Harlequin Historical #671
Out of print. Available as e-book.
2004 Rita Finalist
Her Prayer Was Simple: “Dear God, Let Me Die!”
But Cordelia Channing - preacher’s wife, preacher’s widow - lived and was born anew as Winter Woman, a woman of power who’d survived the deadliest season in the mountains alone.
She knew she could never do it again. Though perhaps there is no need, for Providence had sent her Thomas Nash, an enigmatic Mountain Man who stirred the deep places in her questing soul.
Nash had come west to lose himself, to rail at the fates that seemed ready to destroy his life at every turn. But somehow those same fates now saw fit to put Delia in his care… And though he was fighting it at every turn, Delia was transforming his life in ways he’d thought forever lost…!
BUY THE BOOK
"Winter Woman presents a facinating portrait of the early days of the West...This is an action-packed yet tender love story... Kernan has a knack for writing a solid western with likeable characters."
Romantic Times BOOKclub
"WINTER WOMAN is an exciting, no holds barred story with unforgettable characters. Ms Kernan's first novel is a winner!"
Virginia A. Deweese, Rendezvous Editor
The next morning Delia awoke to the aroma of brewing coffee. She tipped back her head to better inhale the delicious scent. Then she sat up, feeling stiff from sleeping with nothing but the buffalo skin beneath her. Her neck hurt. She must make a pillow of some kind.
Sorrow descended upon her. John was gone. She swallowed back the bile in her throat.
She stared at the buckskin tent above her and remembered the trapper. Nash was a gentleman. He had not touched her in the night.
Hunger brought her out bed. She knelt beside the fire for a closer look. When she straightened, she found Nash grinning at her.
“I cooked you something special, Johnnycakes, coffee and beaver again.”
“It smells wonderful.”
She left the fire long enough to find a private place behind the rocks to relieve herself. She returned to her blanket roll of belongings and drew out her turtle shell comb. Her fingers loosened her braid. Slowly, she combed her hair beginning at the tips. When the tangles were out she rapidly divided her hair into three parts and made one thick braid down her back.
She wrinkled her nose.
“Thomas - the cakes are burning!”
His gaze left her and he frowned at the skillet. “Damnation.” He flipped one blackened cake out of the pan with his knife. “I’ll eat that one.” He poked at the remaining cake. “This one’s just brown.”
“I’d be glad to cook your breakfast from now on,” she said.
His tone was angry again. “I cook my own meals. I said I’d eat that one. I like ‘em that way.”
She stared at the smoking biscuit, then lifted her gaze to meet his. His eyes dared her to say otherwise.
“Is the coffee ready?” she asked.
Nash poured the brew into a strange cup. She held the handle and studied the black and brown surface. It looked like stone, but was light.
“What is this cup made from?”
“Buffalo horn,” he answered.
She made no comment as he scraped the black exterior from his Johnnycake. She held out her tin plate and received a huge portion of meat and one small cake the size of her fist. She craved flour. Her body longed for it, and greens. Her stomach gurgled in anticipation. Nash eyed her rumbling middle and smiled.
He ate his breakfast straight from the skillet using only his knife. She bowed her head and prayed for patience. He knew she had a second plate and for some reason refused to use it.
“I generally have cakes once a week. Have to make them every other week, now, if the flour is to last.”
She chewed slower. It would be a long while before she had another.
"Do you drink coffee every day?”
He laughed. But didn’t answer.
She finished her meal in silence and hollowness left her. How long until she regained her strength? How long would it take to recover from those months of want?
“That was a wonderful breakfast. Thank you.”
“Yup,” he said.
“I will clean the skillet.”
“No, you’ll rub all the seasoning out of it. I got it just right.”
“Very well then. I’ll just wash my plate.”
She took her leave of him, walking to the brook. There she scoured her plate and utensils with sand. Then she washed her face and neck with a torn handkerchief. When she opened her eyes, he was kneeling beside her. She jerked her hand to her throat. “You gave me a start,” she said.
His voice sounded defensive. “I came from down wind.”
“Are you suggesting I can smell you?”
“Well no. I mean you don’t smell badly.”
“I can smell you.”
A tingle vibrated up her spine, lifting the hairs on her neck. What did he mean? And why had his voice dropped to nearly a whisper?
“I have not acquired the knack,” she said.
He scrubbed his skillet quickly with sand and dipped it briefly in the water. “I don’t know what you’re saying half the time.” Then he dried the iron thoroughly with a soft bit of leather. “The grease keeps things from sticking. Too much washing or heat and you have to start again. I’ve got to go hunt. You stay put.”
A rippling wave of panic broke in her belly. John had gone hunting too. He never came back.
“I’ll come along.”
“I says ‘stay put.’”
Her hands grew moist. What if he doesn’t return? What if a bear or wild cat finds him or he falls. She sprung to her feet.
“No, Mr. Nash, I will not.”
He pointed a finger at her.
“You can’t come. You’ll slow me down and scare the elk. If I can smell you, so can they. You’re staying.”
"I ain’t asking, you little-bit-of-nothing. I’m telling you.”
He stalked off. Delia followed him to camp. She bridled the other horse as he placed the saddle on his own.
“Give me that!” He jerked the bridle off the horse and stuffed it into his saddlebag. “I’ll be back by dark.”
He swung into the saddle and rode off. She doubled as if kicked by his horse. Her knees drove into the soft earth and she fell on all fours.
He left her.
John’s words echoed through her mind. Don’t fret Cordelia. I’ll be back by nightfall. Don’t fret.
She ran for her blanket and snatched up the hatchet the Indians had packed for her. Nash had disappeared.
She turned to the remaining horse and stroked his head. Could she control the creature with only a halter? She had to try.
She led the animal to a log and jumped onto his back. With effort she managed to get her head and shoulders over his withers. The beast walked after his comrade as she struggled to her throw her leg over the horse’s rump.
Seated at last on the horse’s bare back, she raised her chin high and gripped the halter lead.
“I’ll not be left alone again.”