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Edenvale, in what is now Alberta, Canada. Winter 1880
He was about two minutes from freezing to death.
Colt Johnson grunted defiance, though the sound never left his icy lips. There'd be no freezing today. Not with two children burrowed against his chest and swathed beneath his heavy winter coat.
He reached the Eden Valley store, managed to dismount while still clutching the children and left his long-suffering horse at the rail so he could stagger to the door. His stiff hands struggled to turn the knob. The rattle of his efforts alerted the storekeeper, and through the frosty window Colt made out the shape of a person moving toward him.
The door opened. Colt blinked and tried to clear his vision as he stared into the face of the most beautiful white woman he'd ever seenblond hair so curly that bits of it escaped her braids and hung around her face. Her eyes were as blue as a midsummer sky, and her smile rivaled the sunshine.
Simply looking at her made his insides start to warm.
This must be Macpherson's daughter. He'd never seen her before, having stopped only briefly at the store as he rode toward the hills and the cabin where he meant to spend the winter.
"Step in before we all freeze." Her voice was sweet as birdsong.
He didn't move, as much from not knowing how to react to her presence as because of the cold frosting his veins.
She grabbed his arm and pulled him forward, then shut the door behind him. "Brr. It's cold out there." She wrapped her arms across her chest and peered out the window.
Colt couldn't disagree, but he spared no more time considering the woman as he hurried toward the stove, sat on the first chair he reached and threw open his coat.
Marie's big eyes regarded him solemnly, full of trust.
"Are you okay?" Colt asked.
She held her little brother protectively to her chest and nodded. The little guy managed only a whimper.
It had been a long ride in cold that worsened with every mile.
The young woman sprang toward a stack of blankets and whipped off several. "You all need to get warm." She draped the blankets before the fire to warm, then held them toward Colt. "Give me one of the children."
But Marie pressed tight to Colt, and her eyes filled with fear.
"I'll take care of them." He took the offered blankets and wrapped them about the pair. With the fire's heat and the children on his lap, his front side soon began to warm, but his back remained as cold as the outdoors.
"You're shivering," the woman said. "Lean forward and I'll slip this blanket over your shoulders." She stood behind him and waited.
He couldn't move. Couldn't think. Had she been so concerned about the weather she'd failed to take note of him his black eyes, black hair and swarthy skin? A half-breed. White women did not have anything to do with the likes of him at least not well-bred women. He could tell this woman fit that category by the way she movedgraceful as a deer at a brookthe way she spokeher voice gentle and sweetand even the way she dressedher clothes sparkling clean.
Her hands touched his shoulders, spreading the blanket.
Without deciding if he should or not, Colt leaned forward, allowing her to tuck the warm material around him. His throat tightened with a combination of fear, surprise and longing at the way she patted his back as she adjusted the blanket. When had he felt the gentle touch of a woman's comfort? Anyone's comfort, for that matter? He pushed the question to the far reaches of his mind.
"You'll soon be warm." She moved around to face him.
At that moment, Macpherson entered the store from a back room. His presence brought stoic indifference back to Colt's thoughts. He didn't require comfort. He was full grown and on his own.
"I'll need to build more shelves to accommodate supplies." Macpherson rubbed his hands together.
Colt couldn't say if the man was cold or expressing pleasure at having to store more supplies.
The ruddy-faced man, with a shock of hair that was as red as it was brown, jerked to a halt. "We have visitors. Didn't hear you come in." He squinted at Colt.
"Say, didn't you stop here day before yesterday to get some supplies?"
"You're the young man who bought that book, Flora and Fauna of Western Canada. Your choice surprised me."
Colt gave the man a steady look, refusing to reveal any rancor at the comment. Did Macpherson think it strange a half-breed could read? "Like to know the names of things."
"Uh-huh." Macpherson's gaze darted to the children and back to Colt. "Don't remember you having any young 'uns when you stopped here earlier."
"They ain't mine."
The man's eyes narrowed. "Whose would they be?"
With long-suffering patience, Colt tamped down his irritation. Macpherson didn't need to get all suspicious.
"I didn't steal them, and if I had, I wouldn't likely show up at a white man's place of business, would I?" He kept his voice low and calm, but the way Macpher-son blinked and straightened, he knew he'd managed to get his point across.
His daughter gasped. "Pa, surely you don't think such a thing. Why, he wrapped his coat about the children, braving the cold to protect them." She flashed Colt a bright smile that melted every remnant of frost in his body and all resentment in his brain. "It was very brave and noble of you."
Macpherson made a rumbling sound in his throat. Colt wondered if it was meant as warning to his daughter or to him.
"Didn't mean to suggest anything wrong." But Macpherson's expression showed no sign of relenting in his judgment. "Just wondering whose they are and why you have them."
"Zeke Gallant, a trapper west of here, married a Blackfoot girl. These are their children."
Macpherson nodded. "I met the pair a couple years ago. They had a baby with them." He smiled at Marie. "I guess that would be you."
Marie gave a shy smile then buried her face in Colt's shirtfront.
It amazed him these children trusted him so easily. After all, he hadn't seen Marie but once or twice, and Little Joe only once when he was a tiny mite.
Macpherson's smile flattened as he waited for Colt's explanation, but Colt was momentarily distracted as the fine young woman reached over and patted each little head. She was so close, he could see the light catching in her hair and smell the fresh, clean scent of her skin and clothing.
"Where are the Gallants?" the storekeeper prompted.
Colt jerked his attention from the woman and steeled himself to reveal nothing of his thoughts. He didn't immediately answer. He didn't like to mention the harsh reality he'd discovered. Not with little Marie watching him with big dark eyes, and listening to every word. Thankfully, her little brother had fallen asleep against Colt's chest double reason to be grateful. He guessed when Little Joe woke up and saw he wasn't at home, he would let them all know his displeasure.
Colt's ears still rang from the racket the tiny boy made in protest to being taken from his home and parents.
"My ma and pa are dead." Marie dropped the announcement into their midst with a distinctive, husky voice. Not that it took her voice to give away her mixed race. Dark hair and black-as-coal eyes proved it. There would be no hiding the fact that this pair was part Indian.
Macpherson's eyes widened at the announcement, and his daughter again leaned closer and reached for Marie as if wanting to hug her. She settled instead for stroking Marie's head.
"I'm so sorry." Her words seemed filled with tears.
Against his better judgment, Colt looked into her face. Indeed, her eyes were watery, but she favored Colt with a trembling smile that shook him to the core. Was the light so poor she hadn't noticed what sort of man he was? Had she failed to notice the obvious heritage of these children?
He jerked his attention to Macpherson. Saw the curiosity and concern in his expression as he regarded the children. Colt explained what he'd found when he stopped at his friend's place. "Their mother was already gone. Buried under a tree. Zeke was barely alive when I got there. Figure his concern for his kids kept him going long past what his body wanted. I buried him next to his wife this morning." Some wouldn't dignify the union by calling the Indian woman anything other than a squaw, but Colt didn't feel that way.
"Pa said someone would come for us. He happy to see Colt. Said Colt will take care of us."
The young woman squatted to eye level with Marie.
Colt stiffened, drew back. He darted a glance at Macpherson, expecting the man to step forward and push Colt away from his daughter. But the man's gaze rested on Marie, his expressionnear as Colt could decipherfull of sympathy.
Colt wasn't sure if he trusted the compassion he saw.
He'd witnessed very little of it in his lifetime. He waited for the expression to shift and grow hard.
He pulled the children closer. If necessary, he would move on. If they were fortunate, he'd find shelter in a barn. Otherwise, the river was nearby. The trees would offer some protection. He had the skills to build a shelter of branches. They'd survive.
Except the children deserved more than he could offer them in an outdoor camp. They at least needed food and more warmth than a fire struggling in the wind would provide. But, he reminded himself, this pair must learn to survive the opinion of white folks, the uncertain welcome of the natives. They would need to be tough.
The woman remained unaware of Colt's troubled thoughts and tense waiting.
"My name is Becca." She stroked Marie's head.
Marie stared into the blue eyes, likely as mesmerized as Colt by the sweet voice and warm smile. "Marie," she answered.
"Marie. What a nice name. How old are you?"
"Four." Marie held up the correct number of fingers.
"A big girl now. With a little brother. What's his name?"
"Little Joe. He's two." Marie held up two fingers.
Little Joe, disturbed by his sister's movement, jerked awake. He sat up, looked about, wrinkled his face
Colt balanced Marie on one knee as he pulled Little Joe to his shoulder, hoping to prevent what he knew would follow. But Little Joe turned as wriggly and uncooperative as a newborn calf and as loud as a pen of angry mountain cats. Colt's ears rang from the boy's cries. He had his hands full trying to make sure Little Joe didn't launch himself headfirst to the floor.
Miss Becca stood to her full height and stared at the boy, as amazed by the noise one small boy could make as Colt had been the first time he'd heard the racket.
Little Joe squirmed away and stood on the floor, his mouth open wide as he bellowed his displeasure.
"Shush." Colt patted the boy's back and tried to calm him. Being mixed race was already enough to see them turned out into the storm. This noise would make anyone with ears reconsider an offer of shelter.
"Little Joe, it's okay. Don't cry." But the kid merely sucked in air and released it in a louder scream.
"Ouch." Colt covered his ears. "That hurts."
Macpherson shuddered and backed away while his daughter stared.
Marie giggled. "Mama said he was loud enough to call down rain from the sky."
Colt could barely make out her words in the din.
"I'd have to agree," Becca said. "But we don't need rain, do we, Little Joe?"
Little Joe paid her no mind. The volume didn't diminish at all.
Marie went to her brother and patted his back. She murmured Indian words Colt recognized from his past as speech meant to comfort. They were always spoken for another, but he remembered a time he'd allowed himself to pretend they were for him. He shook his head, driving away the useless memory.
Little Joe stopped screaming and clutched Marie's hand.
Becca's sigh filled the air. "That's better. Thanks for calming him."
"He's my brother." Marie gave Colt, then Becca, a dark-eyed look of fierceness as she pulled Little Joe closer to her side.
Becca smiled, which filled her eyes with beams of sunshine. "He's a fortunate boy." She turned her blue gaze to Colt. "I don't know your name."
He gave it. Would she ask him to leave now?
But she only smiled and said, "Nice to meet you."
Colt kept his face expressionless and slid a look at Macpherson. Would he ask Colt to leave? The man's face showed a thousand things Colt could only guess at, but his gut informed him the man did not feel any welcome toward his guests.
"We'll be on our way as soon as the children are warm enough. I'll get more supplies before we leave." He hoped the promise of a sale would allow them to stay for a brief period. He'd never been one to pray. Didn't seem to be any point in praying to a white man's God. Truth was, he wasn't sure whose God he should pray to, but at the moment, he petitioned the only God he'd heard much about the white man's.
Please stop the storm and guide me to a shelter for these kids.
"Nonsense," Becca said. "No one will be going out in this weather. There's plenty of room here, isn't that right, Pa?"
"I certainly wouldn't expect man nor beast to venture out in this storm." The words were spoken kindly enough, but Colt didn't miss the slight hesitation before they came, any more than he missed the protective look Macpherson fixed on his daughter.
Colt could assure the man he would not harm her in any way. He would only speak to her when necessary, and he'd stay a goodly distance away. He knew better than to ever look at a white woman in a way to invite the ire of a white man.
Marie pulled Colt's head down to whisper in his ear. "She's nice."
Colt nodded, but kept his attention on the child. Nice white women did not associate with half-breeds.