It seems as if everyone needs something from Katherine Pratt, first her myriad of brothers and sisters, and now her reclusive, elderly aunt with whom she lives and cares for. The injured man who knocks on her door one cold, dark evening before Christmas is no exception. Except what first looks to be more work for Katherine, turns out to be blessing as this stranger gives more to Katherine than she expects.
A cozy short story with a hint of romance and a dose of Christmas spirit.
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It was said that Clementine Pratt drank an entire pot of coffee with each meal, and that the liquid bitterness filtered out of her person in a fountain of angry words to anyone who dared trespass on her land. And if words weren’t enough to frighten others away, she’d sic the dogs. All ten of them.
Joshua Morrison had no time to ruminate on hearsay. He gripped his thigh where the axe had grazed, hoping that the thin strip of flannel he’d cinched had staunched the flow of blood. He’d have to take the risk. God willing, Clementine Pratt possessed at least one hospitable hair on her gray head, or that she’d run out of coffee and the dogs were ill. He could put pressure on his leg. That should be a good sign his expedition into the forest for the perfect Christmas tree hadn’t cost him an entire appendage.
It would certainly cost him his reputation as the fiercest lumberjack in town, and it might even give his father, the esteemed and overbearing owner of Morrison & Sons Lumber, an excuse to revisit the topic of Joshua’s future. Though he’d welcome the challenge and responsibility of operation oversight, he’d worked hard to avoid the status and wealth that had ensnared his father and mother. Cropped pants and an axe suited him better than a suit, an office, and, least of all, opportunities to influence the territorial legislature.
At least the life of a lumberjack had suited better until tonight when an owl had flown low across his line of vision, interrupting his chopping of the perfect Christmas tree. His hands had slipped, the axe finding flesh, not trunk. Spooked by his bellow, his mare had thrashed into the woods and back toward camp.
No. Tonight, the cropped pants and axe hadn’t suited him well.
What would suit him after the New Year remained to be seen. Act like the heir, receive the benefits of the heir. Act like an employee . . . Joshua put a tourniquet on the memory of his father’s words. The family’s Thanksgiving discussion wasn’t worth reviewing. He had ten days left to make his decision.
A streak of pain shot through his leg as he stumbled on a rock. His gloveless hands tingled with the onset of numbness, and the December darkness devoured any thought of toughing through several miles down the path into town. Limping along the forested ridge, he angled north, toward the infamous Pratt land, and after five minutes of teeth-gritting pain, he reached the cabin.
Any moment the dogs would bark, break from the shadows, and chomp into his other leg. He breathed the damp, woodsy air and studied the solo light in the front window. In the stillness of night, he sensed no sign of dogs. His leg had begun to throb. He needed to lie down and stitch the gash before infection had a chance to set in.
He paused in front of the door and glanced at his wounded leg, one last round of doubt churning his thoughts. Maybe he should try for town rather than test the rumors of Mrs. Pratt’s legendary lack of hospitality. But his family wasn’t expecting him until Christmas, and he’d no guarantee that his mare would go straight back to camp, thus alerting others of his mishap. If he passed out, he’d die from blood loss or exposure.
Sharp pain quivered from his thigh to his ankle. Truly there was no choice but for him to raise his fist and knock. He was six feet four inches tall and two hundred pounds. He felled cedars the size of buildings, of which one part of one branch weighed more than Mrs. Clementine Pratt. Surely he could manage the shenanigans of an old woman. He knocked, confidence burgeoning.
The door opened a crack, and a shotgun muzzle pushed through.
He flinched and showed his empty hands. “I need help.”
No response, and the gun didn’t move.
Joshua strained to hear dogs, but the smell of cinnamon sneaking through the door usurped his other senses. Warmth. Food. If he pushed himself inside, would a crotchety old woman really shoot him?
“Please. I’m injured. My axe slipped.”
A sharp intake of breath, and then the door was thrown wide. He blinked from the light. A woman with a round young face reached out and yanked him forward. Scowling, she flipped her dark brown braid over her shoulder.
One could not rely on rumors. “Mrs. Pratt?”
“Shh.” The woman smirked. Her eyes connected with his then traveled down, looking him over. She gasped and stepped back, one hand covering her mouth.
Surely a graze wasn’t bad enough to merit such a horrified expression. He glanced at his thigh and a swell of nausea rocked him. Blood had seeped around his pant leg from the waist down to his knee.
“I nicked myself.” He smiled, wanting to appear friendly and not in any way a threat. He half expected dogs to rush the room.
“You call that a nick?” she whispered.
It wasn’t as if he’d chopped halfway through his leg. No bone was visible.
Her gaze flitted around the room as she brought her hand to her head and clutched at her hair. She bled nervousness like he bled . . . well, blood.
“If I could just rest for a bit to gain strength—”
“Katherine?” A starchy voice yelled from another room.
Panic swam in her brown eyes.
“Coming.” She opened the door and shoved him backward with a strength more suited to one of the jacks he worked with and not the gentle form before him.
He stumbled on his weak leg and reached for the doorjamb. “Please.”
She hushed him with two fingers to his lips and a glare that could scare any infection trying to seize an opportunity to set in. “One moment. Or do you want to face my aunt?”
So she wasn’t turning him out—for good. He stepped over the threshold into the frigid night, and the door shut with a soft click. His last sight was those beautiful eyes staring back. Beautiful in their own right, or because this Katherine woman represented the help he needed? It didn’t matter. Leaning his forehead against the wood, he prayed she would hurry.
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