Read an Excerpt
Ozark Mountains, 1881
No turning back now.
Charlotte Nelson glared at the drunken manHiram Somethingbeside her. Squaring her shoulders, she gripped the reins and eyed the white expanse between the trees. While snow blurred lines of the landscape, dotting Charlotte's eyelashes and numbing her fingers, Hiram snored from the wagon seat. Charlotte shivered so hard she thought her bones would come through her skin. She fought the impulse to plant an elbow squarely in his ribs.
Were they still on the road? How could she tell with all the snow? They had to be lost. Her heart seized.
What little light they'd had was gone. Clouds covered the sky, blocking out any stars flickering overhead. Spiders crept up her spine. She was lost in unfamiliar territory with an unconscious stranger. Not how she envisioned spending her first night in a new town.
"Yah!" She snapped the reins to encourage the mules to pick up the pace. She might have been a fly buzzing around them for all the good it did. "Brrr." She glared at her erstwhile driver. He sat with his head tossed back, mouth gaping. Would the fool freeze to death despite the alcohol in his system?
Charlotte groaned and freed one hand so she could dig behind the seat for a blanket. Her fingers grasped a rough wool one. Pulling it across Hiram, she wrinkled her nose at the strong horse odor. At least she was conscious.. for now. The way her blood boiled, she should keep warm even under these circumstances.
"Come on, you miserable beasts." She slapped the reins again. The animals plodded forward with all the speed of molasses running uphill in the winter. Charlotte's breath escaped her in a wispy fog.
Please, Lord, let us be headed in the right direction. Maybe she should have asked for a map to Plumville when she got off the train. She glared at Hiram again. Since she was supposed to have a driver, she shouldn't have needed a map.
Charlotte frowned and wished for thicker gloves. She removed one hand from the reins and slid it under her thigh, hoping her body heat would thaw her fingers. What if she were stuck out here all night, driving in circles? She'd be part of the landscape by morning.
No. She wouldn't panic. She'd have to tough it out. If her parents knew she drove through a blizzard with a drunkard, they'd say, "I told you so," and cart her home to Georgia as fast as a train could carry her.
They didn't understand their oldest daughter's drive to be a teacher. In their minds, she should be back home learning to run a house and keep a husband happy. Even with the end of the War Between the States, and the loss of their fine plantation, Charlotte's mother still insisted on Southern gentility. After all, her father was now a businessman, the owner of a mercantile. Charlotte couldn't have been more different from her parents. She counted it a blessing that a teaching job became available midterm, even if it was in a hollow in the Ozark Mountains. Waiting until next fall would have meant almost a year of her mother badgering her about her choice of a career over marriage.
A sliver of light glimmered through the trees. A house? Charlotte leaned forward and peered through the gloom. It was! Thank You, God.
She pulled as close to the house as possible and set the brake.
"Uncle Asher! Matthew took the last biscuit." Luke crossed his arms and frowned. "Widow Slater won't make more till next week."
"Ain't my fault I'm still hungry." Matthew tossed his brother a bite of bread as if he was throwing food to a dog.
Mark, the quiet middle child, caught the piece in midair and popped it in his mouth while Luke howled.
Asher Thomas gulped his coffee and fought the urge to smack all three of his nephews upside the head until they quit arguing. Sometimes, it didn't take a lot of guesswork to see why his brother took off after his wife died.
His nephews grinned. Despite his aggravation, Asher grinned back. How could he hold a grudge against three freckled boys who looked so much like him and his brother at their age? Nah, he loved the scoundrels, regardless of their shenanigans, and fighting over a biscuit didn't really warrant a spanking.
Someone pounded on the front door. Asher glanced around the now silent table.
Matthew shrugged. "Guess you oughta answer it, Uncle. Might be important."
"Of course I'll answer it." Asher pushed to his feet. "I'm the sheriff, after all."
Asher parted the faded gingham at the window and peered out into the storm. He saw only a body slumped in a wagon seat under the overhanging eaves. Was someone hurt? Asher grabbed his rifle from the mantel, then swung the door open.
"Thank the Lord!" A woman who barely reached Asher's shoulder brushed past him. "It's colder than a brass doorknob in January out there. Could you help the fool on the seat get out of the wagon? He's inebriated." She removed a dark wool cloak, scattering snow across the floor as she made a beeline for the fireplace.
Asher stared, openmouthed at raven curls falling free from a bun. Eyes the color of a winter sky twinkled at him.
"Are you deaf? I know a little sign language, but not much. Maybe you read lips?" She enunciated slowly then smiled to take some of the sting out of her words.
He could read her lips just fine. As they warmed, her lips pinked to the color of cherries and tilted at the corners. The huskiness of her voice sent tingles down his spine.
Asher shook his head in an attempt to distract his thoughts. "I'm not deaf. Name's Asher Thomas. I'm the sheriff around here. These are my nephews, Matthew, Mark and Luke. My brother didn't have a chance to get a John." Why in the world was he blathering like an idiot? "I'll, uh, get your friend."
"Thank you." She moved closer to the fireplace and held out her hands. Steam rose from the damp hem of her skirt.
Asher dragged his attention away from her shapely form and stepped outside. Hunching his shoulders against the unfriendly weather, he made his way to the wagon. The man grunted as Asher pulled him from the seat. Whiskey fumes washed over Asher's face, and he wrinkled his nose. He shoved his shoulder under the man's arm, then dragged him into the house.
Their pretty guest had poured herself a cup of coffee. "I hope you don't mind. The boys offered, and, well, I'm feeling a bit like an icicle."
Asher shook his head and propped the drunken man in the corner near the fireplace. "Help yourself. There's stew in the pot if you'd like."
"Oh, I would. Bless you!" She scurried to the cast-iron kettle and sniffed. "Delightful!"
Did she say everything as an exclamation? Asher snapped his fingers and motioned for one of the boys to fetch a tin plate. "Ma'am, you're more than welcome to anything I might have, but I'd like to know your name. And the name of that fella in the corner. Also, could you tell me why the two of you are out in this storm?"
"I'm Charlotte Nelson, Plumville's new schoolteacher. That's the man hired to drive me to town. His name is Hiram."
Asher's blood boiled. The school board had hired a drunk to deliver the new teacher? Of all the stupid things he'd ever seen. "My apologies, miss. I'm sure nobody knew the man would arrive in this condition."
If the night wasn't blowing so cold, Asher would haul him to jail that instant.
"Well, I'm here nowwherever here is." Her grin almost jerked the rug out from under him. A person would think he'd never seen a pretty girl before. He shuffled his feet.
"You're in Plumville, or at least the outskirts." Asher cast a wary glance at his silent nephews. As soon as Charlotte had told them who she was, they'd stopped chattering. Asher could almost see the wheels turning in their heads. He needed to get the woman to her home. Fast.
"Your place is half a mile from here. Leave Hiram where he is, and once you've finished eating, I can take you the rest of the way."
Her face brightened. "That would be wonderful." She turned to the boys. "Will the three of you be my students?"
Matthew grinned and nodded toward his brothers. "Yes, ma'am. And we're right excited."
Asher grabbed Charlotte's cloak. "You can finish eating in the wagon. We'd best be going." He threw the cloak around her shoulders and steered her toward the door, glaring at the boys over his shoulder. "Storm doesn't appear to be letting up. Can't waste any more time."
"All right." She waved at the boys. "See you on Monday."
"Bye," they said in unison.
"You boys be good." Asher closed the door firmly behind him. If Charlotte knew his nephews were the reason Plumville needed a new teacher in the first place, she might run screaming into the night.
The good-looking sheriff, with hair like wheat and eyes the color of summer grass, didn't talk much. When he did, he stammered like a boy just out of short pants. Endearing, really.
Charlotte shrugged and hugged her waist. She couldn't wait to get to her new home and start a fire in the stove. She already missed the milder weather of home. "Does the temperature usually drop this low in October?"
"Nope. Freak storm. It'll be gone in a few days." He rubbed the stubble on his chin.
Charlotte studied Asher's chiseled profile. My, but he was handsome. A lot different from the men back home. More rugged. Earthy. "Is there a lot of crime in Plumville? Why doesn't the town just use the sheriff from Fayetteville? You don't have a large population, correct?"
"Got an ongoing feud that causes a problem once in a while." He swished the reins. "But nothing the teacher needs to worry about. You're here to teach all the children in the hollow. Folks understand that."
A feud? Goodness. Visions of gun-toting outlaws drawing lines in the dirt filled Charlotte's mind. She buried her chin in her cloak. Wouldn't it be wonderful if God used her to repair the rift between these warring people? Her parents always said she possessed the ability to bring people together. She shivered with anticipation more than the temperature. Her new future looked brighter and brighter. Finally, she could make a difference in people's lives.
Of course, Mother always said Charlotte jumped into things without looking, too.
"Here we are." The wagon halted.
Charlotte uncovered her face and stared. She hadn't expected much, accepting a job in the Ozarks, but this building was barely larger than her bedroom back home.
"Over there is the schoolhouse. Might need some work." Asher climbed from his seat and hoisted one of Charlotte's trunks on his broad shoulders. "Show me where you want these, and I'll head on home."
"Oh." Charlotte frowned when it became obvious the sheriff wasn't going to offer her a hand down. Chivalry was dead in Plumville. She climbed awkwardly to the ground and marched toward her new home. She'd check out the school in the morning. Now that the first leg of her adventure had come to a close, weariness weighted her limbs.
A lantern sat on the step. Asher lit the wick and handed the foul-smelling thing to her. She pushed at the door, and it creaked open. Snow danced across the floor, mingling with at least an inch of dust. A stone fireplace took up most of one wall, complete with a swivel hook for hanging a cooking pot. No stove, but Charlotte could get along fine with only a fire.
Along the opposite wall ran a wooden counter with shelves full of canned goods. A bed, with an obvious lumpy mattress, was shoved in a corner. A rocking chair invited a body to relax by the fire's glow, and a small, round table surrounded by four cane-bottom chairs finished the furnishings. Cozy. Or it would be once she unpacked her things.
Charlotte rushed to the hearth. "Once I get a fire going, the place will be perfect. Just set the trunks anywhere, please, and thank you."
Asher brushed past her, balancing the trunk on his shoulder. "Let me take care of the fire, then I'll fetch your other trunk. There should be plenty of wood in the box there. The ladies in town made sure you had food and clean linens. Looks like they didn't have time to sweep."
Charlotte pulled her gaze away. They didn't make men like him back home. If her sister could see him she'd have to pick her jaw up off the floor after one glance. "That's all right. I can manage, and I appreciate all they did have time to do." With hands on her hips, she glanced around. "How far is the mercantile, just in case I forgot something I need? The school board sent me my first month's pay, and I'm itching to get started."
After shoving the trunk against a wall, Asher knelt and blew on a tiny spark he'd coaxed to life among the tinder. Thank goodness someone had been by to keep the wood smoldering. "Mabry's mercantile is about a twenty-minute walk. Take the path down the hill, go west up the mountain, turn right at the fork in the road. Can't miss it. Tomorrow, someone will be bringing you a mule that will help you get around." He stood, tipped his hat and scurried out the door as if Charlotte might take a broom to him. Within minutes, he'd returned with her other chest, deposited it beside her, said a quick goodbye and disappeared like the smoke up the chimney.
She shrugged, then spun in a circle, arms open wide. Hers! All hers, and she'd gotten the job herself, not because of Daddy's influence in the community. She dragged a chest closer to the fire and lifted the lid.
Dresses and books filled the inside. Charlotte glanced at the hooks over the bed. She might need a couple more to hang up all her clothes. Her weariness fled with the anticipation of settling into her own place. She grabbed a broom and swept, then arranged the contents of her trunks as best she could.
She put two more sticks of firewood on the blaze. The tiny cabin was warm now. She peered out the single window beside the door. Snowflakes drifted lazily to the ground. She would have loved to inspect the school, but only an empty-headed youngster would dash outside in this weather to explore an unfamiliar place in the dark. Instead, she grabbed one of her precious notebooks from the table. She could plan her first lesson at least.
After filling a battered tin pot with water and hanging it over the fire, Charlotte curled up with a quilt from home and chewed her fingernail. First thing would be to establish some sort of attendance record, then determine the students' grade levels. The school board's letter told her she could expect anywhere from ten to twenty students each day, depending on the time of year.
Well, Charlotte would do better than that. She'd insist on perfect attendance. The town would marvel at her ability to get the children to attend. She grinned. They'd wonder what they'd ever done without her.
She undressed quickly and dove under the blankets piled on the cornhusk mattress. Feeling like a butterfly encased in a cocoon, she snuggled down, closed her eyes and thanked God for the wonderful opportunity He'd given her.