in the O’Rourkehousehold. Love was absent. She did not know if happiness and love actually existed in theworld. But she did know that if her father discovered the horse was missing, she would paydearly for it. She had school to think of—five full months before she would graduate. If shewas punished, then she might not be able to go to school for a few days. The thought of notseeing her friends, the friends who understood her, hurt fiercely and more than any punishmentcould.
“I will work harder, Ma. I’ll be back soon.” She scrambled through the shelter of the lean-to. Wood splinters and bark shavings crackled beneath her boots.
“It will not be soon enough, girl! I’ve already started the meal, can’t you see? You areworthless. I don’t know if any man will have the likes of you, and your Da and I will be stucksupporting you forever.” A pot lid slammed down with a ringing iron clang. Unforgiving andstrict, Ma turned from the stove, weary in her worn-thin dress and apron. She raised thespatula, clutching it in one hand. “When your Da comes home, he will expect the barn work tobe done or else.”
It was the “or else” that put fear into her and she dashed full speed past the strap hangingon a nail on the lean-to wall and into the icy blast of the north wind. Outside, tiny, airysnowflakes danced like music. She did not take the time to watch their beauty or breathe intheir wintry, pure scent as she plunged down the steps into the deep snow. She hitched herskirts to her knees and kept going. The cold air burned her throat and lungs as she climbedover the broken board of the fence and into the fallow fields. Snow draped like a pristine silkblanket over the rise and fall of the prairie, and she scanned the still, unbroken whitenessfor a big bay horse.
Nothing. How far could he have gone? He had not been loose for long, yet he was not withinsight. Where could he be? He might have headed in any direction. Thinking of that strap on thewall, Fiona whirled, searching in the snow for telltale tracks. The toot, too-oot of the
Northern Pacific echoed behind her, a lone, plaintive noise in the vast prairie stillness, asif to remind her of her plans. One day she would be a passenger on those polished cars. Oneday, when she had saved enough and was finished with school, she would calmly buy a ticket,climb aboard and ride away, leaving this great unhappy life behind.
In the meantime, she had a horse to find, and quick. But how? It was a big job for one girl.She lifted her skirts, heading for the highest crest in the sloping field. If only her brotherwere still alive, he would know exactly what to do. He would have put his arm around hershoulder, calming her with kind, reassuring words. Johnny would have told her to finish herchores, that he would take care of everything, no need to worry. He would be the one spottingthe hoofprints and following them. He would know how to capture a runaway. She lumbered through
the deepening drifts, watching as the snow began to fall harder, filling the gelding’s tracks.
How could she do this alone? She missed her brother. Grief wrapped around her as cold as thenorth winds and blurred the endless white sweep of the prairie. She ached in too many ways tocount. It would be easier to give in to it, to let her knees crumple and drop down into thesnow, let the helplessness wash over her. Snow battered her cheeks, stinging with needlesharpness. If she wanted the future she had planned, the promise of a life on her own andalone, so no one could own her or hurt her, then she must find the gelding. She must bring himin and finish the barn work. Those were her only choices.
What would her friends say? She plunged deeply into the snow, following the set of telltaletracks snaking through the deeply drifted snow. She sank past her knees, hefting her skirts,ignoring the biting cold. She imagined sitting in Lila’s cozy parlor above the mercantile herparents owned with the fire crackling and steeping tea scenting the room, surrounded by thosewho were more family to her than her own parents.
“Fee, you ought to stay with one of us instead of leaving town,” Kate might say in thatstubborn, gentle way of hers. “I’m sure my folks would put you up if I told them what yourhome life is like.”
“Or you would stay with us,” Lila would offer with a look of mischief. “My stepmother wouldbe more than happy to take you in and manage your life.”
“Or with me,” Earlee would say. “My family doesn’t have much, but I know we could make roomfor you.”
Fiona’s throat ached with love for her friends, and she knew she could not share this withthem. Some things were too painful and besides, her parents would come for her if she stayedanywhere in Angel County. The new sheriff was one of Pa’s card-playing buddies. She feared forher friends. There was no telling what Pa might do if he were angry enough. It would be best tofind the horse.
A plaintive neigh carried toward her on the cutting wind. Flannigan was easy to spot, standingdefiantly on a rise of the prairie, a rusty splash of color in the white and gray world. Thankheavens! She faced the brutal wind. If she could get to him fast enough, she could lead himback to his stall and no one would be the wiser. The strap would remain on the lean-to walluntouched and unused. Relief slid through her and her feet felt light as she hurried on. Thedeep snow clutched at her boots as if with greedy hands, slowing her progress.
On the rise ahead, the gelding watched her brashly. Now all she had to do was to hold out herhand and speak gently to him, and surely he would come to her as he did in the corral. To hersurprise, the gelding tossed his head, sending another ringing neigh echoing across thelandscape. He turned and ran, disappearing into the folds of land and the veil of snowfall.
No! She watched him vanish. Her hopes went with him. What if he kept running? What if she couldnever catch him? What if she had to return home and face Da’s wrath? She plunged after him.She reached the crest where he’d stood and searched the prairie for him. Her eyes smarted fromstaring into the endless white. Panic clawed at the back of her neck, threatening to overtakeher.
Get the horse, her instincts told her. Run after him as far as it takes. Just get him backbefore Da comes home. She closed out the picture of the dark lean-to and her father’s harshwords as he yelled at her, listing everything she had done wrong. Desperation had her lungingdown the steep rise, sobbing in great lungfuls of wintry air, searching frantically for anymovement of color in the vast white.
There he was, flying through an empty field, black mane and tail rippling, racing the wind.What would it be like to run as far and as fast as you could go, to be nothing but part of thewind, the snow and sky?
“Flannigan!” she cried out, praying that her voice carried to him. But it was not her voicethat caused the giant workhorse to spin and turn toward town. A distant neigh echoed across therolling fields and like a death toll it reverberated in her soul. Would he keep running? How
would she ever catch him?
The horse hesitated, his tail up and his black mane fluttering in the wind. Proud and free, thegelding tossed his head as if troubled, torn between galloping over to her and his own freedom.
She knew just how he felt, exactly how attractive the notion of fleeing could be. Please don’tdo it, she begged with all her might, but it made no difference. The gelding rocked back on hishooves and pivoted, running like a racehorse on the last stretch. She took off after him,wishing she could do the same, her skirts fluttering in the winter wind.
Ian McPherson sat up straighter on the hard wooden edge of the homemade sled’s seat, trying toget a better look at the young woman in the fields. Flecks of white stung his eyes and cheeksand the storm closed in, turning serious, as if to hide her from his sight. He caught flashesof red skirt ruffles beneath the modest dove-gray coat and a mane of thick black curls flyingbehind her. “Who is that running through the snow?”
“If I tell you the truth, you will have a mind to get back on that train.” O’Rourke was asomber man and his hard face turned grim. “We couldn’t beat common sense into that girl.Don’t think we didn’t try.”
Ian gulped, knowing his shock had to show on his face. He could find no civil response as heturned his attention back to the young lady who hiked her skirts up to her knees, showing aflash of flannel long johns before the storm and the rolling prairie stole her from view.“She’s got some speed. Can’t say I have seen a woman run that fast before.”
“Likely her neglect is the reason the gelding got out. That girl hasn’t got a lick of sense,
is a good worker. My wife and I made sure of it. That’s what a man needs in abut she
helpmate. She will be useful. No need to worry about that.”
“Oh, I won’t.” Useful. Not what he wanted in a wife. He didn’t want a wife. He had morethan enough responsibility resting on his shoulders.
Aye, coming here was not the wisest decision he had ever made. But what other choice did hehave? Creditors had taken his grandparents’ house and land, and he still felt sick in his gutat being unable to stop it. Gaining a wife when he was near to penniless was not a goodsolution, even if his nana thought so. A better solution would be to find his own wife sometimein the future, even though, being a shy man, courting did not come easily to him.
“Don’t make up your mind on her just yet.” O’Rourke hit the gelding’s flank fairly hardwith his hand whip. The animal leaped forward, lathering with fear. “You come sit down to eatwith us and look her over real good.”
Look her over? The father spoke as if they were headed to a horse sale. Ian strained to catchanother glimpse of her, but saw only gray prairie and white snow. What would the girl look likeup close and face-to-face? Probably homely and pocked, considering her parents were desperateto marry her off.
“Remember, you gave us your word.” O’Rourke spit tobacco juice into the snow on his side ofthe sled. “I don’t cotton to men who go back on their word.”
“I only said I would come meet the girl. I made no promises.” Although he did have hopes ofhis own. He couldn’t explain why his eyes hungrily searched for her. Maybe it was because ofthe pretty picture she made, like a piece from a poem, an untamed horse and the curly hairedinnocent chasing him. It was his imagination at work again, for he was happier in his thoughtsthan anywhere. Hers was an image he would pen down later tonight when he was alone with hisnotebook.
“Your grandfather promised.” O’Rourke was like a dog with a bone. He wouldn’t relent. “Iknew this would happen first time you caught sight of her. Fiona is no beauty, that’s forsure, but I’m strapped. Times are hard for me and my wife. We can’t keep feedin’ andclothin’ her and we don’t want to. It’s high time she was married and your family and me, we
had this arranged before you both was born.”
He had heard it all before. Nearly the same words his grandmother had told him over and overwith hope sparkling in her eyes. After all that she had lost, how could he outright disappointher? Life was complicated and love more so.
Would the girl understand? Was she already packing her hope chest? She swept into sight,farther away, hardly more than a flash of red, a bit of gray and those bouncing black curls.From behind, she made a lovely pose, willowy and petite, with her flare of skirt and elegantoutstretched hand, slowly approaching the lone horse. The animal looked lathered, his skinflicking with nervous energy as if ready to bolt again.
“Fool girl,” O’Rourke growled, halting the horse near a paint-peeling, lopsided barn. “Sheought to know she’ll never catch the beast that way.”
Her back was still to him, distant enough that she was more impression than substance, morewhimsy than real with the falling snow cloaking her. If he had the time, he could capture theemotion in watercolors with muted tones and blurred lines to show her skirt and outstretchedhand.
Ian vaguely realized the older man was digging in the back for something, and the rattle of achain tore him from his thoughts and into the bitter-cold moment. He did not want to know whatO’Rourke was up to; he’d seen enough of the man to expect the worst. He hopped into the deepsnow, ignoring the hitch of pain in his left leg, and reached for his cane. “I shall take careof it. I have a way with horses.”
“So do I.” O’Rourke shook out a length of something that flickered like a snake’stongue—aye, a whip. “This won’t take long with the two of us.”
“No need to get yourself cold and tired out.” Under no circumstances was he going to beinvolved in that brand of horse handling. Best to placate the man, and then figure out what hewas going to do. What his grandparents hadn’t told him about their best friend’s son couldfill a barrel. The ten-minute drive from town in the man’s company was nine minutes more thanhe felt fit to handle. He gestured toward the ramshackle shanty up the rise a ways. “You go onup to the house where the fire is warm. Let me manage this for you.”
“Well, young fellow, that sounds mighty good.” O’Rourke seemed pleased and held out thewhip. “I suspect you might need this.”
Ian looked with distaste at the sinuous black length. “I see a rope looped over the fencepost.That will be enough.”
“Suit yourself. It will be here if you need it.” O’Rourke sounded amused as he tossed downthe whip and sank boot-deep into the snow. He gestured toward the harnessed gelding, standinghead down, as if his spirit had been broken long ago. “I’ll leave this one for you tostable.”
It wasn’t a question, and Ian didn’t like the sound of mean beneath the man’s conversationaltone. Still, he’d been brought up to respect his elders, so he held his tongue. O’Rourke andhow he lived his life were not his concern. Seeing his grandmother through her final days andfiguring out a way to make a living for both of them was his purpose.
He ought not to be giving in to his fanciful side, but with every step he took he noted thegray daylight falling at an angle, shadows hugging the lee side of rises and fence posts, butnot over the girl. As he loosened the harness and lifted the horse collar from the gelding’sback, he felt a strange longing, for what he did not know. Perhaps it was the haunting beautyof this place of sweeping prairies and loneliness. Maybe it was simply from traveling so longand far from everything he knew. There was another possibility, and one he didn’t much want tothink on. He led the horse to the corral gate, unlooped the coiled rope from the post, used therails to struggle onto the horse’s back and swiped snow from his eyelashes.
Where had she gone? He breathed in the prairie’s stillness, coiling the long driving reins andknotting them. He leaned to open the gate and directed the horse through. No animal stirred, asign the storm setting in was bound to get worse. Only the wind’s flat-noted wail chased
across the rolling and falling white prairie. Different from his Kentucky home, and while hemissed the trees and verdant fields, this sparse place held beauty, too.
“C’mon, boy.” He drew the gate closed behind them. The crest where he’d last spotted thegirl and horse was empty. He pressed the gelding into a quick walk. Falling flakes tapped withgreater force and veiled the sky and the horizon, closing in on him until he could no longersee anything but gray shadows and white snow. He welcomed the beat of the wild wind and needle-sharp flakes. The farmer in him delighted in the expansive fields and the sight of a cow herdforaging in the far distance. Aye, he missed his family’s homestead. He missed the life he hadbeen born to.
When he reached the hill’s crest, hoofprints and shoe prints merged and circled, clearlytrailing northward. A blizzard was coming, that was his guess, for the wind became cruel andthe snowflakes furious. At least he had tracks to follow. He did not want to think what hewould find when he was face-to-face with the woman. He could only pray she did not want thisunion any more than he did. And why would she? he mused as he tucked his cane in one hand. Thegirl would likely want nothing to do with him, a washed-up horseman more comfortable chattingwith his animals than a woman.
Perhaps it was Providence that brought the snow down like a shield, protecting him from sightas he nosed the horse into the teeth of the storm. Maybe the Almighty knew how hard it wasgoing to be for him to face the girl, and sent the wind to swirl around him like a defense. Hecould do this; he drew in a long breath of wintry air and steeled his spine. Talking to a womanmight not be his strong suit, but he had done more terrifying things. Right now none came tomind, but that was only because his brains muddled whenever a female was nearby. Which meantthat somewhere in the thick curtain of white, Miss Fiona O’Rourke, his betrothed, had to bevery close.
thought that was her. The quiet soprano was sheerHe heard her before he saw her. At least he
beauty, muted by the storm and unconsciously true, as if the singer were unaware of her giftedvoice. Sure rounded notes seemed to float amid the tumbling snowflakes, the melody hardly morethan a faint rise and fall until the horse drew him closer and he recognized the tune.
“O come all ye faithful,” she sang. “Joyful and triumphant.”
He wondered how anything so warm and sweet could be borne on the bitterest winds he’d everfelt. They sliced through his layers of wool and flannel like the sharpest blade, and yet hersweet timbre lulled him warmly, opening his heart when the cruel cold should have closed it uptight.
“O come ye, oh come ye…” The snowfall parted enough to hint at the shadow of a young woman,dark curls flecked with white, holding out her hand toward the darker silhouette of the giantdraft horse. “To Bethlehem. Come and behold him…”
The horse he rode plunged toward her as if captivated. Ian understood. He, too, felt drawn toher like the snowflakes to the ground. They were helpless to take another course from sky toearth just as he could not help drawing the horse to a stop to watch. Being near to her shouldhave made his palms sweat and cloying tightness take over his chest, but he hardly noticed hissuffocating shyness. She moved like poetry with her hand out to slowly catch hold of thetrembling horse.
“Born the king of angels. O come let us adore him.” Her slender, mittened hand was close totouching the fraying rope halter. “O come—”
“Let us adore him.” The words slipped out in his deeper baritone, surprising him.
She started, the horse shied. The bay threw his head out of her reach and with a protestingneigh, took off and merged with the snowy horizon.
“Look what you have done.” Gone was the music as she swirled to face him. He expected atongue-lashing or at the very least a bit of a scolding for frightening the runaway. But as shemarched toward him through the downfall, his chin dropped and his mind emptied. Snow-frostedraven curls framed a perfect heart-shaped face. The woman had a look of sheer perfection with
sculpted high cheekbones, a dainty nose and the softest mouth he’d ever seen. If she were tosmile, he reckoned she could stop the snow from falling.
He took in her riotous black curls and the red gingham dress ruffle peeking from beneath her
are Fiona O’Rourke?”Yousomber gray coat. Shock filled him. “
“Yes, and just who is the baboon who has chased off my da’s horse and will likely cost me mysupper?” She lifted her chin, setting it so that it did not look delicate at all but stubbornand porcelain steel. She looked angry, aye, but there was something compelling about MissO’Rourke and it wasn’t her unexpected beauty. Never in his life had he seen such immensesadness.
Who was this strange man towering over her and what was he doing in her family’s fields? Fionaswiped her eyes, trying to see the intruder more clearly. The storm enfolded him, blurring theimpressive width of his powerful shoulders and casting his face in silhouette. The high, widebrim of his hat added mystery; he was surely no one she had seen on the country roads oranywhere in town. He did not seem to have a single notion of what he had just done, scaring offFlannigan again, when she’d almost had his halter in a firm grip.
“What possessed you to trespass into our fields?” She was working up a good bit of mad. Timehad to be running out. She had not been watching the road well, but Da’s sled might come downthe road at any moment. She had no time to waste. “Why are you here?”
“I heard your singing.”
“What? And you felt you had to join in the caroling?” Men. She had little use for them. Asidefrom her brother, she did not know a single one without some selfish plan. “Go sing somewhereelse. I have a horse to catch.”
“Then hop up.” He held out his hand, wide palmed, the leather of his expensive driving glovesworn and thin in spots.
“Hop up? You mean ride with you?” Was the man delusional? She took a step back. Angel Countywas a safe, family place, but trouble wandered through every now and then on the back of ahorse. The ruffian in front of her certainly looked like trouble with his quality hat, polishedboots and wash-worn denims. And his horse, there was something familiar about the big bay whowas reaching out toward her coat pockets as if seeking a treat.
“Riley?” Her chin dropped in shock, and she knew her mouth had to be hanging openunattractively. She could hear her parents’ voices in her head. Close your mouth, Fiona. With
your sorry looks you don’t want to make anything worse, for then we’ll never be rid of ya.
She snapped her jaw shut, her teeth clacking. “What are you doing on our horse?”
“I know your father” was all he said.
“My da was driving Riley. Does that mean he is back home so soon?”
“Aye.” His brogue was a trace, but it sent shivers down her spine. Something familiar teasedat the edges of her mind, but it wasn’t stronger than the panic.
“My father is home,” she repeated woodenly. “Then he must know the other workhorse has gonemissing.”
“Afraid so. We had a good view of you racing after the horse from the crest of the road.” Hishand remained outstretched. “Do you want me to catch him for you, or do you want to come?”
She withered inside. It was too late, then. She would be punished even if she brought the horseback, and if not, then who knew what would happen? This strange man’s eyes were kind, shadowedas they were. Yet all she could see was a long punishment stretching out ahead of her. Afterthe strap, she would be sent to her tiny attic room, where she would spend her time when shewas not doing her share of the work. And that was if she brought the horse back.
If she lost Flannigan, she could not let herself imagine what her parents would do. This manhad no stake in finding the horse. She did not understand why he was helping her, but her handshot out. The storm was worsening. There wasn’t a lot of time. “Take me with you.”
“All right, then.” He clasped her with surprising strength and swept her into the air. Herskirts billowed, the heel of her high barn boot lightly brushed Riley’s flank and she landedbreathlessly behind the man, her hand still in his.
“Who are you?” The storm fell like twilight, draining the gray daylight from the sky anddeepening the shadows beneath the brim of his hat. She couldn’t make out more than the strongcut of a square jaw, rough with a day’s dark growth.