Read an Excerpt
Angel County, Montana Territory, 1884
Molly McKaslin felt watched as she sat in her cushioned rocking chair in her cozy little shanty with her favorite book in hand. The story she was reading had taken her far away to the landscape of England, where the rush of fictional rain drowned out the real sounds of the Montana wind breezing through the open windows. Mr. Darcy's offer of marriage to Elizabeth Bennet vanished like mist and Molly blinked, reorienting herself. What had drawn her out of her story?
The lush new-spring green of the Montana prairie spread out before her like a painting, framed by the wooden window. The blue sky was without a single cloud to mar it. Lemony sunshine spilled over the land and through the open windowsill. The crisp scents from the nearby orchard and grass fields filled the cheerful one-room shanty. The door was wedged open, letting the outside noises inthe snap of laundry on the clothesline and the chomping crunch of an animal grazing. My, it sounded terribly close. This was her cousin Aiden's land. Perhaps he had let his livestock onto the lawn to give the fast growing grass a quick mow?
The peaceful afternoon quiet shattered, right along with a crash. She leaped to her feet, spinning around to see her goodand onlychina vase splintered on the newly washed wood floor. The sprays of buttercups and daisies were tangled amid the shards, water pooling on the polished planks. She stared in shock at the culprit standing at her other window. A golden cow with a white blaze down her face poked her head further across the sill, obviously curious where the tasty flowers had gone to. The bovine gave a woeful moo, her liquid brown eyes pleading for help. One look told her this was the only animal in the yard.
"And just what are you doing out on your own?" She set her book aside.
The cow lowed again. She was a small heifer with a sweet innocence about her. Still probably more baby than adult. The cow lunged against the sill and wrapped her long tongue around the top rung of the ladder-back chair, straining toward the cookie racks on the table. She was obviously tame. She cast a plaintive look and mooed softly, perhaps saying the bovine version of "please."
"At least I know how to catch you." Molly had grown up on her family's farm and she knew how flighty cattle could be. This one still might run off on her yet. She grabbed a cookie off the rack and sure enough the heifer's eyes widened with a doe's sweetness. "I don't recognize you, so I don't think you belong here. Someone is going to be very unhappy with you."
The cow batted her long brown lashes, unafraid. Molly skirted around the mess on the floorshe would bemoan the loss of her mother's vase laterand headed toward the door. This was the consequence of agreeing to live in the country when she had vowed to never do so again. Life had happened, and her path had led her to this opportunity, living on her cousin's land and helping the family. God had quite a sense of humor, indeed.
Her bare feet puffed up the chalk-dry dust outside her door. Before she could take two steps into the soft, lush grass surrounding her shanty, the cow came running, head down, big brown eyes fastened on the cookie, all four legs blurring in motion. The ground shook.
Uh oh. Molly's heart skipped two beats.
"No, Sukie, no!" High, girlish voices carried on the wind.
Over the cow's head, Molly briefly caught sight of two identical school-aged girls racing down the long dirt road. The animal was too single-minded to respond. The cow's head was down as she pounded the final few yards, her determined gaze fixed on the cookie.
"Stop, Sukie. Whoa." Molly kept her voice low and kindly firm. It may have been a long time since she had managed a cow, but she knew they responded to kindness better than to anything else. She also knew they were not good at stopping, so she dropped the cookie on the ground and neatly stepped out of the way. The cow dug in with all hooves, skidded well past the cookie and the place where Molly had been standing.
"It's right here." She touched the cow's shoulder, showing her where the oatmeal treat was resting in the clean grass. While the animal backed up a foot and nipped up the goody, Molly grabbed the cow's rope halter.
"Good. She didn't stomp you into bits." One of the girls swiped her hand over her forehead, as if in serious relief. "She ran me over real good just last week."
The second girl stood with her head down, sucking in air. "We thought you were a goner. She's real nice, but she doesn't see very well."
"She sees well enough to have found me." Molly studied the girls. They both had identical black braids and golden-hazel eyes and fine-boned porcelain faces. One twin wore a green calico dress with matching sun-bonnet, while the other wore blue. She recognized the girls from church and around town. "Don't you live across the main road? Aren't you the doctor's children?"
"Yep, that's us." The first girl offered a beaming, dimpled smile. "I'm Penelope and that's Prudence. We're real glad you found Sukie."
"We wouldn't want a cougar to get her."
"Or a bear."
"Or a wolf."
What adorable children. Molly knew she was staring, she couldn't help it. She drank in detailsthe faint scattering of freckles across their sun-kissed noses, the glint of trouble in their beautiful eyes, the animated dearness as the twins looked at one another, as if in complete understanding. The place in her soul, the one thirsty for a child of her own, ached painfully. She felt hollow and empty, as if her body would always remember carrying the baby she had lost. For one moment it was as if the sun blinked out, as if the wind died and the earth vanished.
"Hey, what is she eating?" One of the girls Prudence?tumbled forward. "It smells like a cookie. You are a bad girl, Sukie."
"Did she walk into your house and eat off the counter?" Penelope wanted to know.
The past slipped back into place, the sun scorched her face and the grass crinkled beneath her feet as the cow tugged her toward the girls. "No, she went through the window."
Penelope went up on tiptoe. "I see them. The cookies. They look real good."
"Yes, real good. The best I've ever seen." Prudence took hold of the cow.
Molly was captivated by the girls and their identically pleading expression, so sweet and innocent. She wasn't fooled. Then again, she was a soft touch. "You two keep a good hold on Sukie, and I'll see what I can do about getting you some cookies."
The girls exchanged happy looks, apparently pleased their plan had worked out so well.
Yep, she was much too soft of a touch. She headed back inside, keeping an eye on them as she went. "Do you girls need help getting the cow home?"
"No. She's real tame. We raised her from a bottle."
Penelope and the cow trailed after her, hesitating outside the door. "She loves us. We can lead her anywhere."
"Yeah, she only runs off when she's looking for us."
The girls laughed, the merry sound rising like music on the wind and warming the shadows within her. She tried not to count the years, but she knew. She would always know. Four long years had crept by one day at a time, when she had no longer heard that music of her baby daughter's laughter. Her life had become nothing but silence.
"Thank you so much, Mrs." Penelope took the napkin wrapped around the stack of cookies. She tilted her head to one side, puzzled. "We don't know your name."
"This is the McKaslin ranch," Prudence said thoughtfully, enduring affectionate licks from Sukie. "But I know you're not Mrs. McKaslin."
"I'm the cousin. I moved here last winter. You can call me Molly."
" Penelope gave her twin a cookie. Beneath the brim of her sunbonnet, her face crinkled with serious thought. "You don't know our pa?"
"You haven't been sick yet?" Prudence asked as she fed her cookie to the cow.
"No, I only know Dr. Frost by reputation. I hear he's a fine doctor." That was all she knew. Of course she had seen his fancy black buggy with the top up speeding down the country roads at all hours. Other times she had witnessed that same buggy going through town at a more leisurely pace. Sometimes she caught a brief sight of the man driving as the vehicle passedan impression of a black Stetson, a strong granite profile and impressively wide shoulders.
Although she was on her own and free to marry, she paid little heed to eligible men. All she knew of Doctor Samuel Frost was that he was a widower and a father and a faithful man, for he often appeared very somber and serious in church. She reached through the open door to where her coats hung on wall pegs and worked the sash off her winter woolen.
"Oh, he's a real good doc," Penelope went on, looking entirely innocent as she nibbled on the edge of her cookie, as if debating something.
Likewise, Prudence nibbled, too. "Our pa's nice, and you make good cookies."
"And you're awful pretty." Penelope was so excited she didn't notice Sukie stealing her cookie. "Maybe you could like Pa."
"I don't know the man, so I can't like him. I suppose I can't dislike him either." The sash came free and she bent to secure it around Sukie's halter. "Do you want some water before we go?"
"You ought to come home with us." Penelope grinned, happy to take hold of the end of the sash. She no longer looked quite so innocent. No, she looked like nothing but trouble. "Then you can meet our pa."
"Well, I don't know. It's Sunday. A family day." Goodness, why would the twins ask such a thing? "Come on, girls, let's get you home."
"Do you want to get married?" Penelope's feet were planted.
So were Prudence's. "Yes! You could marry Pa. Do you want to?"
"M-marry your pa?" Shock splashed over her like icy water. Had she heard them right?
"Sure. You could be our ma."
"And then Pa wouldn't be cross anymore."
"Or lonely. So, do you want to?"
Molly blinked. The words were starting to sink in. The twins wished so much for a mother that they would take any stranger who was kind to them. The poor things. She froze in place with the tops of the grasses brushing her skirt hem, her eyes blinking from the harsh sun. The girls were adorable. Any woman would be lucky to have the identical set of them to love.
She pushed aside that old longing she felt, one that could never be satisfied. There would be no children for her. As for stepchildrenwell, that was another matter too painful to consider. "No, I certainly cannot marry a perfect stranger, thank you for asking. But I would take you two in a heartbeat."
"You would?" Penelope looked surprised. "Really?"
Prudence lost her last cookie to the cow. "We're an awful lot of trouble. Our housekeeper said that three times this morning, and that was before she left for church."
"We would make Pa get you a nice ring. Would that matter?"
"No, sweetie." How did a child understand that marriage was more than a ring and a simple "I do"? Commitment was a lifelong vow, and love was fragile and endlessly complicated. It could not survive without deep devotion and deeper emotional ties. "Does your pa know you propose on his behalf?"
"Now he does." A deep baritone answered. Heavy footsteps crunched in the grass near the house. Dr. Frost marched into sight, rounding the corner of the shanty. His hat brim shaded his face, casting shadows across his chiseled features, giving him an even more imposing appearance. "Girls! Home! Not another word."
"But we had to save Sukie."
"She could have been eaten by a wolf."
Molly watched the good doctor's mouth twitch, as if he were doing his best to keep his foreboding appearance. He spotted her and she couldn't be sure because his eyes were shadowed, but a flash of humor could have twinkled in their depths.
"You must be the cousin." He swept off his hat and sunshine worshipped his features. The twinkle faded from his eyes and the hint of a grin from his lips. It was clear that while his daughters amused him, she did not. He stiffened, and his deep tone sounded formal. "I had no idea you would be so young."
"And pretty," Penelope, obviously the troublemaker, added mischievously.
Molly's face heated. The poor girl must need glasses. Although she was still young, time and sadness had made its mark on her. She didn't know what to say to that. The imposing man had turned into granite as he faced her. Of course he had overheard his daughters' proposal, so that might explain it. Perhaps he was afraid she would change her mind and accept!
The poor man. She smiledshe hoped not too muchand took a step away from him. "Dr. Frost, I'm glad you found your daughters. I was about ready to bring them back to you."
"I shall save you the trouble." He didn't look happy. "Girls, take that cow home. Get moving while I apologize to Miss McKaslin."
She was a "Mrs." But she didn't correct him. She had put away her black dresses and her grief. Her marriage had mostly been a long string of broken dreams. She did better when she didn't remember. She breathed in the sweet spring sunshine and held its warmth deep inside. "Please don't be too hard on the girls on my behalf. Sukie's arrival livened up my day."
"At least there was no harm done." She winced and he scowled. "There was harm? What happened?"
"I didn't say a word."
"No, but I could see it on your face."
Had he been watching her so closely? Or had she been so unguarded? She blushed, fearing he could see the secrets within her, hiding like shadows. Perhaps it was his nearness. She could see the bronze flecks in his golden eyes and smell the scents of soap and spring clinging to his shirt. A spark of awareness snapped within her like a candle newly lit. "It was a vase. Sukie knocked it off my windowsill when she tried to eat the flowers."
"Was that before the cookies?" His eyes crinkled pleasantly.
"Yes, but it was an accident."