Authors: Sara's Gift (A Christmas Novella)
By Jillian Hart
Copyright © 2011 by Jill Strickler
First Published 1999 as part of the Christmas Kisses Anthology
by Zebra Books Kensington Publishing Corp.
Cover Art by Kimberly Killion, Hot Damn Designs
E-book formatted by Jessica Lewis
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Disappointment wrapped around Sara's heart. Hours had passed while the train stood motionless on the tracks as the howling blizzard battered it, and there was no sign of help. The conductor assured them the crew was attempting to dig through the snowdrift, solid as ice and six feet high, that blocked the tracks, but she could see how fast the snow fell on the other side of the frosty window. It looked like an impossible task.
I should never have taken this train.
Sara snapped open the silver locket at her neck and ran a careful fingertip over the single black curl tucked inside. The tiny lock of hair still felt fine and silky after four long years. The baby she'd given birth to would be a child now, talking and laughing, running and playing.
Maybe I have no right to see her.
But how could she go on if she didn't? A new life awaited her ahead in Missoula, and it was time to let go of the past, of what could never be. She had dreamed of this chance, and now, she was not ten miles away from seeing the little girl her baby had become.
How many times had Sara imagined what she might look like? Probably thousands. Those fine black curls would be thick and lustrous now, maybe hanging halfway down her back, curling in tangles like her own. But would she have Andrew's eyes? Or chin? Or the way he cocked his head when he smiled?
Her heart cracked with too many memories. Nothing hurt like lost dreams, like love buried and gone forever.
"Someone's coming!" a man, who had been nervously watching for the rescue party, announced from the front of the car. "I see lanterns. I bet it's help."
"Finally," another answered. "It's freezing in here. I'm writing a formal complaint to the railroad company."
The drum of angry voices faded to a faint blur in Sara's mind. The rescue party had come. That meant she was on her way to Moose Creek, where her daughter lived. Men's voices rumbled outside the car, and Sara gathered her satchels. The thought of a long trek to the next town was sobering, and with the way the wind howled, she wondered about the dangerous storm.
"You'll be fine, missy," the conductor assured her as he handed down her largest satchel, heavy with her sewing box inside. "The sheriff and his men will take good care of you. Sheriff, we got a lady here. She's a might delicate. Keep a good eye on her. Make sure she doesn't get too cold."
"Right you are," a low, rumbling voice answered. A flicker of lantern light splashed across his face, and Sara saw dark eyes, a strong slash of a mouth, and shoulders wide and capable. A man's hand reached out, well shaped and strong; then the flash of light retreated to cast her rescuer in darkness again. "Come on down. I've got you."
She'd seen his face before. Sara stepped out of the car, and the howling wind struck her hard. Ice pellets scoured her face and drove straight through her wool cloak. Her foot hit ice on the steps and she slid, but the strong man's grip held her up until she caught the next step and landed solidly on the drifted bank of snow.
"Here, climb up with me." He took her arm and led the way through the confusion of swirling wind and blackness.
A gust of wind hit her full force, and she fought to keep from buckling backward. His hands gripped her arms, holding her up, keeping her from falling. How strong he was. She noticed that right away.
The storm kept her off balance. The cold tore the heat from her body, and teeth rattling, she clawed her way up to the top of the embankment. Mittened hands reached out and grabbed her, and she felt frozen through already, not having taken more than ten steps in this weather.
"Do you have her?" The sheriff towered over her, sheltering her from the battering wind with his big steely body. Lantern light flickered close, cutting a thin slash of gold through the dark, illuminating the whole of his face. Of his familiar, handsome face.
Gabe Chapman. Sara's heart shuddered to a stop. It was this man and his wife who had adopted her baby. She dipped her chin. What if he recognized her? The taint of shame at having to give up her baby still hung heavy on her shoulders.
"This way." A man tugged her to a sleigh, the storm engulfing both the light and the sight of the strong sheriff.
Gabe watched the woman go, his chest tight. He'd caught the look of sadness in eyes a bleak color of blue, like a stormy twilight sky. He caught hold of Clancy. "Put her in my sleigh. She's delicate. She won't last long in this storm. And give her an extra blanket."
"You got it, boss."
Gabe rushed to help the last passenger from the cars, a thirteen-year-old boy. He helped the lad locate his family, all tucked in a sled together, and Clancy took the reins. It wouldn't take much for all of them to become lost in this storm, confused by the wind, frozen by the subzero temperatures. He had to get these people to shelter as fast as he could.
Through the swirl of black ice he saw the shape of the woman in his sleigh, huddled beneath buffalo robes. "This trip is going to get awful rough," he leaned close to tell her. "If you get too cold, you tell me. I don't want you freezing."
Her teeth chattered; he could hear the clacking when she spoke. How small she was. His chest tightened with worry. There were no more blankets. He could do nothing but grab his team by the bit.
"Let's move out!"
His shout was snatched by the wind, but the sleds and sleighs behind him followed in single file, keeping to the tracks he made. Responsibility settled heavily on his shoulders. Where he led, everyone followed. Already the powerful wind was knocking him off course, and he found the slope of the railroad grade by luck.
He headed into the wind, nearly blinded by the storm. Once the lantern swinging from his sleigh cast a faint glow, and for a brief instant, between the curtain of snow and darkness, he could see the woman's face. Fragile and striking, with eyes dark and clear.
Yes, she was depending on him too. Braced against the biting cold, he faced the wind and turned the horses with him, heading, he hoped, down the middle of the grade. The howling winds were worse here at the peak of the mountain, as was the snow. It seemed as if they walked through clouds, for the world around had faded until there was only the numbing crystals of driven ice and the packed snow at his feet.
When he was certain they had crested the mountain and were still on the railroad grade, he took hold of the reins and fell back to check on the woman in his sleigh. The lantern cast her in brief silhouette. She was huddled tight beneath the bundle of wool and skins, her face wrapped with a muffler so only her dark eyes showed, eyes full of questions.
"It's a long way yet to go." He bent close to her, fighting the ache in his joints put there by the brutal wind. "Can you wiggle your toes?"
Her eyes squinted with an unmistakable smile. He couldn't see it, but he remembered the sight of her face as she'd descended from the railroad car, oval and soft, cheekbones high but not too prominent, the soft lush cut of her mouth. He would lay down good wagering money that she had a beautiful smile.
Her nod confirmed she was holding her own, at least so far. He looked back to see the outline of horses nosing the back of his sleigh, for ropes tied the sleighs from stern to trace.
"The wind's pickin' up." Clancy covered his mouth, shouting to be heard over the howling storm.
"Check on our passengers, will you? Don't want anyone freezing on the way home."
"Least of all you. Get in that sleigh and beneath those blankets before you're an icicle."
"Same goes for you." Gabe had to make certain their course was true, and when he did, he would be more than happy to share the sleigh with the pretty, young woman. Since Ann's death, he'd been mighty lonely—the kind of loneliness that hit at night when sleep would not come and the empty place at his side was harder to ignore.
The wind gusted, knocking him to his knees. He struggled back to his feet, determined to keep his course. Overhead he could hear the creak of battered trees and knew the only danger wasn't from the cold or losing direction. The steep fall of the mountainside sent the team in a panic and he caught the bit, speaking low and steady to Rebel. The black quieted, his hooves sliding, struggling to breathe as the ice crusted his velvet muzzle.
Gabe rubbed the ice from both horses' noses and led them, kept them calm. Already he was so cold inside he ached and his stomach muscles coiled tight. Ice struck him and clung to his eyes, his face, his chest. The ten-mile trek stretched ahead as if it were a hundred.
"We don't have much farther to go now." The sheriff's voice broke through the wave of sleepiness washing over her, threatening to pull her under. "Are you awake?"
"I'm awake." Sara made herself speak. A cold knot clamped in the middle of her stomach, and she knew, if she fell asleep, she could freeze to death in these temperatures, even buried in the layers of robes and wool. Her jaw ached from clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering.
Think of your daughter,
she told herself, again cradling the much remembered images of the baby in her arms, moments after she'd been born, face red and wrinkled, fingers so tiny it was hard to believe they were real. Sara's heart squeezed with a fondness grown greater over time. How sorry she was Andrew had not lived to see his daughter born. How proud he would have been, how much in love with her.
When she looked up, she saw the blur of a street, the faint impression of dark windows and roof lines through the blinding storm. The sleigh skidded to a halt in the shelter of a tall building. Lights burned in the windows, warm and cozy within. Sara, numb from the cold, began pushing off the robes.
A gloved hand caught hers. The sheriff, Gabe Chapman, shook his head. A muffler covered his face, frozen white and caked with ice. "Let me make sure there is room at the hotel before you climb out. It's damn cold out here."
Sara nodded, careful to keep her chin down, afraid. But he could not see her through the layers of the wool scarf wrapped around her face and know the secrets she hid. Still, the shame and uncertainty clung to her, as cold and desolate as the storm.
Finally, Sheriff Gabe Chapman strode back into sight, broad shouldered and powerfully agile. Just watching him hop down the steps and extend a hand to the family in the sled behind her made her heart skip a little. He was her daughter's adopted father.
There was a strong sense of caring about him, masculine but tender as he helped the middle-aged woman from the sled, catching her elbow when she stumbled, keeping her safe. He escorted her up the steps while the family followed, the father seeing after their son, all looking as frozen as she felt.
Now that they had stopped, her nerves crackled. She didn't feel right about what she was doing—not right at all. When she'd handed her baby to her father that last time and watched him ride away from the shanty, it had felt as if he'd taken her entire soul with him. Now all she wanted was one look, even if she had agreed never to contact the little girl or her family.
"The hotel's full." His voice startled her. He stood by the side of the sleigh, broad shoulders and the cut of his profile limned by the gleam of lighted windows. "My deputy and I will see you to the boardinghouse. They could have room."
"And if they don't?"
"Don't worry. We'll find you a warm place for the night. Here in Moose Creek, we don't let pretty ladies stranded by a blizzard sleep out in the street." Even though it was dark and stormy, she could see the flicker in his eyes, a bright snap of humor and charm that set her heart racing.