Humiliated after her broken engagement, Claire Montgomery flees her comfortable life in San Francisco for a teaching position in Pine Creek, Washington, a dot of a town nestled in the rugged Cascade Mountains. She’s determined to succeed—for once in her life—only to discover, upon her arrival, that success will have to be won. Thanks to a school board error, two teachers have been hired.
When scandal forces professor Barrett Clarke from his position, he returns to Pine Creek where his uncle, chairman of the school board, sets forth an irresistible offer: teach one year in return for ranchland. For this would-be rancher, nothing is more tempting than resurrecting his childhood dream, and nothing can deter him from earning that land.
Except perhaps Claire Montgomery. Losing the battle for the classroom means losing the ranchland, but winning may mean losing Claire’s heart.
With large doses of humor and romantic tension, this Christian historical love story offers a picture of grace, forgiveness, and finding true worth.
“Sondra Kraak’s delightful debut novel One Plus One Equals Trouble is the kind of math I can do. One flirty smoldering hero. One uptight but sincere heroine. A whole lot of fantastic electricity between the two. A bit of humor. And nudges of faith that will wrap you up in a quilt of truth. The result? A new favorite book, series, and author for me! If you enjoy reading Melissa Jagears, Regina Jennings, and/or Karen Witemeyer, you will really enjoy this book as well.”
Reviewer Carrie Schmidt, “Meez Carrie”
“I settled in for this story and just had to keep reading! Kraak skillfully blends her beautiful, lyrical style with her humorous wit and masterfully creates a story that is at once easy to read and yet full of depth—a rare combination.”
Author Jennifer Rodewald
“I am a big fan of seeing broken people become beautiful people, and Mrs Kraak did a great job of showing the heroine’s brokenness and the sweet perseverance of the hero to mend all of that brokenness into something beautiful. His tender (yet faithful) pursuit, indomitable spirit, and adorable humor, couldn’t help but bend the strongest will into a malleable romance – and such is what we have here. A sweet, funny, gentle romance that reminds us of the greater romance in Christ’s unyielding love.”
Author Pepper Basham
The Meeting . . .
Pine Creek, Washington, 1891
Killing Edward Stevens was beyond her proper ways. So instead, Claire Montgomery made tea. Even if she wanted to kill him, which she didn’t—not entirely—he was two states away, and she was here, stuck in a sparsely furnished cabin with a drafty window and a roof that moaned with the slightest wind.
Here should have been Seattle. The advertisement she’d answered in San Francisco had promised teaching positions near the city, but three weeks after her arrival, plans had shifted. The other six teachers who’d been hired with her were placed near Seattle, but Claire had been ushered over the mountains and dropped into a valley lined with pine trees and dotted with farms. Cows grazed amidst shrubs and wildflowers, and creeks drained into a river.
Oregon sat nearer to Seattle than this patch of rugged country she was expected to call home.
The kettle whistled, and she tiptoed across the floor, avoiding the divot that would tear her slipper if she snagged the fragmented wood. She snatched a rag and grabbed the handle, careful to keep her silk robe from rubbing the sooty edge of the stovetop. In the three days she’d been in Pine Creek, she’d had to adjust to more than the peaks towering over the valley. Making tea and cooking were as new as her surroundings.
A current of chilly air snuck through the crack at the bottom of the door, making her want to crawl beneath her covers and forget the events that had led her from her comfortable lifestyle to this wild reality.
No such blessed luck.
Steam heated her face as she poured water into the one item of luxury she’d lugged with her, the Baily, Banks, & Biddle coin silver teapot. Streaks of light slipped between the lacy curtains she’d hung yesterday and cast a soft morning glow on the grainy wood surface of the table. She drummed her fingers, waiting for the leaves to steep. Her list of things to do before school began on Monday taunted her with its length and scope. She’d get organized as soon as she’d downed a cup of the spicy black brew.
She peeked inside at the darkening tea. Good enough for her.
Using a slow and steady hand as Mrs. Vess, her finishing school instructor, had taught, she poured the burning liquid. A shadow flashed across the table, accompanied by the sound of boots crunching stone. She jerked, and drops of tea splashed her knuckles. With a hiss, she righted the teapot and reached for a towel. Her gaze darted to the window, but she saw nothing but woodsy landscape that hinted at fall and the road leading into town.
The clock read seven twenty-eight. Too early to be about, as far as city life went. Another reminder that she was no longer home. She padded to the window and tugged aside the curtain. Sunshine drew out the brilliance of the red schoolhouse, her new place of employment and the pinnacle of her new life—which, God help her, would be successful. She needed achievement in some area of life, for once.
Seeing no one, she let go of the curtain and willed her jumpy heart to settle. But as it fell into place, she glimpsed a figure at the top of the schoolhouse steps. She snatched the curtain back. A man leaned over the porch railing, trying to see inside one of the front windows flanking the door.
A gasp wedged in her throat. It couldn’t be.
She’d left Edward in San Francisco looking penitent, or as penitent as a man could with another woman hanging on his arm. Claire’s stomach twisted at the image of that other woman, an image so like her own. Apparently, twin sisters were supposed to share everything.
Clenching the ruffled edges of her robe, she turned and steadied her breath. Had he come to make amends, followed her to confess a change of heart? Not a chance. She snatched her blue shawl from the hook and threw open the door. The breeze tousled her hair as she fixed the lightweight material around her shoulders. She shouldn’t confront her former fiancé in her robe, and yet so much that shouldn’t have happened already had.
Her steps hastened even as she tried to pray, but praying was as much a thing of the past as Edward. Though at the moment, it was her present he was invading, threatening her chance at a new life.
She stopped before the schoolhouse steps. He was rubbing grime from the bottom of the window and moving his head to and fro as if trying to see beyond the smudged glass. “How nice of you to come a thousand miles to clean the windows.”
Edward’s arm jerked. He turned.
Except it wasn’t Edward.
She forced a breath past her shocked heart. Bitterness had emptied all common sense from her. Edward wouldn’t come after her. “I . . .”
“Barrett Clarke.” He walked down the steps with his hand extended.
She couldn’t tear her eyes from his face, a face with features so relaxed and different than Edward’s austere, businesslike appearance that she felt every bit a dunce for making such a mistake.
He frowned, and she shut her mouth, swallowing against a dry throat.
“I’m sorry I surprised you.”
She was the one who should apologize, but her foolishness had stolen her words away. She thrust out her hand and accepted his peace offering. Her shake was weak compared to his firm, rough grasp. Another difference from Edward, whose hands were smooth and delicate.
“I hope I didn’t disturb you,” he said, eyes darting over her appearance but quickly returning to meet hers.
Their pale blue reminded her of the bay outside her window. But the bay couldn’t smile, not like these eyes that turned up at the edges as they searched her face. He crossed his muscular forearms over his chest.
Say something. “I look a mess.” Not that.
She shook her gaze from his spell and hugged herself, warding off not only the cool, but the sea of embarrassment that sought to drown her. She’d done only a handful of impulsive things in her life, but standing in front of a stranger with lace nightgown poking from beneath her robe after mistaking him for her former fiancé—that was the most foolish.
So much for not failing.
2. The Sparring
The first walk home, Claire’s point of view
She eyed Barrett from the side. “Seems like teaching at a schoolhouse would be beyond the skills of a university professor.”
He kicked a rock. It bounced across the road, scaring off a rabbit.
She sensed his frustration and couldn’t help but push more. “What is it about teaching children their sums that would make you leave behind philosophy, literature, and history?”
A short bark of laughter burst from him. “First, why do you assume I taught those subjects? And second, do you plan to teach nothing more than numbers and letters to the children?”
“Of course not. I only thought that since you worked in higher education, you might find returning to the basics rather boring.”
Barrett stopped walking, and they stood like opposing armies, toe to toe and eye to eye, except she had to tip her head to look up at him. She studied the stubble on his firm jaw before forcing her eyes to meet his.
“The basics are never boring.” He plucked a berry from a shrub and held it up. “The Juniper berry is actually a female seed cone.”
Huh? His abrupt change of subject dazed her. He cupped her hand with his rough palm, and she tensed. The men she had grown up knowing, Edward included, had manicured hands kept soft by their avoidance of physical labor. Those running her family’s shipping office had servants to chop their firewood. But whatever she may think of Barrett, the professor, she couldn’t label him an office man, not after seeing him hammering that step, and certainly not with his calloused hand beneath hers.
She let him pry her fingers open, ignoring the nervousness that made them tremble.
He dropped the dark blue berry into her palm. “These berries take several years to fully ripen. Did you know that?”
She shook her head.
“They’re used in Scandinavian countries as flavorings. We don’t cook with them much here, but I know some natives who make ointment from them.”
“And your point?”
His eyes gleamed, his charm once again on display, and he dropped his voice to a whisper. “I don’t have one.”
A shiver chased up her spine. Oh, he had a point, and it was to prick her for reducing primary education to the basics when a world full of knowledge waited to be explored. “I get it. Knowledge is plentiful, and basic is a relative term.”
He shrugged and returned his hands to his pockets. She tried to disregard how such a simple action underscored his broad shoulders. They were battling here, and admiring the physical qualities of the enemy was not good strategy.
“We all have plenty to learn at any age,” he said.
“Tell me more, wise one.”
He stepped closer.
She dropped the juniper berry.
“Swiss scientist Friedrich Miescher discovered a molecule called nuclein. Scientists think it will be important for future studies on cell makeup.”
Her breath caught. She’d have never remembered Miescher’s name even though she’d read an article on his discovery two months ago. Her mind raced for an interesting fact to counter his. “Female lions are better hunters than male lions.”
“You’ve been reading about Dr. Livingstone.” He raised his brows. “I presume?”
Naturally if he knew about an obscure European scientist he’d know about Livingstone. She grinned, finding herself drawn into this unexpected sparring. “Fascinating, wasn’t he?”
“Truly, he was, but do you know what else is fascinating?” He crossed his arms, shirt pulling taut.
Did he have to look good in any position? She crossed her arms in like manner—to show him she could meet him wit for wit, fact for fact, though she wasn’t sure she could. That too familiar sense of failure snagged her conscience.
“Female black widows eat their males after mating.”
She shivered. “That’s disgusting—and strange.”
He laughed. “That’s a female for you.”
She plucked a handful of berries from the bush and threw them at him. What was she, ten again?
“You’d better stop throwing things, or I’ll start to think of you as one of my students.”
“You’re that bad of a teacher?”
His expression sobered, almost became a glower. That look didn’t fit the easygoing nature she’d sensed in him. He shouldn’t tease if he couldn’t handle being teased.
After another moment, his features softened, and he started forward again. “What about you, Miss Montgomery? A woman doesn’t leave her pampered life and move to the backwoods without reason.”
Pampered life. Like he’d had it so hard. Surely he’d received an extensive education. A man didn’t graduate from a country schoolhouse and begin teaching at a university, especially when careers in education ran in his family.
When she didn’t offer an explanation, he continued. “Nope. A woman doesn’t do that. Unless she’s hiding something.”
Her stomach heaved as she struggled to keep up with him. “You hardly know me, so in that case, there’s a lot hidden.”
“Well said. Nevertheless . . .” He raised a brow, waiting.
“The simple truth?”
“No. The complex truth. As complex as Euclidian geometry.”
Against her will, she smiled. He was too easy to talk with. “I can’t divulge too much to the enemy, can I?”
He went from a broad stride to a stop so quickly that she searched the landscape for an animal, dreading the sight of a bear. Viola had said there’d be bears. Nothing seemed askew in the shadow-heavy bushes. Her eyes circled back to his. An intensity she’d yet to see in their short acquaintance outlined his expression.
“I’m not the enemy, Claire.”
He spoke her name softly, with the same hushed tone one might use when calling to a bird and trying to get an answer. She wasn’t a bird, and she wouldn’t be lured into the meadow to sing. “We want the same job, and only one of us can have it. So you kind of are my enemy.” And she’d remind herself of that every day if necessary, which, if he continued to show so much wit and charm, it would be.
“I’m sorry it happened this way, but I want this job. I’ll do my best to show the school board I’m what they want.” He peered at her, the steadiness of his gaze unnerving. “It’s nothing personal. We can still be friends.”
No, they couldn’t. The lightheartedness that had crept into her as they’d bantered and walked together slunk into the growing darkness. “I guess that means we’re in a standoff.”
“This can’t get in the way of the children’s education.”
“Naturally.” Did he think her that unprofessional? She breathed out long and slow.
He’d said that already.
“If you’re truly sorry, why are you trying to take my job?” she asked.
“I need this.”
Those quiet words suggested a determination as rigid as hers. She whirled around and stalked off. What was he doing walking with her anyway? Didn’t he live with his uncle?
“Juniper,” he said.
Juniper? She didn’t want to know, didn’t turn around, and didn’t slow, not until she was inside her cabin, where she sunk against the closed door and let the tears fall. She’d spent her entire life competing against Viola and coming in second place. She didn’t want more striving, more hours of lying awake at night wondering if she had a chance.
Failure had not only chased her from San Francisco. It now threatened to upend her world again.
3. The Denying
On the way back from visiting a family, Barrett’s point of view
It took only a minute for him to catch her. Sticks snapped and rocks slid as she scrambled up the hillside on all fours. It wasn’t that steep. Standards must be different for city girls. “This knoll giving you problems?”
She whirled around so fast she lost her balance and sat down hard on her rump.
He told himself not to laugh. The laughter slipped out anyway. He’d whitewash the outhouse to see that look of surprise on her face again. Her hair had loosened from its coil, strands resting on her shoulders. She was a beautiful mess with her red cheeks and eyes that spit fire at him.
“This is more than a knoll.” She struggled to rise, slipped and sat down hard again. Groaning, she gripped her skirts, regained her footing, and continued up the incline. “Don’t bother to help.”
He’d test how much she really wanted his help. He moved George beside her and offered a hand. “Climb on.”
Without looking at him, she shook her head. “Walking is good exercise. It allows me space to think.”
That’s what he thought. Stubborn. Self-sufficient. “How about space to breathe, or is that unnecessary?”
She grunted, a sound so unladylike his grin shot up the sides of his face. Space between them was a good idea. He’d lost his mind offering to let her nestle in the saddle in front of him. They had enough issues with closeness in the schoolhouse. No need to encourage more.
She’d be too proper to accept, anyway. Not that sharing a ride was improper. Not out here where priorities shifted from maintaining decorum to being neighborly.
Claire slipped, reached for a branch, and cried out as her hand slid along a spindly limb.
“You all right?”
She paused, drew in a deep breath, and wiped her brow.
Yeah, she was fine, besides the scowl the size of Washington that settled on her face.
“I’ll take that ride.”
His heart stumbled. He’d have to dig deep for the ability to remain unscathed by her leaning against him.
Who was he kidding? She scathed him in every way. He’d have about as much hope to remain unaffected by her nearness as the sun would have of hanging in the sky longer.
Sunshine. Evening. He frowned. Darkness was coming. Professionalism would be broken, not by riding together on a horse, but by lollygagging with her over this ridge until nightfall. A moonlit stroll with the competing teacher wouldn’t go over well with Dooley and Johnston.
He offered his hand again, but she only stared at it.
“I’ve never done this.”
Swung up on a horse? “They do have horses in the city, don’t they?”
“Ten times as many as they have manners in the country.” She smiled, a proud glint in her eyes.
He was proud for her. “Good response.” He slid down, gripped the reins in his left hand to steady George, and placed his other hand on her back as she attempted to pull herself up. She took a good ten seconds settling her foot in the stirrup before hoisting herself up. Her legs dangled down on one side. A pathetic attempt, and all too endearing. Rolling his eyes, he grabbed hold of her ankle and tossed her leg over, a flurry of skirts tousling around. Before she could protest, he mounted behind her.
She sat in the middle of the saddle, pushing him half off the back. Without caring about what was proper—he’d just touched her ankle, hadn’t he?—he positioned his hands on her waist and shoved her forward. Though he’d be sitting on her skirts, he inched further into the saddle.
She made that unladylike sound again, sort of like a growling sigh.
“Is that some type of code word in San Francisco?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“That growling noise you make when you’re exasperated.”
“How do you know I’m exasperated?”
The sound, for one. Also, her quicker breaths, and though he couldn’t see it, he knew the bridge of her nose was pinched and her eyes narrowed. “I can tell.”
“Perhaps you only think you can tell.”
Laughter surged from him. “You’re right. Maybe you’re enamored with me and have been since you frolicked out in your nightclothes.”
Her ears reddened, and he had the urge to flick one. She’d find it amateurish for sure.
“You have one incredible sense of imagination,” she said.
If she knew how that imagination was at work this moment with her inches away, she’d lecture him with her fiercest teacher voice.
Her back remained rigid, which was fine with him. He didn’t need her relaxing into him like he was a plush chair. What he needed was to steer the conversation to something safer. “I thought I said I’d deal with the Jameson issue.”
“I started the discipline, and I wanted to finish it.”
She was ever the responsible person, determined to do right. He admired it but, good heavens, couldn’t she relax?
“Did you sit in the other room and listen to my conversation?”
His arms began to ache from holding the reins away from her body. Letting them settle against her sides wasn’t an option. Actually, it was an excellent option, but not the smartest. “I didn’t know you’d come to talk with Belinda until I saw you leaving.”
She wriggled her shoulders, moving her head side to side. “I hope Jack and Belinda come down strong on Jameson. Taking something that is not yours is abhorrent.”
She was talking about more than Jameson. That Edward fellow again. “They’ll handle it.”
“Your nieces and nephews have burst from their quiet, well-behaved shells this week to join in the mischief. I’ve never seen a class so rowdy.”
“Weather’s changing. Children rise early, do chores, come to school, go home and do more chores. It’s a busy time, and I think that shows in the classroom with their lack of focus.”
Claire murmured something under her breath and arched her back.
“Are you doing all right?”
She reached her hand behind her, trying to scratch somewhere near her shoulder blades.
He scratched roughly up and down her back, shutting his senses off to her softness. Or trying to shut them off. One point for desire, zero for professionalism.
“Enough.” She waved her hand behind her back, swatting at him.
Her fingers were scraped, and in several places he saw dried blood. He brushed her fingers with his.
She froze. “What are you doing?”
“Looking at your hand. What happened?”
She pulled her hand back to her front. “I used my hands as a brake on the way down, grabbing limbs and such. Would you believe it if I said I had fun?”
He laughed. “Yes. I’ve seen glimpses of your fun side. I’m waiting for the day it bursts forth in my presence.”
She snorted. “Keep waiting.”
He would. Thoughts of her had started to challenge all other thoughts, ranching included.
They reached the top of the mountain, and he led George around stumps, over needles and cones, and to the wagon path down the other side. His horse swayed side-to-side with each step downhill. Claire groaned and sank into him, clearly not enjoying the view of the descent. He angled his head around and saw her eyes closed. He nudged her in the back. “Look at the sunset.”
She brought her head up, a small sound of delight letting him know she’d opened her eyes. “My bedroom window faced west. I could watch the sun sink and at the same time view the shipping yards my father owns. Two sorts of beauty, I suppose. The one natural, the other economic.”
Barrett realized he’d relaxed his arms, which were now resting around her, his fingers loose on the reins. A third kind of beauty sat in his arms. Strange that he considered her such, not that her physical beauty had ever gone unnoticed. She had that sweet, womanly appeal with enough allure to make a man look twice but a contrasting innocence that made a man want to treat her right, which suddenly he wasn’t sure he was doing.
Strange that he’d find a woman of her prim and proper disposition so attractive. He admired her diligence and hard work, for sure, but he never imagined himself falling for formal.
But who said anything about falling? The only things falling in Pine Creek were the temperature and the sun. Claire shivered, and he tightened his arms around her. She leaned into him.
He was definitely not thinking of falling.
4. The Falling
After a particularly trying afternoon with students, Barrett’s point of view
Claire joined them midway through Peter’s report on foxes and took her place at the back of the room. Barrett held her gaze until she looked away. At least there was no sign she’d been crying. She was tough like that. If she could handle the shenanigans of thirty-four students, she could handle ranch life.
When school ended, the children cleared out quicker than usual. Claire huddled near the wood stove and stared out the window.
He walked over by her. “You warm yet?”
“I’m fine.” She tried to tuck the same loose strand of hair he’d watched all morning back in her bun. It fell in her face again.
He fingered the smooth-like-velvet lock. She stilled. Trying to remain informal, he secured the piece back where it belonged as if that was something he did every day. He could get used to that. He shoved his hands in his pockets, away from temptation. “You upset with me?”
“No.” Her voice came out breathless. “Why would I be upset with you?”
Because of the intimate gesture with her hair. Or because she saw him as an enemy, a threat to her future. Or even more specific to the afternoon, because he’d been trying so hard not to be distracted by her that he’d left her in an outhouse for twenty minutes. “Because I didn’t notice.”
“Not much new there.” She snatched a pile of books from the desk and stalked toward the back.
She had to be kidding. He noticed enough about her to surprise the sternness right off her face—if he were to tell her. He followed down the aisle. “I’m sorry about today, Claire.”
She stopped, and he rammed into her. Placing his hands on her arms, he turned her, resenting that armload of books that wedged between them. He wanted to toss them aside, along with the more serious issues that kept them apart. Like this job. Like her preoccupation with success and failure. Like the railroad issue he didn’t think she knew about.
“What are you really sorry for, Barrett?”
Afternoon light warmed the blue of her eyes, and he pressed his gaze into hers. He could pause here and snack on those eyes for thirty minutes. Or the rest of his life.
“Do you know how many times you’ve apologized to me since I found you peering in the schoolhouse window with a toolbox at your feet?”
He had only one defense against the urge to kiss her. “You mean when you came out in your nightclothes and called me Edward and asked me to fix the windowsill and help you hang curtains? You’re talking about that time, right? Because I really . . . like . . .” Her. He liked her, and the way she stared at him, eyes widening. “To peer in windows.”
Her mouth twitched. Then she smiled, and he let out a sigh that her light had returned. Her grin broadened, giving way to the sound of her laughter. He could listen to that every day.
Claire. Every day. Those two ideas were coming together fast.