A Texas Christmas Past

 

Whiskey River Christmas, Book 1

Whiskey River Rescue

Death denied Felicity a future with the man she loved, but her spirit lingers in the the Harwood House Hotel hoping to heal broken hearts and help them to find love again….

Widowed World War I nurse Audra Donaldson returns from France planning to devote her life to helping those suffering the lingering effects of war—effects she knows all too well, as she suffers from them herself. When, staying at the Harwood House Inn on a Christmas visit to her brother, she hears a man in the throes of a violent nightmare, she goes to him without question—and is stunned by a physical attraction as strong as her desire to help.

About to embrace the beautiful angel come to save him from the horrors of the battlefield, former soldier Drew Harwood recoils when he realizes Audra is real—and has seen his “weakness.” Brusquely rejecting her offer of help, he intends to avoid her. But more than just her beauty continues to draw him back. Though this compassionate, kind, and giving soul has seen more of war than he has, somehow, talking with her brings him peace–and seems to comfort her, too. If he can just resist acting on the desire she’s ignited in him since his first glimpse of her…

But someone else was watching, too. After tragedy denied Felicity a future with Drew, her dying wish was that he live his life and be happy for them both. To her sorrow, a year later, her former fiancé is still struggling. Deciding Audra is the perfect lady to heal the wounds of her beloved, this determined ghost resolves to bring Drew and Audra together. Who can resist a love that lasts beyond time?

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Excerpt

 

A TEXAS CHRISTMAS PAST

 

 

PROLOGUE

December, 1918

 

After tethering his horse, Drew Harwood limped up the stairs of the Victorian mansion, inhaling the herbal scent of the cedar garlands hung along the handrail.  Reaching the porch, he paused to catch his breath and take it all in.

A golden glow of gaslight emanated from the bow-front windows of the west parlor to the right of the front door, revealing in the room beyond a sparkle of candlelight on the mantel, and in its customary place in the corner, the tall pine Christmas tree.  A bow-bedecked wreath of the same fragrant cedar graced the door itself, and more garlands outlined the railing that circled the wide front porch.

Home.  His heart contracted with joy and gratitude.  How many times, tossing with fever in the narrow cot of that field hospital in France, had he feared he’d never make it back?

Not just to home, but to Felicity.  Mother had written she’d invited his fiancée to stay with the family for his homecoming and the Christmas ball the Harwoods gave every year. 

Though he’d felt compelled to be alone for his first glimpse of Whiskey River since leaving for the war that had changed his life, suddenly he couldn’t wait to see them.

Before he could move, the front door swung open, bringing a rush of warmth and the spicy scent of gingerbread.  “Drew!” his mother cried, running to embrace him.  “What are you doing out here, alone in the dark?  Why didn’t you send word from the train station?  We would have come to fetch you!”

“Sorry, Mama!” he said, hugging her back.  “After three years in France, it’s so wonderful to be back in Texas, and yet so…odd.  I wanted to ride out by myself from the station, to let the reality of it sink in.”

“It’s real, and you’re real, and bless the Lord, home with us at last.  Come in out of the cold!” she said, linking her arm with his to lead him through the front door.  “We’ve been making gingerbread men for the ball.  Ah, here’s Felicity.  Look what the wind blew in, my dear!”

Drew’s breath caught as he gazed over his mother’s shoulder to the petite blond lady walking toward him, joy on her flushed face.  He felt awed and lightheaded, as if he’d drunk too much wine—just as he had the very first time he’d seen her, at that fancy dress ball in Austin.  As his mother stepped away, he held out his arms, and she ran into them.

“Drew, oh Drew, it really is you!” she cried, tears in her eyes as she hugged him.  “Oh, my darling, how I’ve hoped and prayed for this moment!”

As his mother tactfully withdrew, Drew wrapped his arms around Felicity’s slender form, cradling her close to his chest, drinking in the warmth of her and the lavender perfume that emanated from her hair and skin and had scented the letters he’d read over and over.  Holding her was as soothing and healing as her signature scent, and ah, how he’d missed it!

And then he just had to have a kiss.  Drawing her into the deserted east parlor, he tipped her head up and brushed his lips across hers, gently at first, then with increasing passion as the desire consumed him to make her his at last.

Finally, he made himself break the kiss.  “Tell me the wedding is tonight,” he muttered as he leaned his chin on the top of her head, his heartbeat still stampeding.

Laughing, she reached up to stroke his cheek.  “I wish!  But we have to wait until after the ball.  You know your Mama would be disappointed if we married tonight and left on our honeymoon before the Harwood Christmas Ball.  Since your Daddy’s passing, it’s given her something to focus on.”

 “I know.  But with the war, and then being wounded, we’ve waited so long already.”  He captured her fingers and kissed them.  “You’ve been baking cookies, Mama said.  Your hands are still warm from the oven!  And your face.”

“Yes, I do feel warm.  All those gingerbread men baking! Much as I’d like to keep you to myself and kiss you until the preacher calls us to take our vows, I suppose I must share you with the family.  They’re all anxious to see you, too.”

“Very well,” he agreed, offering her his arm and escorting her down the hall toward the family’s private parlor.  “Who else is staying?”

“Your sister and her boys, your aunts and uncles from Austin and San Marcos, your Mama’s cousins from Galveston.  So we’ve a full house until after the ball.  I’ll turn you over to them and go up to dress for dinner.”

“Wear something pretty for me,” he said, bending down to give her another lingering kiss.  “Or nothing at all,” he added in a murmur.

“Devil!” she reproved, her saucy grin at odds with her reproof.  “I may lie down for a bit, too.  The heat in the kitchen gave me a headache.”

“Don’t be away too long.  Or I’ll have to invade the sanctity of your bedchamber and carry you off.”

She sighed.  “I can’t wait until it’s our bedchamber.”

 

As it turned out, he did invade her bedchamber—called there by his mother and sister Eulalie, after Felicity failed to appear back downstairs. “Worn yourself out baking cookies, have you?“ he teased, taking a chair by the bed.

“Sorry,” she muttered, tossing her head on the pillow.  “It’s just…my head aches so.”  She took a wheezing breath.  “And my chest…hurts.”

He captured her restless hand, stilling it—and alarm jolted through him at its scalding touch.  “She’s burning up,” he murmured to his mother.  “You’ve given her willow bark tea, haven’t you?”

“Yes, and a witch hazel cloth to her chest,” she replied.  “It doesn’t seem to be helping.”

He caught the glance that passed between his mother and sister.  “What it is?” he asked sharply.  “What’s wrong?”

His sister looked down at him, tears in her eyes.  “We…we think it might be the Spanish flu.”

Cold dread hollowed the pit of his stomach.  “No, it can’t be!  It’s just some…some stray fever.”  No way could he have survived his injuries, struggled to learn how to walk again, and finally returned home—only to have the woman he loved more than life come down with the disease that had killed millions of people all over the world since its outbreak earlier that year.

“We hope that’s all it is,” his mother soothed.  “Just to be safe, though, we’re quarantining her here.  Eulalie’s sending her boys home, and we’re asking the neighbors to take in the other relatives.  It would be wiser if you went away, too, but we figured you were unlikely to agree to that.”

“Of course not!” he spat back, anger and disbelief fighting with fear.  “I’m staying right here until the fever breaks and she starts feeling better.”

“We sent for Dr. Lanagan.  Though if it’s the flu, there won’t be much he can do,” his sister added softly.

“I’d better have Hilda help ready our guests to go elsewhere,” his mother said.  “Try to get Felicity to drink as much as you can.  I’ll be back soon.” Nodding to Drew, his mother walked quietly out, his sister trailing behind her.

A sense of unreality seized Drew as he sat there, gazing at a lovely face that had flushed even redder and eyes that stared back without seeming to recognize him.

“We’ve gone through so much, waiting to be together,” he whispered, squeezing Felicity’s hot hand.  “We’ll get through this, too, my love.  You’ll see.”

 

But as the night wore on, Felicity’s fever mounted ever higher and her breathing became more ragged and uneven, ending in shuddering coughs.  Drew remained beside her, feeding her sips of water when he could rouse her to taste them, talking to her when he could not.

Though the long night, he told her about the ranch and his plans to bring his army buddy back to help run it, now that his injured leg was too weak for him to handle the heavy work.  How they would breed their herd with stock from “Baron” Kelly’s ranch and create an even better line of cattle.  How they would fill the rooms of his mother’s house with their children, whose shouts and laughter would scour away the sadness of a war that had ruined his leg and taken the life of his younger brother and caused his father to die of grief and overwork.

By the wee hours, he’d given up trying to get Felicity to drink, but he refused to release his hold on her hand or allow anyone to take his place, even though she continued to seem unaware of his presence.

Just before dawn, a pull at his fingers jolted him from an uneasy doze.  Felicity was staring up at him, her fever-glazed eyes open wide, her skin now blue-tinged in the lamplight.

“I’m…so s-sorry,” she wheezed.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” he said, kissing her hand.  “You’re going to get over this, just like I recovered from my injuries.”

“I love you…so much,” she said, obviously struggling to utter the words.  “If you…love me, live your life…and be happy.  For…us.”

“I will be happy,” he whispered back fiercely, tears obscuring his sight.  “We’ll be happy together.  My only darling!”

But he knew she hadn’t heard him.  On a long shuddering sigh, the breath left her and she slipped away.

 

CHAPTER ONE

November, 1919

 

            Blowing on his hands to warm fingers chilled by the early evening wind, Drew Harwood started up the porch stairs of Harwood House, then halted.  Retracing his steps, he headed around to the back entrance. 

Though they hadn’t yet welcomed their first guests since deciding to turn the Victorian structure into a small hotel, he was trying to accustom himself to not using the front entrance.  Especially after having made a visit to the Bar H.

Not that, these days, he returned anything close to as dirty as he used to get when he and his brother Marsden were out working cows.  He felt a double surge of irritation and grief.  For the brother he had lost.  For the strong two legs he’d taken for granted and missed so keenly, now that his injury prevented his wrestling a nearly half-ton calf to the ground, holding it still for the branding iron, or hauling heavy tack and bags of feed, ranch hand activities he’d always loved.

Thank heaven he could still ride.  And that his army buddy Brady Elliott, who’d grown up loving farm life, had agreed to come to Whiskey River and manage the Bar H for him.  Otherwise, he probably would have had to sell the herd and most of the land—abandoning the ranching legacy his grandfather had begun as one of the first settlers in Whiskey River fifty years ago.

He didn’t mind too much turning his childhood home into a gathering place for other people, he thought as he slowly climbed the back stairs.  The injury that made his leg too weak for wrangling cows didn’t prevent him from handling the renovation and maintenance needed to turn Harwood House into an inn, so at least he was able to make some contribution to the family’s welfare.  Besides, with Papa and Marsden gone and his sister married and living in Austin, the place was too big for just himself and Mama. 

Not likely he’d be filling those bedrooms with a wife and children, either.  If he did ever marry—and since losing Felicity, he’d not had the slightest interest in another woman—the recurring nightmares he couldn’t seem to shake would scare off a bride before they ever made it to the business of procreating.

Another reason to be glad of the house’s transition into a hotel.  His mother had turned what had been the family’s private parlor on the ground floor into an office and bedroom for herself, leaving him the sole occupant of second floor.  Since returning from the army, he’d also reclaimed the nursery room he’d shared with Marsden growing up, the most isolated of the bedrooms, where it was unlikely his nightmares could be overheard, even once they had guests in the house.  Still, he was glad his mother slept a whole floor and the opposite side of the house away.

Halting before opening the door, he ran a shaking hand through his hair, the memory of the awful dreams making his stomach twist.  He had to stop thinking about them.  If he pretended they didn’t exist, they would go away—wouldn’t they?  If not…

Taking a steadying breath, he opened the door and walked into the hallway.  Enough whining.  He was a Harwood, whose family had fought in every war since Texas was a frontier.  He’d not let the family down, succumbing to imaginary terrors a real man should be able to banish.

“Drew, is that you?”

His mother’s voice, coming from the direction of the back parlor and sunroom that now served as the family’s private dining and gathering area, pulled him back to the present.  “Yes, Mama.”

“Good!” she said, peeping out into the hall and motioning him to join her.  “Hilda has dinner almost ready.  How cold it’s gotten since the sun went down!  Come in and let me pour you a hot cup of coffee.  Brady will be joining us, too, won’t he?”

“He was right pleased with the invitation,” Drew said as he walked into the parlor and leaned down to give his mother a hug.  “Nothing like living on bunk room chow to make you appreciate a woman’s home cooking, he said.”

“Well, Hilda and I are the best, if I do say so myself,” she replied, pouring him a cup of steaming brew.  “Between her meals and my baked goods, I think our customers are going to be plumb delighted.  I’m so glad you’ve agreed to let me turn the east front parlor into a tearoom.  It will bring in some extra income even when we don’t have guests to stay.”

“I don’t know,” he said, giving her nose a kiss before seating himself at the table where she’d placed his coffee.  “I’m not sure I can stand sharing your gingerbread cookies, iced lemon cakes and buttermilk pies with the whole world.”

“You’ll always get the first taste,” she promised, smiling over at him.  But as her eyes rested on his face, the smile faded.  “Are you sure you aren’t working yourself too hard?  You’ve not that many months out of the hospital.”

“I’m fine, Mama.  And I’ve been out almost a year.” A year next month—at Christmas.  The holiday that had once been his favorite and that he now dreaded as the anniversary of Felicity’s death.

“You look so…tired.  Aren’t you sleeping well?”

“After three years of screaming shells and deafening explosions, it’s awfully hard to sleep in such a quiet house,” he said.  Maybe he could marginalize the demons by turning them into a joke.

“I’m certainly glad you no longer have to deal with artillery barrages and heavy gunfire,” she retorted, not looking reassured.  “Are you sure you’re all right?  We could call Dr. Lanagan, see if there’s something he could give you to help you sleep, since my chamomile potion—“

“I’m fine, Mama,” he interrupted, not wanting to pursue the conversation.  “Don’t fuss.”

A knock sounded at the back door.  The tromp of booted steps was followed by the appearance of Brady Elliott, Drew’s former army buddy and current foreman of the Bar H.  “Not interrupting, am I?” he asked as he entered the room, tipping his hat to Drew’s mother before hanging it on the rack by the door.  “I expect I’m early, but the lure of that home cooked meal was so great, I couldn’t wait any longer.”

“You’re right on time,” his mother assured him.  “Why don’t you join Drew at the table, and I’ll help Hilda bring in the plates.”

 

They had just finished grace and begun on their steaming bowls of Brunswick stew and hot flaky biscuits when the bell they’d installed by the front door pealed. 

“Are we expecting anyone?” Drew asked, looking over at his mother.

“The first guests aren’t due until Christmas week,” his mother confirmed.  “Maybe a neighbor needs something.  That would be the only reason for someone to call at suppertime.”

“I’ll see who it is,” Drew said, waving his mother back to her seat.  “Go ahead, eat.  It would be a crime to let those biscuits get cold.”

Drew limped down the central hallway to the front door, wincing at the pull on his leg.  Stacking those hay bales in the barn probably hadn’t been the best idea.

He hoped he wasn’t about to open the door to a neighbor in need.  These days, by sundown the ache in his leg began to give the night demons a run for their money.  He’d been counting on a quiet, sedentary evening doing nothing more taxing that beating Brady at poker.

            As they hadn’t been expecting company, the gas lamps by the door hadn’t been illuminated, leaving the front porch dim and shadowed.  He opened it—to find a tall woman standing on the porch, a valise by her side.
            “You must be Mr. Harwood,” she said, smiling at him.  Light from the hallway illumined an oval face with a faint dotting of freckles and large eyes that looked up at him inquiringly from under the brim of a cloche hat.

Not a neighbor, for he was certain he’d never met her before.  Whatever had brought her here, he had to admit she had a lovely face.

“My brother has told me so much about you!” she continued when he made no reply. “I’m Audra Donaldson, Brady’s sister.  I’m afraid I’m a bit early, but I was able to get a steamer out of France over to England sooner than expected—and you never know how long those transatlantic crossings will take.  According to my brother, I’m going to be staying at your inn through Christmas.”

            He’d resigned himself to sharing the house with an ever-changing panoply of guests who would stay a few days and then go.  But the idea of having someone claiming space in his house for more than a month was…unsettling.  Why hadn’t his mother—or Brady—warned him?

            Before he could get his dismayed brain to manufacture any words, Brady came running down the hallway.  “Audra!” he cried, sweeping his sister into a hug.  “I thought I heard your voice.  Come in, come in!  How was your trip?  It’s so good to see you.”

            Apparently noting that the inn’s proprietor had made no move to pick up her suitcase or usher her inside, she held back when Brady took her arm.  “It’s wonderful to see you, too, Brady.  Getting back to the land has been as good for you as I hoped it would be!  But I have arrived a week early.  The inn may be full, or Mr. Harwood may not be ready to receive me.”

            The slightly guilty look Brady cast him told Drew that his treacherous friend had deliberately withheld news he suspected Drew might find objectionable. Looking quickly away, Brady took his sister’s arm with one hand and her valise with the other.  “Not at all.  There’s no one else staying now—the inn doesn’t open officially until the week before Christmas—but Mrs. Harwood assured me they were completely ready for guests.”

            Still she hesitated, looking up at Drew.  “Are you sure it wouldn’t be inconvenient, Mr. Harwood?”

            “What, ‘inconvenient’ to house my poor widowed sister, who has no place in the States to call her own after devoting herself for years to tending the wounded in forward dressing stations all over France? Of course it’s not an imposition—is it, Drew?  After all, I can hardly have my sister stay out at the bunkhouse.”

            With a frigid glance that promised Brady there would be retribution later, Drew gave the only response possible.  “Of course, Harwood House is honored to welcome you, Mrs. Donaldson.  Please, do come in.”

            “Have you eaten yet?” Brady asked.  “Mrs. Harwood and her housekeeper Hilda are wonderful cooks.  We just sat down for dinner, and I’m sure they could fix you a plate.”

            “I haven’t eaten, but I don’t want to interrupt your dinner.“

            “Nonsense, you’re not interrupting!” Drew’s mother emerged from the parlor, her face wreathed in smiles.  “I knew I heard a female voice.  From the protective way he’s holding your arm, I’m guessing you are Brady’s sister, Audra?  I’m Dorothy Harwood.  How lovely to welcome our very first guest!”

            “Who’s staying…all the way until Christmas?” Drew said drily.

            “Of course!” his mother replied, showing him a bland face after giving Brady a reassuring wink.  “It’s her first time back in America since going overseas.  Where else should she be for the holidays, but with the only family she has left?  I was so sorry to hear that you’d lost your husband, my dear.  That terrible war!”

            A wave of sadness passed over the woman’s face before she replied.  “Thank you, ma’am.  I understand you lost your younger son, too.”

            “Yes.  Which is why I’m even more grateful my darling Drew was spared.  But whyever are we lingering here in the hallway, when you must be tired and starving!  Please, come join us.  I’ll fetch another plate.”

            “Are you sure, ma’am?  I don’t want to steal someone’s dinner!”

            “It’s nothing fancy, just Brunswick stew and biscuits, but Hilda always makes enough for an army.  We have more than enough to spare.”

            “In that case, ma’am, I’d be pleased to join you.”

            Still irritated that his mother and Brady had conspired to keep him in ignorance that their “temporary” guest would practically be moving in, while his foreman led the new arrival to the parlor, Drew caught his mother’s elbow, retaining her.

            “Do we really have to put up with having someone here a full month?” he asked, his voice lowered to an urgent murmur.  “I thought we were opening a hotel, not a boarding house!”

            “Have some compassion, Drew,” his mother murmured back.  “Brady told me his sister wrote him that she couldn’t face living in the house that belonged to her late husband—he was English, you know—in a town and country where she knew no one, so she sold it while she was still in France.  If I hadn’t agreed to have her stay here, she would have to look for a boarding house. There’s no place suitable near Whiskey River, and with the holidays coming, I couldn’t bear the thought of her all alone somewhere.  You know how precious family is! She ought to be staying by the only kin she has left.”

            He couldn’t argue about that.  In the awful days after Felicity’s death, he didn’t know that he would have survived, had his family not closed ranks around him. 

“Why didn’t you warn me?” he asked, taking another tack.   “Having a stranger live for weeks just down the hall from me…” His voice trailed off.  “I know I agreed with turning the house into a hotel.  I guess I didn’t realize until someone actually arrived how…uncomfortable the reality of it would feel.”

            “I didn’t want to…upset you.  You’ve avoided people and been so abrupt with strangers lately.  You used to be so outgoing and--.  Well, never mind.  I’ll do everything I can to make sure you’re not disturbed.  I’m putting her as far away from the nursery room as possible.” His mother paused.  “In the west front guest room.”

            It took all Drew had not to recoil.  The west front guest room.  The room that would have been his and Felicity’s after their wedding.  The room where he sat through the night, holding her hand until she breathed her last.

            He hadn’t been able to bring himself to enter it since he’d tenderly carried her out of it almost a year ago.

            “It’s redecorated and ready for guests, so there’s nothing you need to do in it,” his mother assured, watching him anxiously.  “Looking out over the garden as it does, it’s our most attractive bedchamber.  It would be a waste of space to leave it forever unoccupied, locked up as some sort of—of permanent shrine.  Felicity wouldn’t have wanted that.”

            His mother was right.  The bright sprite of a girl he’d loved had been all lightness and sunshine.  She would want the room that was to be hers filled with warmth, fresh flowers and laughter. 

Maybe having guests stay there would be the first step in moving on—something he’d not had much success at so far, either in distancing himself from the effects of the war or his fiancée’s untimely death.

Besides, having a single female occupying the space for an extended period meant it would be unnecessary—indeed, improper--for him to enter the room for the foreseeable future.

            “I suppose we can hardly chuck her out on the street with Christmas coming up,” he conceded.  “I hope she’s not expecting us to provide her with company.  I’ve agreed to keep the house repaired and build whatever you need to launch the inn and tea room, but I draw the line at entertaining.”

            “Brady will look after his sister, and I’ll see that she’s included in the events going on about town.  You won’t be bothered by her, I promise, Drew.”

            The memory of that slender body and clear, guileless eyes staring up at him caused an unwelcome stirring of…desire.  Hastily, he squelched it. 

He’d been so determined not to notice how attractive their guest was, he only now realized the implications of that fact that she, rather than some nameless guest, would be occupying a bedroom just a long corridor away from his own.  Agitation—and something hotter—started churning again in his belly. 

He had a sudden, unsettling premonition that Mrs. Audra Donaldson was going to be botheration of the most significant kind.

            Before he could dredge up another reason to object to her presence, his mother said, “You go on in.  I’ll get another plate from the kitchen.”

           

CHAPTER TWO

 

Mrs. Harwood’s “darling Drew” didn’t look nearly as excited as her hostess about having their premature guest join them for dinner, Audra thought as her brother led her into the cheerful parlor decorated in blues and greens. Her nurse’s eye had immediately noticed Harwood’s limp—Brady had written her that his army friend had spent months in the hospital after being badly injured in an artillery barrage.  She also noted the fatigue in his face and the faintly haunted look in his eyes.

            A look she’d seen all too often.  One she sometimes saw reflected in her own mirror.

            If he seemed unwelcoming, she must remember that many former soldiers disliked having strangers around.  He was certainly handsome enough, even without a welcoming smile, she decided, her mind running back over its image of him. Taller than Brady, rather thin, as one might expect after those injuries and a long convalescence, he had an arresting face, with sharp cheekbones and a purposeful chin.  Straight, dark brown hair cut rather long, and quite amazing grey eyes completed the picture—sparking a swell of attraction she immediately quelled. 

She’d endured too much loss to ever again risk the misery that came with loving someone, she reminded herself.  Handsome innkeeper or no, she intended to pursue her solitary course, channeling her capacity for love into nursing the war-injured who still occupied dozens of veterans hospitals, and spoiling any nieces and nephews Brady provided her.

Still, he exuded such a dynamic presence, it was hard to concentrate on anyone else when he was near.  She hadn’t seen Brady in more than a year, yet standing there in the entry hall, she’d found her attention repeated drawn back to the man who’d given her so grudging a welcome.

With that air of brooding mystery, that powerful frame and handsome face, and both a ranch and a business to call his own, she marveled that no local lovely had yet lured Drew Harwood into matrimony.  Though America hadn’t suffered the horrific losses Britain and France experienced, there was still a shortage of attractive single men.

            As her brain finally extricated itself from the spell of his potent appeal, she remembered.  He’d lost his fiancée a year ago to Spanish flu, Brady had written.

            Her heart squeezed with compassion and a grief that always lingered close to the surface.  No wonder he looked lost and brooding.  It was more than two years since Charles’s plane had been shot down, and she hadn’t needed front-line hospital service to put the hollow look in her own eyes.

            If he were wary of strangers, running a hotel didn’t seem like an ideal occupation.  In any event, having a guest hang around for more than a month, presumably expecting to become increasingly intimate with the family, clearly hadn’t set well with him.  In her letter replying to Brady’s invitation, she’d argued against staying on in Whiskey River so long, but countering they’d been apart too many Christmases already, her brother had insisted it was out of the question for her not to spend the holiday in Whiskey River.  He’d also brushed aside her reminder that she would only stay long enough to find a position at one of the several hospitals still treating wounded veterans.

            Since she would be here over a month in any event, it wouldn’t hurt to look around town to see if there was another place she could stay, so as not to impose on the grieving Mr. Harwood.

            The man himself entered at that point.  Brady must have shot him a look she didn’t catch, for he gave her a brief, forced smile before reseating himself at the table.  Noticing both men politely waiting for her to receive her own dish, she said, “Please, go back to your dinners!  My untimely arrival has already given that lovely stew too much time to cool down.”

            “Should be just eating temperature now,” Brady said.  “Hilda always sends it in piping hot from the stove.  Here, have a biscuit from the warmer.”  He offered her the insulated basket.

            “Ah, baking powder biscuits!” she breathed in the flour-y, slightly sweet smell.  “They had wonderful breads in France, but there’s nothing like a good Southern biscuit.  These smell just like Mother’s.”

            “There’re as good as Mother’s, too,” Brady said.  “Mrs. Harwood is a first-class baker.  In addition to opening the hotel, she’s going to run a tearoom in the front parlor.  I’ll be the first customer in line, any time I get to town.  While we were overseas, Drew used to sing the praises of her buttermilk pies and custards!  None of that shipped well, of course, so all I got to sample were the sugar cookies she sent at Christmas, and what a treat those were!”

            While her brother rambled on, clearly trying to keep conversation flowing, Audra gave an oblique glance to the silent man quietly spooning in stew—and looking as if he’d rather grab his plate and bowl and carry it off somewhere private.  “Will the hotel guests be taking dinner here?” she asked, hoping for his sake that she’d be dining elsewhere.

            “We will provide breakfast and dinner for guests who want them,” Mrs. Harwood answered her question as she came in carrying Audra’s plate.  Setting it on the table, she ladled in a generous portion of stew from the tureen at the center of the table before handing it to her.  “Some will have business in town, and take their dinner with their associates, or at Shane’s.” 

She turned to her son.  “Drew, you may not have heard, since you don’t…go into town much, but the Von Havens from Fredericksburg bought the Shane’s old place.  The new owners didn’t want to continue the hotel, but they’ve kept the restaurant running. All cleaned and repainted, and full of brand new kitchen equipment, Hilda told me after she had a chat with the cook.”

            Her son nodded, but made no reply. 

“I imagine running a hotel and restaurant full-time was an exhausting job,” Audra said, doing her part to maintain the conversation.  “I can see why the former owners might want to take their earnings and retire.”

            “Oh, it wasn’t that,” her brother said.  Oblivious to a warning frown from Mrs. Harwood, he continued, “The Shanes died in the flu epidemic.  They’d already lost their son in the war, so there was no one to carry on the place.  The lawyers sold it to the Von Havens.”

            There was a scraping sound while Drew pushed back his chair.  “The stew was wonderful, Mama, but I’ve had enough.  Brady, you’ll be riding the fence lines tomorrow?  I’ll probably come out.”  Then, in what was obviously an effort, he held out a hand.  “Welcome to Whiskey River and Harwood House, Mrs. Donaldson.  I hope your stay will be pleasant.”

            Thinking ruefully that he was probably wishing her at Jerico, Audra held out her hand—only to snatch it back a moment later, shocked at the strength of the connection that pulsed between them when he shook it.

            Looking as startled as she was, he stood motionless, staring at the hand that had touched hers as if he’d never seen it before.  Then, shoving it back to his side, he dropped a kiss on his mother’s forehead and walked from the room without another word.

            Brady stared after him.  “What did I say?  Dang, but ever since he got back from France, Drew’s been as unpredictable as a half-broke mustang.  Touchy as an old maid when somebody mentions her age, too.”

            It took Audra another heartbeat to recover herself.  Then, cutting off what would likely have been an apology from Mrs. Harwood for her son’s abrupt departure, Audra said, “You, my dear oaf of a brother, are about as sensitive as a dead tree stump.  How could you bring up someone dying of Spanish flu?  It’s bound to have reminded Mr. Harwood of the tragedy of his fiancée’s death.  I can only imagine how much he still grieves for her.”

            Tears coming to her eyes, Mrs. Harwood patted her hand.  “Thank you for understanding, my dear.  From the moment he met Felicity when she was just sixteen, there was no one else for Drew.  Had the war not happened, they would have married when she turned eighteen, and he might at least have had children to console him.”

            “Mine was a whirlwind courtship—one of those ‘wartime weddings’ you hear about.  But the grief of losing someone who means everything to you is the same, I think, regardless of how long you had together.”

            Wiping her eyes, Mrs. Harwood nodded briskly.  “Very true.  I had twenty-six years with my John, but that didn’t make losing him any easier.  But there’s been enough sadness these last few years.  That was really the main reason, more so than earning money, that I wanted to open the house as an inn.  Bring in new people with new views, different lives, different experiences, to shake us out of our routines.  And I’d like to start by sharing dessert with our very first guest!  Brady, how about a tearoom preview of my buttermilk pie and a fresh cup of coffee?

            “Sounds wonderful, ma’am!” her brother said, his eyes lighting up at the mention of pie.

            “I would love some,” Audra said.  “But with me being the only guest at the inn right now, I could dine in town, so as not to be a bother to…anyone.”

            Though she hadn’t spelled it out, the concerned look on Mrs. Harwood’s face said her hostess understood exactly what she’d meant.  “You won’t be a bother, my dear.  I’ve always intended for guests to dine in the front parlor, not back here with the family.”  She sighed, an anxious frown creasing her forehead.  “I do hope, in time, Drew will be more…himself.  He used to be so sociable!  Loved people, was always the heart of any gathering.  Now, I can’t get him to go anywhere, and when neighbors visit, he simply excuses himself and disappears.”

            “I’ve seen that quite often in the wounded soldiers I’ve nursed,” Audra said, trying to soothe the woman’s obvious anxiety.  “The war was such a…a cataclysmic event, it’s not at all unusual for it to take former soldiers time to readjust to normal life.  Your son losing the woman he loved on top of that would have to make it just that much harder.”

            “I hope he does adjust soon, sis,” Brady said.  “You know me—no subtlety at all.  I miss the Drew who was such an easy-going, wise-cracking companion.”  Turning to Mrs. Harwood, her brother added, “You can put stock in what my sister says, Mrs. Harwood.  She’s worked extensively with the wounded, from French troops to Brits to our own.”

            “Then I’m doubly happy to welcome you to Harwood House.” her hostess said, giving her a grateful look.  “You must have a good rest after those years of hard work!  Let’s have that dessert, and then get you settled.  You must be longing for your bed and a good sleep after your long journey!”

            “A good rest would be very welcome,” Audra agreed, hoping she would have one.  And though it was none of her business, she couldn’t help wondering how well Drew Harwood would rest tonight.  And just how badly the war was still affecting him.

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“I loved this whole series…I am so impressed with how the authors have collaborated to bring the characters, events and scenarios to life in each book yet each author brings their own voice to their own story. This is definitely a fantastic Christmas series…”

                                   Splashes Into Books, Netgalley