A SEASON OF THE HEART with the Novella THE CHRISTMAS GIFTS

A Season of the HeartWhen Sergeant James Fielder arrives with a baby on his sled, he turns to Maggie Greerson for help. This special interlude allows Maggie to fulfill her secret dream of having a child – and explore the attraction that has always drawn her to James…

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Excerpt from THE CHRISTMAS GIFTS

Copyright © Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

British Columbia, December 19, 1887

Even from a distance too far to see his face, Maggie Greerson knew who he was. She recognized the swivel of the broad shoulders beneath the ten-pound, buffalo-fur coat, and the sheer strength of him as he gripped the lines of his husky dogs and urged the dogsled team to go faster. It figured he’d be out in a storm when everyone else in the town of Goldstrike was waiting for it to subside. He thrived on danger and sought solitude while Maggie did everything she could to avoid it.

“Look at that.” Maggie’s nine-year-old niece, Rebecca, pointed out the window of Maggie’s store, The Spice Shop. She stood on a wooden crate beside Maggie, peeling orange rinds for the citron basket. “It’s Saint Nicholas from the North Pole. He’s bringin’ Christmas gifts.”

“No, darling, it’s much too early for Saint Nicholas.”

It was near closing time and Maggie rushed to finish. Up until this point, it had been a wonderfully busy day. So busy that Maggie hadn’t had a chance to stop and think about what was missing in her life. But sooner or later, this time of year always brought out those sentiments.

Behind them, Maggie’s two sisters, their mother, and five other nieces and nephews were rehearsing for Maggie’s busiest day of the year—December twenty-fourth. The children were softly laughing and singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Maggie was looking forward to the twenty-fourth, when she’d have carolers in her store and mulled wine for the shoppers. They’d all pitch in to make charity boxes filled with food and firewood for the poorer families in the valley. Maggie was proud that her store was a neighborhood gathering place, packed with flavorings from the Orient, a place for women to exchange recipes and try her version of plum pudding.

Maggie hummed along to the children’s voices. Surrounded by customers, and the fragrance of cinnamon sticks she was arranging at the front windows, she peered into the snowstorm. Red-velvet ribbons dangled off the curtains, framing her view. Ice, a quarter-inch thick, glazed the bottom lip of the windowpanes while a crackling fire kept everyone warm.

At first he appeared as a distant blur on the windswept horizon. Moving along the east bank of the Kootenay River, cradled by the jagged Rocky Mountains, he was a lone man racing behind his dogsled team.

James Fielder of the North-West Mounted Police.

Maggie often saw him dashing across the countryside. Now, as the team plodded closer and he loomed larger, she could see him pressing a gloved hand beneath a bulge in his fur coat. What was he carrying?

He’d probably been ice fishing, or checking his traps, or a dozen other reckless things that could have waited. And soon it would be dark. Already, the sun was sinking behind the  western ridge, and long blue shadows crossed the snow.

Maggie tapped affectionately at one of Rebecca’s blond pigtails and tried to get into the spirit of ten lords a-leaping. “That’s Sergeant Fielder,” Maggie explained.

“I guess he’s going to the fort.”

“That’s likely right.”

The Spice Shop sat on the outskirts of town, sandwiched between the bootmaker and tinsmith shops, facing an open field with a good view of the athletic Mountie. Although the gold rush of twenty years ago had long since dried up, the town of Goldstrike remained a vital link for the lumber camps and coal mines farther north.

It would take several more minutes for James to pass Goldstrike on his way to Fort Steele, which was located a mile south in the smaller town of Galbraith’s Ferry. Because it was difficult to watch him without thinking about the past, Maggie went back to rearranging cinnamon sticks. Then she wiped her hands on her apron and shook the bowl of orange peels.

“Rebecca, you did a wonderful job with this orange peel. Would you please help your mother at the till, wrapping the packages, while I measure peppercorns for the schoolteacher?”

As slender as a stalk of growing corn, Rebecca gave her a wide smile and tore off while James barged back into Maggie’s thoughts. Five years ago on an afternoon as windy and stormy as this, he had laughingly sung her this very song, and then unexpectedly at five gold rings and four calling birds, he’d lowered his face and brushed his lips across hers.

It had lasted right through to the partridge in the pear tree.

But at that time she had been engaged to another man, and James had quickly backed off.

He’d enlisted with the Mounties and trained in Edmonton, returning only recently to serve in the temporary outpost of Fort Steele. The fort had been set up by the Mounties from Alberta district to peacefully settle tensions between white settlers and a band of Indians, which they’d accomplished. The company of roughly eighty men would likely return to Alberta in the coming year because British Columbia had set up their own police force. She wondered where James would go.

He had a nice singing voice, she recalled.

She tingled at the recollection of his kiss. Swallowing firmly, she slowly raised her chin to glance outside. She still couldn’t see his face but knew in these past five years, his looks hadn’t changed much. He was still as dark from the wind and sun, his black hair as thick as it had ever been, his jaw as resolute. He looked taller as he raced along the snow, but it was maybe because of his big boots and his massive proportion to the dogsled.

With a clap to her apron, Maggie walked behind the counter.

“Are you sure you should be letting the little one handle the vegetable peeler, Maggie? It’s sharp.” The schoolteacher, Mr. Furlow, adjusted his peak cap over his gray hair and watched Maggie scoop peppercorns into a burlap sack.

“Absolutely.” The pepper smelled sharp in Maggie’s nostrils. “Rebecca’s been handling it for a year now. Last year, she was cooking over that fire to help me fill my applesauce orders, and the year before, she could handle a knife to chop walnuts. You know she’s been with me for the whole three years, and I don’t know what I’d do without my little nugget.”

“But the child…”

“Yes?”

“She’s flourished with you here, Maggie. That’s all I meant to say. Merry Christmas to you all.”

The gentle words of praise brought a flush of comfort to Maggie. Mr. Furlow tipped his hat and paid at the other counter where Maggie’s mother served him. Every year for the busy month of December, Maggie hired her family to help in the store. She loved their company and they loved helping. She smiled as her oldest sister, Tamara—Rebecca’s mother—held up a kissing ball.

It was made with two barrel hoops looped one inside the other and covered with evergreen branches and mistletoe. Tamara had been in charge of mistletoe at dances and get-togethers ever since Maggie could remember, and she was assembling this one for the twenty-fourth. They’d hang it in the corner near the fire, above the mulled wine. It always caused laughter and excitement in the store, from adolescents to grandparents.

Tamara was also seven months along, her skin as smooth as a ripe plum. Maggie’s other sister, Anna, graceful and the tallest of the three as she weighed coffee beans for the banker’s wife, was only three months along. If you looked real close, you could tell her waist was getting thicker.

Maggie’s heart trembled. The whole world was full of children, but she and Sheldon hadn’t been married long enough to have any.

She turned to the wall and lit two lanterns. Still, she thought, pushing back the blond hair that had fallen loose from her braid, that was no reason to settle for just any other man to replace him, despite her sisters’ thrusting. No-settling Maggie had become her nickname in the family.

Maybe Maggie didn’t have children of her own, but she had her sisters’ little ones to love. Rebecca was Maggie’s best companion and permanent store helper. The soft-spoken girl had a knack for cooking and flavoring foods. She was dexterous with her hands and precise in her measuring, and such a happy girl.

Walking toward the door, Maggie fingered the loose threads of her skirt pocket. She wondered what had gotten into her this week. Perhaps the Christmas carols were making her reminisce.

“Fare well through the blizzard, Mr. Furlow.” She opened the door a crack and was nearly propelled backward by the onslaught of wind. She braced her shoulder to the door.

“Who on earth is that?” Mr. Furlow wrapped his woolen scarf around his hat and throat. “Sergeant Fielder?”

“I-I think so.” Maggie heard the huskies barking softly in the distance.

“I wonder what he’s got under his coat. He keeps checking on it.” Mr. Furlow left and she closed the door, but other customers had heard his comments and rushed to the windows.

“Look. He just passed the cutoff for the fort, which means he’s heading this way instead,” someone said.

Maggie let out a rush of warm breath. She slid to the window to watch, peering over the shorter heads into the purple shadows of nightfall.

James was a hundred yards away in the fields. His huskies, ranging in color from pure white to gray and speckled, pulled the sled across an icy patch. He was moving very slowly, as if exhausted.

What could he possibly want in her store? He had all the food he needed at the fort and never bought from her. The last time they’d spoken had been three months ago when they’d accidentally come across each other on the boardwalk. He had softly offered condolences on her husband’s unexpected death three years earlier. The complete kidney failure had come suddenly, Maggie had told him, although she’d known it was coming for a year. How could that be? It had been unexpected, yet she knew it was coming.

Maggie straightened the button on her lace blouse. “Sergeant Fielder’s probably headed to the tinsmith next door.”

“Maybe he needs something for his sled,” offered one of the boys.

“But what’s he got under his fur coat?” asked another child.

“Maybe he caught a fish.”

“He wouldn’t be carryin’ it under his coat.”

Their mother, Anna, spoke up. “Come along, it’s five o’clock, children, time to go. Supper needs to be prepared.” Anna rushed the children to the back hall to don their coats and hats. Their grandmother, permanently bent at the waist with old age, but still energetic enough to help the littlest ones, hushed their complaints.

Maggie hugged her mother goodbye. “Careful on the ice.”

“I’ll hold on to Anna,” said her mother. They slipped out the back door as Maggie watched. Their mother had been living with Anna, her husband and three children for over ten years now, ever since their father had passed on, and thankfully didn’t have far to travel in this weather because they lived across the street.

Maggie whirled around to watch the others. Tamara’s two youngest boys raced to Maggie, chasing around her long navy skirt. She laughed, trapped them both and kissed them. “Stay out of trouble.”

Maggie gave away handfuls of sweet raisins to the children as her older sister’s husband, Cliff, appeared at the back door. They had a bit farther to walk than her other sister—two blocks and over to get to their home.

“Will you be all right without our help for the next hour?” Tamara tugged her coat over her large belly.

“I’ll be fine with the last few customers. The storm has slowed the shoppers.”

An elderly couple, inspecting candles on display, glanced up and nodded from across the room.

“Cliff, I feel much safer now that you’ve arrived.” Maggie adjusted the little girl’s bonnet then wiped another child’s nose. “Please hold on to my sister tightly. We don’t want her to fall.”

Cliff smiled beneath his damp Stetson. “Don’t worry, I won’t let her go. And if the weather’s like this tomorrow, I’ll insist she stay home with me.”

“Thank you.”

They were about to leave, when the front door burst open. The bell above the door jingled rapidly.

With a kick to her heart just as rapid, Maggie wheeled around. There he stood. James Fielder.

Something was terribly wrong. Black soot stained his face. He hadn’t shaved for days. Blazes, he looked as if he hadn’t eaten. His lips were parched. The edges of his coat were streaked with dirt and ashes. And the storm had wet everything, including his fur hat, giving everything a muddy appearance.

Clawing at his coat to undo it, he quickly glanced around. He dominated the room with his massive coat, dark looks and probing brown eyes. His husky voice came in rapid fire. “I didn’t know where else to come. The fort’s so far and I don’t know if the doctor’s in. Your shop’s always full of women and children and I thought you’d…you’d know what to do.”

Stricken with fear, Maggie stepped forward. “What is it?”

(…continued…)

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