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Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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Chapter OneNeedle Creek, Colorado 1875
"What are those poor bedraggled children doing out in front of your place in the cold?" Esmerelda Clark shook snow from her woolen scarf and hung it on a peg inside the front door of Home Street's Finest Eatery, then shrugged out of her coat.
Rosalyne Emery placed a basket of oven fresh yeast rolls at a table where four customers were seated, then wiped her hands on her apron as she hurried forward. "What children?"
"Those right there." Esmerelda pointed through the multipaned window that had been shipped all the way from Ohio. Outside, snowflakes drifted past the frosty glass and settled on the wood molding. Leaning close and peering out the window into the bitter December evening, Rosalyne's breath fogged the pane.
Sitting on the rough-hewn bench which sat at the front of her restaurant were two forms bundled in dark coats, thickly dusted with icy snow. One child wore a cap, the other had a strip of burlap barely covering blond hair. "What in the name of goodness are those children doing out there in the cold - and not dressed properly?"
"That's what I asked," Esmerelda replied. Without pausing for so much as a shawl, Rosalyne opened the door and hurried to where the huddled figures sat leaning against one another for pitiful warmth. "Are you waiting forsomeone?"
The one who wore burlap for a head covering appeared to be the oldest and nodded. A long tendril of hair escaped the wrap and draped across the front of her snowy coat. Not really her coat, Rosalyne noted with dismay. Both of them wore oversize men's jackets with the sleeves crudely hacked off.
"Who are you waiting for?" Teeth chattering, the girl glanced at her red-nosed sibling and shrugged, a barely perceptible movement inside the enormous coat.
"Is your mother or father inside one of the stores?" Rosalyne would certainly give that parent a tongue-lashing when she found them. How cruel for someone to leave these youngsters out in the cold while they went about their business. Surely the children didn't belong to anyone eating in her restaurant! "Or -" She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Your parents are not inside here?"
The girl denied it by shaking her head. "Where then, dear? Where's your mother or father?"
Again the child looked at her younger sibling before she spoke. "Our pa's dead."
In confusion, Rosalyne glanced up and down Home Street, where glowing gas lamps had been lit against the early darkness. The few teams harnessed to wagons or buckboards seemed in order with the number of patrons in her establishment. Had there been an accident? A gunfight? She'd heard no commotion. She moved closer to the pair and knelt. "What's happened?"
"Got caught in the mud last summer. River drownded 'im." The anguish beneath that matter-of-fact statement was palpable, and Rosalyne's heart went out to the girl and her brother. How distressing to see someone of such a tender age initiated to the pain of life's hardships. These children's father had been another careless miner caught in the dangerous clay of the river. "Last summer?" she repeated, thinking of the months since then. "Where have you been until now?"
"The Thompsons took us in for a time," the girl replied. "But supplies get short in winter. They couldn't afford to feed us no more. Miz Thompson cried, but she said someone would find us here and take us in. She said sit tight right here until someone comes."
Rosalyne's whole chest ached at those pathetic words. She knew firsthand the abject poverty and destitute situations in the winter camps. Mining families helped one another as best they could, but hardships forced situations nobody could help. At least none they could help without turning their backs on their foolhardy dreams and going back to towns and cities with real jobs and secure homes. And miners were a blind bunch of fools.
"Come inside, then," she said quickly. "You can't sit out here and freeze."
"But someone might come for us!" the child said, fear in her reedy young voice.
In that moment, Rosalyne saw herself as a girl, felt the fear, isolation and hopelessness to her bones, and wanted to help. "I've found you, now, haven't I? There's a warm place right in here, plenty of food, too. Are you hungry?"
The smaller child came to life immediately and slid to his feet. "I am!"
The girl reached out a small chapped bare hand to grab the other's coat and hold him fast. "Matt," she warned.
"Matt's got the right idea," Rosalyne told her. "Come in out of the cold and eat. I have hot cocoa."
That did it. The reluctant girl released her brother's coat in favor of taking his hand and pulling him, and Rosalyne ushered them both into the warm eatery and past the now staring patrons. The appetizing smells of beef and rosemary and hot rolls permeated the inviting kitchen into which she led them.
White-haired, full-figured Mrs. O'Hearn turned from the stove, where she was removing goldencrusted beef pies, and spotted the newcomers. "Who have we here?"
"Two hungry children." Rosalyne removed their inadequate wraps. The youngsters were thin and unkempt, their blond hair lank and dull. Both wore threadbare flannel shirts and ill-fitting trousers with rope holding them up at their waists. Rags showed through holes in the toes and heels of oversize boots. The boy's stomach growled loudly, and his eyes opened wide with anticipation.
Rosalyne blinked back the threat of tears and placed a bright smile on her face, while guiding both to a wash basin. "Wash your faces and hands while Mrs. O'Hearn and I dish you up a hearty supper."
"We ain't dirty," the girl said with resentment lacing her tone. She cast Rosalyne a dark look.
"Of course you're not. It's just good manners for everyone to wash up before they eat. Why, I wash my hands before I eat my supper, and I've had them in dishwater all day. Go ahead now."
The siblings obeyed, but kept their attention on the food being served by the two bustling women.
"Where did you find such scrawny youngins?" Mrs. O'Hearn whispered. The woman had remained in Needle Creek after the death of her husband several years ago, and Rosalyne considered herself fortunate to have made her acquaintance. An excellent cook and Rosalyne's right arm, she'd become invaluable as a friend as well as an employee.
Before setting the table and pouring steaming mugs of hot cocoa, Rosalyne quietly explained how she'd found them. The widow woman clucked with sincere sympathy. Rosalyne kept her lips clamped lest she say something she shouldn't in front of the children. She had no use for miners and this was proof of why she was justified in her feelings.
Excerpted from Christmas Gold Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.