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Quinten, North Dakota, 1890
She was lost. The world had disappeared into swirling, biting snow. The rough ground beneath her feet convinced her she'd veered off the road. Her toe caught a lump and she staggered to keep her balance.
Nineteen-year-old Vivian Halliday's thoughts filled with a fury of denials. She couldn't be lost. No one would realize her predicament. No one would look for her. No one knew where she was. Lord, God, help me.
The same prayer she'd uttered so many times. Not for herself. She knew she didn't deserve it. There were times she hadn't listened to God or followed His voice as she ought. There were times she'd totally ignored Him and done her own thing. But she prayed for another and, lately, her prayer had grown more urgent. Today, however, her need was solid and desperate. The cold had already tightened her ribs to the point she could barely breathe, but thinking about how much she had to lose gave icy spears to the cold as it clawed into her lungs.
Snow coated her cheeks and iced her lashes. The wind tore at her cloak. She pulled the heavy woolen material tighter, then bent her head low and turned her back to the storm, letting it push her. It mattered not where she went. One direction was the same as another in this white wilderness.
"God, help me," she called, but the wind whipped her words into silence. She stumbled. Righted herself. Swayed.
A mewling sound came from inside her cloak.
The tiny cry filled her with fresh determination and she lifted her head and peered into the white nothingness.
She must escape this storm. She just had to keep moving and find shelter. Nothing must defeat hernot man, not beast, notbeastly weather. Lord, God, in You I trust. Save me.
Snow blasted around her. Dizziness swept over her until she felt like she rode the circling wind. She could no longer tell up from down and melted into the cold, snow-shrouded ground.
The thin sound, from close to her heart, came again. All her pulses crashed against her skin like thunder. She would give her life to save the tiny life she sheltered.
She shook the basket cradled beneath the meager protection of the cape, trying unsuccessfully to still the protesting sound. Was her precious bundle suffering from the cold? She dare not look and allow even a hint of the cold to enter the shelter under her cape.
Suddenly, a huge shape darkened the snow to her left. She shrank back, her limbs brittle with fear. Was it a bear? A wandering, angry bull? She rocked harder. Hush. Hush.
"Someone there?" the massive shape bellowed.
Vivian sank back, trying to disappear into the snow. She crushed the basket closer and patted the sides.
The bulky figure swept trunk-sized arms about, searching for the source of the sound that wouldn't stop despite all Vivian's desperate measures. The cold bit at her throat. The wind howled louder. She prayed it would drown the sound coming from beneath her cape.
The creaturebe it man or otherwiseencountered her shoulder with his great paw.
She stiffened. Perhaps he'd think her a bush and move on.
Fingers probed gently down her arm then up and across her back.
She held her breath. Lord, God, save us. She wanted to be left alone to find her way to town and safety. Instead, she was swept into strong arms, the cloak tucked around her, her face pressed into a broad shoulder. Then with great strides the huge creature plowed into the storm.
Protests formed but her lips refused to work, frozen with both cold and fear. One solitary thought remained in sharp focusbeing captured by a wild man did not fit into her plans.
The wind held less bite. The cold's sting moderated. Must be the bulk of the man protecting her.
The last remnant of warm blood jolted through her veins. She would not find protection in the arms of a stranger. She struggled to escape.
"Settle down. I'll get you to a warm, safe place."
The thought of warmth enticed. But safety? She might be safer in the storm. She opened her mouth to protest but the cold grabbed her throat. She couldn't speak and her ineffectual efforts to escape allowed the snow to sneak under her cloak, robbing her of the bit of warmth his arms provided. She resisted for the space of another heartbeat, but the safety of his chest proved too alluring and she burrowed deeper into the bulky protection.
"That's better," he murmured, as he continued his hurried journey. His footsteps thudded hollowly as if his boots encountered wood, then he bent forward and took another step.
The wind ceased. A golden light washed over Vivian's eyelids. Loath to face reality, fearing it might be unkind, she kept her eyes shut.
Her rescuer shifted and lowered her into a chair.
"Let's see what you have here." His huge hands brushed her arm as he spread open her cape. Strong fingers began to unwrap her grip on the basket.
"No." She jerked her eyes open as alarm returned so fierce and overpowering that her heart thudded against her chest. She stared into a square face, half buried in a thick fur hat. Eyes as blue as a spring sky regarded her with what she could almost describe as amusement. His mouth tipped to one side in a wry expression. The man was huge, towering over her, blocking everything except bright flames from the fireplace at her side. For a moment, she ignored her fears and her need to protect all that was hers and darted a longing look at the promise of heat.
"I'll just have me a little look." He again sought to open the basket.
The cold tormenting Vivian's skin and bones balled up inside her heart and froze there. She clutched the basket more tightly to her chest and hunched her shoulders protectively as if she could defend herself against this giant. "Just let me sit here a minute until I'm warm," she choked out.
His eyes narrowed. His mouth drew into a thin line. "I ain't about to hurt you none." He waited.
Did he expect her to believe him? She darted a look at his mitt-sized fist on the handle of the basket. He could crush her with one hand. The damage he could do to a smaller body, an infant, was beyond imagination.
She shivered, and not from cold.
The mewling sound came again, louder, more demanding. Was everything all right? She ached to be able to check but instead clutched the basket closer and prayed he would leave her alone.
"Let's have a look," the giant said, and lifted her hand easily from the handle even though she squeezed as hard as she could.
She sprang forward, ready to defend. Realizing how futile her efforts would be, she frantically tried to think what she could do. Seemed the best she could hope for was that she could move faster than he. She tried to force her muscles to coil into readiness despite their numb coldness and found them stiffly uncooperative.
He put the basket on a stool before the fireplace. The warmth of the yellow-and-orange flames made her ache to hunker down and extend her hands. But she didn't dare move. Who knew what would trigger this man into action? And she wasn't about to hazard a guess as to what sort of action he might take. Instead she waited, alert and ready to protect what was hers.
He bent over and eagerly folded back the blanket to reveal the contents, then jumped back as if someone shot him. "It's a baby," he muttered. The look he fired her accused her of some sort of trickery. "I thought you had a cat."
His eagerness at thinking cat and his shock at seeing baby were such a marked contrast to what she expected, she almost laughed with relief. Fearing her amusement would spark anger in the man, she changed her mind before the feeling reached either her lips or her eyes.
He fixed her with a probing stare. "What you doing out in a storm with a baby?"
"I got lost." Did he really think she planned to be out with this precious infant? The man who gave her a ride toward Quinten, her hometown and destination, had dropped her off with an apology that he must take the other road, and assurances she was only a few miles from town and could easily walk the distance.
He obviously hadn't expected it to storm and if there'd been signs of its approach, she hadn't noticed. The storm caught her in the face as unexpectedly as if she'd fallen. In the driving wind she must have gotten turned around. Once the snow engulfed her, all that mattered was protecting the baby.
The man leaned forward and peered cautiously into the basket. "A boy or girl?" The huge man shifted his gaze to her, his eyes curious.
Vivian smiled. "A boy." The sweetest, fairest, most precious little boy in the whole world. She would never allow anyone to take him from her again. And she'd fight this giant of a man with everything at her disposal if she must.
"How old is he?"
"Almost two months." Seven weeks, four days andat last reckoning of the timesix hours.
The baby's thin cry continued.
"I think he's hungry. Maybe you should feed him." The man nodded at her chest.
Vivian's cheeks thawed instantly. He expected her to nurse the baby. "There's a bottle in the basket." She'd have to find a source of milk as soon as possible. She stilled the panic twisting her heart. Where would she find milk in this place? She suddenly had a hundred different details to consider. She knew nothing about caring for a baby despite the few lessons Marie had given her. Marie had always been the one to gravitate toward the infants in the orphanage, while Vivian sought sanctuary in the kitchen. And when she'd been sent out to work for the Weimers, there had been no babies. How would she manage?
The man tossed his hat to one side. His dusty-yellow hair tangled in a mess of curls. Something stirred at the back of Vivian's mind. He seemed vaguely familiar. She tried to think where she'd seen him, but before she could figure it out he leaned over, scooped the baby from the basket and offered the bundle to Vivian.
She looked into a wrinkled and squalling face. Suddenly, an incredible ache filled her and she cradled her son to her chest, stilling a sob but unable to stop her eyes from growing moist. She might not know about caring for this little one but she knew about loving him and wanting him. The rest would follow.
"He got a proper name?"
She had not been allowed to name him legally but
had, in her thoughts, given him her father's name. "Joshua. After my father."
"Big name for such a little bitty thing."
"He'll grow" She slid an amused glance at the big man. "Some."
He looked startled and then his eyes crinkled with understanding. "Ain't too many get to my size, but his name will suit, I 'spect."
Vivian smiled at the baby. "It suits him just fine." For some reason it did. "Can you hand me the bottle?"
He pulled it from the basket, hesitated. "You want I should warm it?"
"Oh, of course." She knew that. Just hadn't thought of it. Again, doubts grabbed at her resolve. Someone else should be caring for this tiny scrap of humanity. Someone who knew how to tend a baby. Remembering the seven weeks, four days and six hours when someone else did, she forced away her uncertainty. No one else should care for this baby but her. She would learn how just like every first-time mother did.
As the man moved to plop the bottle in the open kettle hanging over the flames, cats sprang from every corner of the room, meowing and clamoring around him.
"Now, you all just settle down. Ma will be in with your milk soon 'nough. This here is for that noisy fellow over there." He rubbed the heads of several of the animals.
Ma? The man was married. That boded well for Vivian and Joshua. And they milked a cow. She relaxed fractionally and jiggled the crying baby as she waited for the man to take the bottle from the hot water, and let some of the contents drip into his mouth.
"Seems about right." He handed it to her.
She'd only fed the baby a couple of times before and always with the help and supervision of someone who knew how to do it with ease and comfort. Even on her ride today, the farmer's wife had begged to give him his bottle. She took a deep breath, prayed the baby would know more about what to do than she, and popped the nipple into the open mouth. The baby stopped crying and gagged.
Vivian jerked the bottle away and stilled her panic. What if she drowned the poor little thing? Maybe they were right in thinking she wasn't fit to raise him. Again she yanked her thoughts back from heading in that direction. She'd endured almost eight weeks of aching arms and a weeping heart. Never again would she go through that.
Praying she wouldn't harm him, she nudged the bottle into the baby's mouth again. He pushed at the nipple with his tongue, swallowed back a mouthful of milk, looked startled then settled into sucking.
She slowly let her lungs relax. This wasn't so bad.
She glanced about the room. The brick fireplace filled most of the wall to her right. A recessed area beside it held split logs.