His Frontier Christmas Family
December 5, 2017 (ISBN 978-0-373-4255-01, Love Inspired Historical)
After taking guardianship of his late friend's siblings and baby daughter, minister Levi Wallin hopes to atone for his troubled past on the gold fields. But it won't be easy to convince the children's wary elder sister to trust him. The more he learns about her, though, the more he believes Callie Murphy's prickly manner masks a vulnerable heart…one he's starting to wish he was worthy of.
Every man in Callie's life chose chasing gold over responsibilities. Levi-and the large, loving Wallin family-might just be different. But she can tell he's hiding something from her, and she refuses to risk her heart with secrets between them. Even as they grow closer, will their pasts keep them from claiming this unexpected new beginning?
Sequel to Mail-Order Marriage Promise and previous books in the Frontier Bachelor series set in pioneer Seattle.
Near Seattle, Washington Territory, December 1874
Someone was watching her.
Callie Murphy kept her fingers moving as she pinned another diaper to the clothesline stretching from the cabin to the closest fir tree. She felt as if a gaze was fixed on her back, pressing against the buckskin coat that covered her cotton shirt and trousers. She had to be mistaken.
Her brother Adam had filed for a homestead a good five miles south of Seattle. He'd wanted space and quiet, claiming he was tired of the crowded gold rush camps in which they'd been raised. Mr. Kingerly and his wife lived a mile away, and the kindly older man would walk up to Callie if he wanted her help with something. The last stranger had passed this way months ago.
Still, she couldn't help glancing around. The one-room cabin stood in the center of the clearing her brother had widened in the forest, but the forest was trying to reclaim it. Already ferns poked up heads along the edges, and blackberry vines, withering with the coming winter, snaked across the dirt. As for the forest beyond, the most movement was a bird flitting from branch to branch.
In the wash basket at her feet, Adam's daughter blew bubbles, her round face a wreath of smiles. With shiny black curls and big blue eyes, six-month-old Mica reminded Callie of the porcelain-headed baby dolls on display in a Seattle mercantile window, especially around Christmas. The little girl looked far more like her late mother Anna than anyone on her father's side of the family. Every Murphy, including Callie and her little brothers Frisco and Sutter, had hair the color of amber and eyes like slate.
"Hush little baby, don't say a word," Callie sang softly, feeling that itch between her shoulder blades that said her watcher was still there. "Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird."
Mica gurgled her delight, rocking from side to side to the tune.
"And if that mockingbird don't sing," Callie continued. "Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring."
Callie shook her head. Who was she to promise diamond rings? That was almost as bad as Pa's promises, saying he'd strike it rich. Always one more hill to climb, one more creek to pan. Always little to show for months of labor. That was the way of the men she'd met. They either dreamed dreams too big to realize or thought only of themselves.
"If you're looking to rob us," she called into the forest, "it's only fair to tell you we got nothing of worth."
The forest was still, as if everything was waiting. In defiance, she bent and picked up another diaper, hanging it alongside the others. It didn't matter who was watching or why. She had one goal: to keep her, Frisco, Sutter and Mica safe until Adam returned. She'd protected her family most of her life, starting with her younger twin brothers after her mother had died of influenza, now with them and Mica. She knew what she was doing.
Still, this feeling was too much like the last time she'd lived on the gold fields, five years ago at the Vital Creek strike in the British Territories. At fifteen then, she'd just started getting her womanly curves. Most of the miners had noticed.
"You don't strike it rich, Murphy," one had told her father, "you let me know. I'll buy your daughter off you."
Pa had thrown himself at the fellow, and Adam had jumped in right after. That was when she'd started wearing loose clothing, washing and combing her hair less often, keeping her head down and her rifle close.
She almost shuddered at the memory, but she refused to give her watcher the satisfaction of knowing she was nervous, and for good reason. She'd grown complacent in their little hideaway. Her rifle was hanging on its hook over the hearth.
As if she felt the same concern, Mica frowned.
Callie made herself brighten at the baby braced in the wash basket as she retrieved one of the boys' shirts. "Isn't it a nice day to hang the clothes, Mica?"
A twig snapped in the woods. Ice raced up her spine. Callie stepped closer to Mica, bent as if to choose another piece of clothing and closed her hand on the stick she used to stir the wash.
Callie whirled, stick raised like a club with Mica behind her. The fellow standing there held up his hands as if in surrender.
"Sorry I startled you. I'm looking for the Murphy family."
Callie eyed him. He looked about Adam's age, with curly hair a shade darker than hers and eyes so deep a blue they were nearly black. Something about those eyes seemed sad, weary, as if he'd come a long distance and still had a ways to go. He didn't look particularly dangerous.
She held the stick high anyway.
"What do you want with the Murphys?" she asked.
"I have news about their brother Adam," he explained. "Are you California?"
This time she did shudder. Why had Pa picked such silly names for his children? Adam had the only name that sounded normal, and only because Pa had thought the first boy in the family should be called after the first man in the Bible. When Callie had asked her mother, God rest her soul, about why she hadn't protested, Ma had smiled.
"You know your Pa," she'd said. "When he gets an idea in his head, there's no arguing with him."
That was why they'd followed him from San Francisco in the south to the British Territories in the north.
Still, only family knew Callie's real name, which meant this man must have talked to Adam. She lowered the stick but kept it at the ready.
"I'm Adam Murphy's sister," she acknowledged. "What do you know about my brother?"
He dropped his hands and took a step closer. Her fingers tightened on the stick. He must have noticed, for he paused.
"I mean you no harm. My name is Levi Wallin. I'm a minister."
A minister? Now, that made no sense. Why would a minister bring her news from Adam?
"I don't know your game, mister," she told him, "but I think you better leave. I have two other brothers, and they don't take kindly to strangers."
He frowned. If he really was a minister, he'd probably lecture her on being kind to strangers, respecting her elders, even though he could only be five or six years her senior. That was what ministers did, she'd learned from the few she'd met-criticize her, show her exactly how different she was, why she would never fit in with good society. She figured the best thing to do was let them go their own way while she went hers.
But this fellow didn't show any sign of leaving. "I knew your brother well," he said, voice soft. "Adam had honey-colored hair, just like you, and his eyes were lighter. He was a little shorter than me, but that didn't stop him from fighting for his place or protecting his family. When Gap-Tooth Harding offered to buy you, every man in camp weighed in on one side or the other."
Now Callie frowned. "You were at Vital Creek?"
"To my sorrow," he admitted. "Scout Rankin and I had a claim at the opposite end of town from yours. I met Adam in a card game at Gillis's. He cleaned me out."
Just when she wanted to trust him! "Now I know you're lying. Preachers don't gamble."
He smiled, and something inside her bubbled up as warm as a hot spring. "I wasn't a preacher then."
He wasn't one now that she could see. Those rough wool trousers and caped duster looked warm, but they weren't nearly nice enough to belong to a fancy minister. Ministers liked to show how important they were, how much better, smarter. If that was what it took to win God's favor, she never would.
"Well, whatever you are," Callie told him, "I'm not sure what to do with you."
"I'd like to talk to you and your brothers." He nodded toward Mica in the basket. "And your husband, of course."
He wasn't the first to assume Mica was her daughter instead of her niece, for all the differences in their coloring. She told him what she told the others. "I don't have a husband."
Again, she waited for the expected response-the gasp, the finger shaking, the prediction she would suffer for her sins.
Instead, his eyes widened. "Adam has a daughter? Where's his wife?"
She could lie, claim Adam's wife was in the house with a gun at the ready, but suddenly Callie felt as weary as this fellow looked. She jerked her head over her shoulder. "Buried over there. I'm in charge until Adam gets back."
He moved closer yet, carefully, as if unsure whether she'd hit him or snatch up the baby and run. She considered doing both, but he was close enough that she could see the lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes. Worry lines, Ma had called them, and she'd had her share. What worried this man?
"That's a heavy burden," he murmured. "I can see why Adam wanted me to help."
"Adam asked you to help?"
He nodded. She studied his face, but he didn't avoid her gaze or blink rapidly like she'd known some men to do when lying.
She drew in a breath. "I wish he'd thought of us before hightailing it back to the gold fields the minute his wife Anna died of a fever. But you needn't worry, mister. My brothers and I are handling things just fine. We'll make it through until Adam gets back for the winter. If you see him before we do, just remind him that if he doesn't live on his claim in the next two months, we could lose it."
His face sagged, and he put a hand on her arm. "I'm sorry, Miss Murphy. Adam won't make it back in time. He died three months ago. I only received word yesterday."
There was no good way to say it. Even if he'd been a minister eight years instead of eight months, Levi thought he'd have stumbled telling Callie Murphy what had happened to her brother. Adam had been so alive, so feisty, so determined to strike it rich. It was hard for Levi to believe all that energy had been snuffed out.
"Are you sure?" he'd asked the two grizzled miners who'd stopped by Wallin Landing with the news and to bring him Adam's belongings and the note to the Murphys.
They'd hung their heads, avoided his gaze.
"Surer than we wish we was," one of the old timers gritted out. "He caught pneumonia and couldn't fight it off. All that's left of Adam Murphy now is a pile of regrets."
Levi knew something about regrets.
He kept his hand on Callie's arm now, ready to catch her if she fainted. She didn't so much as sway. Her eyes, a mixture of blue and gray that reminded him of the swirling waters of Puget Sound, narrowed on him.
She spat out the words, as if he'd lie about anything so important. How ironic. He'd lied enough over the years, to escape punishment, to win something he'd wanted, to make himself appear more important. Now he was telling the truth, and she didn't believe him.
"My horse is tied out front," he said. "I have Adam's letter in my saddlebag. Come with me, and I'll give it to you."
Her jaw worked as if she fought hard words. "I'm not going anywhere with you. And I don't trust you out of my sight."
She was either the most suspicious woman he'd ever met, or the wisest. She was also plenty brave, ready to lay into him with that stick. Having been raised in the gold camps and now living so far out, she probably had to take precautions. He hadn't intended to look dangerous, but then, he'd used his boyish charm too many times in the past to think that danger couldn't look pleasing.
"Then maybe I can help you until your brothers get back." He bent to reach for the clothes, and she stepped in front of him.
"You want to help?" she challenged. "The pump's been stuck for weeks. We have to lug all the water through the woods from the creek. Fix the pump, and we'll talk."
Levi straightened. "Fair enough." He located the pump near the back of the cabin and went over to it. Easy enough to spot the problem. The device was orange with rust. He glanced up to ask her whether she had any oil, and words left him with his breath.
She'd picked up the baby and stood there, swaying from side to side, singing softly. The buckskin coat and trousers, so common on the gold fields, still hinted of a figure. The sunlight shafting through the forest sparked around her, sending gold skipping along her hair.
Levi turned his back on her. Oh, no. You have no business admiring Adam Murphy's little sister. You have a lot of work to do before you're fit to be a husband to any woman.
A movement in the bushes caught his eye, and a moment later two boys about eight years of age scampered into the clearing, dragging a burlap sack between them. The pair was identical, down to the dirt on their round cheeks and the mud on their worn boots. Sutter's Mill Murphy and San Francisco Murphy. Back at Vital Creek, the miners used to make a game of guessing which boy was which.
"Look what we got, Callie," one crowed.
"Old man Kingerly didn't even try to stop us," the other bragged.
Callie shot Levi a look before hurrying to meet them. "He agreed to give you that, didn't he?" She tipped her head toward the house.
The closest boy glanced Levi's way and stiffened, then elbowed his brother. The other looked toward Levi and dropped his corner of the sack.
"Sure," he said. "Of course."
"Who's that?" his brother demanded.
"That's Preacher Wallin," Callie answered them. "He came to tell us something important. I think we should go inside to hear it."
Her brothers exchanged glances, then the one retrieved his corner of the sack, and they dragged it toward the house. The shapes bumping against the material told him they had at least one pumpkin in the batch.
Callie followed them, baby up in one arm. The little one seemed to like him. She blinked big blue eyes surrounded by long black lashes and offered him a wide smile that revealed a set of four teeth. He remembered his oldest nieces being that age before he and Scout had set out to seek their fortune.
Regret stabbed him. He'd missed more than six years with his family chasing after something he had never needed. He'd thought striking it rich would give him standing, make him a man. He'd become a man all right, and not one his father would ever have wanted him to be. He would spend the rest of his life atoning for what he'd done on the gold fields. The Murphy family was only one step along the way.
Callie paused beside him as if she wanted to ask him something. She barely came to his shoulder, so he bent his head to give her his full attention. The blue-gray of her eyes was cool, assessing, as if she could see his darkest secret. He willed himself not to flinch. She reached down, grasped the handle of the pump with her free hand and tried to yank it up. It didn't move.
"Pump's still broke," she pronounced, straightening. She passed him for the door.
Levi was the last one inside. "The pump is rusted solid. Unless you have some oil and a wrench, it's likely going to stay that way."
She shrugged as if she didn't care or doubted he would be of much use regardless. He suspected her nonchalance had more to do with the fact that she had no way to procure oil or a wrench.
In fact, she had no way to procure much of anything if the state of the cabin was any indication. It held a single room, though a ladder against one wall told of a loft overhead. Unlike his brothers' sturdy cabins, this one was more crudely made. The logs hadn't been seasoned properly, and the chinking was falling out in places, letting the sunlight spear through. The windows at the front and back held no glass; only shutters kept out the wind. The stone fireplace was barely big enough to keep the place warm. The shelves next to it listed, even though they held no more than a sagging sack of flour and some tough-looking carrots.
How could Adam have left his family in such dire straits?
A bedstead piled with quilts lay against one wall, with a plank table and benches near the fire. The boys dropped their sack by the table and climbed up on a bench. Callie, still holding the baby, went to stand at the head of the table. She frowned at Levi, before turning to her brothers. Her face softened.
"The preacher brought us news about Adam," she said. "I warn you-it ain't good."
Her brothers' eyes widened, and they looked to Levi.
He stepped forward until he stood at the end of the table. "I'm very sorry, boys. Your brother has passed on."
They frowned in unison, mirror images of each other.
"Passed on to where?" one demanded.
"Were there better pickings there?" the other asked.
Levi's heart tightened. "Much better pickings. Adam is in heaven."
The first boy turned to his sister. "Where's the Heaven strike? In Washington Territory?"
"Nah," his brother scoffed. "It's in Idaho, you dolt."
The first boy scowled. Callie was regarding Levi, challenge in her eyes.
He squared his shoulders. "What I'm trying to say is that your brother Adam has died, boys. But he didn't want you to worry. He asked me to take care of you, and I will. I want you all to come live with me."