Wilderness explorer Max Bremmer's dreams are shattered when he suffers a severe injury that forces him to settle in Reardon Valley. When he catches sight of the mysterious Belinda Gregg, he is driven to uncover the secrets of her family's secluded life on the river. As Max enters the uncharted territory of Belinda's heart, Belinda must expose the truth or risk losing love forever.
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Lady of the river
By Dianna Crawford
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Dianna Crawford
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJULY 1804
The hair prickled at the back of Belinda Gregg's neck despite the sticky noonday heat. She felt a strong presence of others.
She was being watched.
Hiking her chin, she refused to show concern as she picked up her olive plaid skirt and mounted the steps to Bailey's General Store. Her mother needed more ginseng and figwort, or some other herb that might begin to soothe the tormented woman's soul. Without delay.
Still, Belinda kept her head down, making sure her own eyes could not be viewed from beneath the floppy brim of her sunbonnet.
But it was hard to be inconspicuous with the soles of her shoes tapping like drumsticks as she strode across the porch planks to reach the open doorway. Stepping inside, cooler air brushed her cheeks, giving her an instant of relief-before she spotted those who had been watching her. Two young misses stood gawking out the front window. Obviously a couple of busybodies.
Instead of turning to face Belinda, they continued to stare at the dusty street outside. Someone else must have captured their attention.
Glad for the reprieve, Belinda started past the sacks and barrels for the counter at the other side of the store, where the short stocky proprietor leaned over a ledger. Gripping a quill in his stubby fingers, he seemed unaware that she'd entered his establishment. Against her better judgment, she'd developed a special affinity for the middle-aged storekeeper the few times she'd been in the store during the three years since she and her parents had moved downriver of this Tennessee Territory settlement. Mr. Bailey always had a ready smile, and though graying like her father, he had the same shade of red hair as the Greggs.
"From the way Max is a-hobblin'," one of the girls at the window said to her companion, "I cain't imagine how he got hisself this far from his house. Nursing a broke arm whilst hoppin' along on that crutch."
Her own interest piqued, Belinda couldn't resist turning back to look, but the two calico-clad misses blocked her view.
"Why don't y'all run on out there and help him, sissy?" the one with long sandy hair urged, giggling. She elbowed her taller friend.
"Not me." The neatly bunned brunette stiffened. "He thought he was too good to settle down with one of the valley girls back when he run off to go explorin'-near broke poor Sally Sue's heart." She tilted her head. "Now, the way I see it, we're too good for what's come draggin' back. His ma told mine that his leg is so busted up, only a miracle of God's mercy will put it to rights again."
"You gotta admit, though," the smaller one said, "he's still one big hunk of man. Even all busted up."
"Liza, I'll swan. You'd take on over a stinkin' ol' polecat iffen he wore pants."
"I would not." Liza whirled around, her hair sailing out from her back as she stalked to the door. "You're just jealous," she tossed over her shoulder, " 'cause the twins sat next to me at church last Sunday, 'steada you."
The dark-haired one chased after her friend. "That is not so. I don't give a fig for ..." The girl's words became lost in the pound of bare feet as the two bounded down the steps and out of sight ... leaving Belinda with a clear view of the subject of their conversation.
Even hunched over his crutch, he appeared to be an exceptionally tall, broad-chested man. Hatless, his thick thatch of blond hair shone like ripened flax in the noonday sun, especially against the deep tan of his squarely etched face. He truly must have cut quite the stalwart figure before he suffered his injuries.
A wave of compassion washed through Belinda. Poor man. Like a gut-shot wolf, he was no longer the brave hunter but reduced to the hapless role of victim. And, as usual, town hypocrites were circling for the kill like the vultures they were. Belinda glanced up the street to the white spire of the community's church. Those heedless girls, like the rest of small-town dwellers, were given the privilege of hearing the love of God preached from the pulpit every Sabbath, yet they never bothered to listen. They were much too busy looking for something to condemn. Town-folk were worse than vultures. At least the scavenger birds never pretended to be other than what they were.
Thank You, Lord, for the reminder, lest I weaken and fall prey again to their town-talking lies. She swung back to the business at hand.
Mr. Bailey looked up from his ledger, his round blue eyes crinkling with a ready smile. "Miss, can I be of help?"
"Yes, sir, I have my list right here." Pulling a scrap of paper from her skirt pocket, she handed it to him, then took a last peek at the injured man. He'd turned off the road onto a narrow path that trailed into a thicket of trees tangled in vines and brush. It probably led to some bluff overlooking the river. If the fellow was smart, he'd go down to the dock instead, get in a canoe, and paddle as far from this town as he could ... just as she would be doing as soon as the storekeeper filled her order.
Grunting with pain, Max Bremmer set his crutch aside and lowered himself onto a sheared-off boulder above a smooth stretch of Caney Fork. Sweat beaded his brow and not merely from the heat. It had taken all his strength-what there was left of it-to reach this hidden spot. But here for a little while, maybe, he'd be allowed to relax and breathe a bit of unused air. Get away from his mother's smothering concern and the solicitous pity of the neighbors.
A sharp pain shot through his throbbing leg as he eased his heel onto the ground. Sighing, he adjusted the sling holding his splinted arm. Resettling it upon his linen hunting shirt, he absently massaged his dangling fingers. What a broken-up mess he was. Helpless as a newborn pup.
How much longer was the healing going to take? Five weeks had already passed since the attack. Five wrenching weeks, with the first two spent laid out in a canoe, only half-conscious with fever, as his friends brought him from up St. Louis way.
Max focused on the dark shadowy depths along the far bank where the sun, even at its zenith, couldn't reach. A twig broke free from a skimming branch, caught in the current, and swept out to the center of the wide fork.
His gaze followed the twig's journey downstream. Max was aware that within a day or two, it would reach the Cumberland, then travel on till that river fed into the Ohio then the mighty Mississippi. Farther upriver of where the Ohio fed into the Big Muddy, the Missouri merged. The Missouri ... the river that came from the far west, cutting through vast reaches of virgin land-open prairies as far as the eye could see and mountains so high, their peaks floated above the clouds. And beyond? No white man knew for sure what lay on the other side. Only rumors of great wealth in furs and land so fertile that, if planted, even a broomstick would sprout leaves.
Ah, but this was the year the mystery was destined to unfold. President Jefferson had assigned that task to the Lewis and Clark expedition. At this very minute the surveying party was on its way up the Missouri. While he sat here in a miserable heap, left behind.
Such a cruel trick of fate to have the dream of accompanying the expedition dangled before him, to be given permission to join them, only to have his chance snatched away by thieving river pirates before he rendezvoused with the team.
Max rubbed a spot on his leather breeches to relieve a nagging ache in his upper leg. One good thing, he thought grimly, the curs who attacked his group wouldn't be ambushing any other unsuspecting travelers. They were now six feet under, pushing up daisies, if any flowers would bother to grow over them.
Noticing his teeth were clenched, he relaxed his jaw. No sense getting all hot over lost chances. Or much of anything else, for that matter. From what Widow Smith said when she examined him, too much of his thigh muscle was damaged along with the bone for him to ever do much trekking off into the wilderness again.
He sucked in a breath. "No, I'll be stuck here the rest of my life, pounding iron for Pops. Sweating away in his smithy just like him and Mama always wanted."
Max's eyes fell shut at the throat-clogging thought. He'd be like one of those miserable ferry mules that spent its life harnessed to a pulley wheel, trudging around in a never-ending circle.
"Lord, will You please tell me, what did I ever do that was so bad You'd let me fall to this dull, boring state?"
Loud cawing shattered the stillness.
Max opened his eyes and snapped his head around, taking in his surroundings. War parties imitated ravens when signaling one another.
War party? Feeling foolish, he relaxed. There weren't any tribes within a hundred miles of here. Never had been. Black Bear was the closest thing to an Indian he'd ever seen set foot in Reardon Valley. And he was only Shawnee by adoption.
A pair of ravens swooped high above the river in a playful dance. Max then caught another flash of movement upstream. A birch-bark canoe came sliding out from behind a bend. As it floated into full view, he saw a lone woman down on her knees, paddling from inside the sliver of a craft.
She glanced behind her as if she was being followed, then settled back and pulled the oar from the water. She laid it inside the canoe, letting the slender boat glide with the current.
Max guessed that her wariness had been unfounded, and she now felt safe to rest a bit. From a distance he couldn't place her, especially with a sunbonnet covering her hair and most of her face.
As if she'd read his mind, she reached up, ripping loose the ties and tearing the bonnet from her head. And tumbling down in a mass of curls came the brightest red hair he'd ever seen. Redder than fiery flames.
Not a single young woman in the valley could he recall who had wildfire for hair. She must have moved here after he left to join Drew Reardon at a new Shawnee village north of the Missouri.
The woman shook her head, and the blaze flew about her like a spreading forest fire.
She retrieved the paddle and redirected the drifting canoe downriver again.
Max hoped she'd look his way. If her face held even a hint of the beauty of her hair, she'd purely be a sight to behold.
The black birds swept down toward the canoe, cawing loudly, spiraled up and swerved in his direction. The woman's attention followed their lead, and she turned toward the high bank where he sat.
Though more than a long stone's throw away, he could easily see the saintly perfection of her face, made blessedly human by her startling blue eyes. Suddenly he realized she had caught sight of him.
Startled, she quickly recovered and gifted him with a slow smile, hesitant at first, then more friendly.
She lifted a hand and waved.
Before he could think to return her greeting, she'd sliced past, heading away ... to where, he knew not.
Then, to his surprise, both of the large black birds landed on the canoe's rim. Even more astonishing, just before the small craft rounded the downstream bend, he saw the woman reach out her hand and give them each some kind of tidbit.
Max squeezed his eyes shut for a second to clear away any blur of his vision, any distortion. When he opened them again, he caught naught but a last brief glimpse of the flame-haired lady and her ravens as the current swept them from his sight. Although he was sorely tempted to dive into the water and swim after her, his body refused to respond.
Almost instantly, he began to doubt what he'd seen. A flame-haired beauty with a pair of pet ravens? The walk to this secluded spot had obviously been too much for him. He must be hallucinating ... falling into some sort of delirium.
Tales came to mind of sailors being lured into the depths of the ocean by strange, illusive sirens of the sea. Was this merely his imagination, this lady of the river whose smile had beckoned him to come to her? to follow her deep into the dark tangled reaches of Caney Fork?
He shook his head to clear it. He must be coming down with another fever. She was far too radiant to be real.
But what if she was?
Grabbing his crutch, Max hauled himself up on his one good leg and started to hop-skip toward home. If anyone would know about the mysterious redhead, his father would. Brother Bremmer was pastor to everyone in Reardon Valley as well as to those living in the surrounding hills and coves. He'd know if she existed.
Max slowed to a stop. Why bother? No woman would ever look twice at a man with a game leg.
But this one might. She just might. Hadn't he seen it in her smile?
The corners of his mouth curled with his own meandering grin.
Excerpted from Lady of the river by Dianna Crawford Copyright © 2003 by Dianna Crawford
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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