Laurie Kingery.

Hill Country Christmas





Are you Miss Delia Keller?

She nodded. Who are you?

My names TuckerJude Tucker, and Im here because your father wanted me to come see you.

Delia could hardly believe her ears. My father? You know my father? When will he be here? Oh, I knew hed be back some day!

A cloud seemed to pass over his face. Hehes not coming, Miss Keller. Im sorry to have to tell you hes dead.

Delia felt the earth shift beneath her feet and she would have fallen if the stranger hadnt steadied her. Whatwhat happened to my father? she asked.

He died mining silver out in Nevada. There was a mine collapse.

Thank you for coming to tell me about my fathers death, Mr. Tucker.

But I didnt travel all this way just to inform you of his death. I came to bring you something. Youre his only living heir, after all.

Heir?

Well, I suppose heiress would be the proper word. Your father died a rich man, Miss Keller. And now all his wealth is yours.

LAURIE KINGERY

makes her home in central Ohio where she is a Texan-in-exile. Formerly writing as Laurie Grant for Harlequin Historicals and other publishers, she is an author of sixteen previous books. She was the winner of the 1994 Readers Choice Award in the short historical category, and was nominated for Best First Medieval and Career Achievement in Western Historical Romance by Romantic Times BOOKreviews. When not writing her historicals, she loves to travel, read, read her e-mails and write her blog on www.lauriekingery.com.

Laurie Kingery
Hill Country Christmas






www.millsandboon.co.uk

Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

Psalms 37:4

To the beautiful Hill Country of Texas,

the place my soul feels most at home this side

of Heaven, and to all my relatives in Texas,

especially Aunt Joann.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Epilogue

Questions for Discussion

Chapter One

Llano Crossing, TexasAugust 1867

He was a good man, Miss Delia. Hes certainly in the arms of Jesus now.

God rest his soul.

God bless you in your time of sorrow, Miss Delia.

The hillside that had been covered in the golden glory of a Texas spring when Reverend McKinney had begun to fadeprimroses and coreopsis, gaillardia and red-centered Indian blanket, punctuated here and there by bluebonnets lingering from the month beforewas now, after the summer sun had done its work, sere and brown.

It seemed a fitting backdrop for the unrelieved black garments of the figures in the valley who stood around the deep rectangular hole into which a coffin had just been lowered.

Sorrow didnt begin to name the endless depth of Delias grief. Her grandpa had been the only element of stability she had experienced in her eighteen years of life, and now he was gone.

Another voice intruded on her thoughts. Im sorry for your loss, Miss Delia. If you need anything, you have but to let me or any of my family know. Reverend McKinney was a pillar of this community, and we would not want his granddaughter to be in need.

Under the black brim of her bonnet, Delia Keller raised her eyes to the speaker. Thank you, Charles. I appreciate it. If she had hoped for more from the mayors son, she made sure her face did not give her away. She didnt want Charles Ladleys pity, if that was all she could have from him.

The tight starched neckline of her borrowed bombazine mourning dress threatened to choke her.

Oh, Heavenly Father, what am I to do now?

A few of the ladies began to drift away from the gravestones toward the makeshift tables laden with covered baskets that were spread out under the live oak trees between the small church and the cemetery. Soon, Delia knew, they would have a hearty dinner spread out for those who had attended the funeralham and fried chicken, black-eyed peas, freshly baked biscuits, chocolate cake and pecan pralines. There would be pitchers of lemonade and cold tea. As the chief mourner, Delia would be expected to partake, sample and praise each ladys culinary offering.

The thought of putting so much as a crumb in her mouth made nausea roil in her stomach. The noon heat beat down on her head through her bonnet. She couldnt do it.

Shed thought everyone had left her side and she was alone at the grave site, but now Delia felt a gentle touch on her wrist. Miss Keller, are you all right?

It was Reverend Calhoun from Mason, who had kindly come to conduct the funeral, since Llano Crossing was now preacherless.

She looked away from the concern in his old eyes, afraid she would dissolve into tears but knowing it was safe to confide in him.

What am I going to do, Reverend Calhoun? My whole life was taking care of my grandpa.

He gave her an understanding smile. You neednt decide that today, my dear, he reminded her. Youve suffered a loss, a grievous loss, and itll take a while to find your feet. But the Lord will show you a way.

Delia blinked, wiping away a tear that managed to escape from her eyes. She had no patience with platitudes this morning. The town will be finding a new preacher, and hell need to live in the parsonagewhere am I to go? I have no money, no employment No beau, she added to herself. She wouldnt be going to live in the beautiful white house Charles Ladley would build someday for his bride, and the worst thing was, she didnt even know why not.

The Lord will reveal all that to you, Miss Keller, the preacher assured her, confidence mingled with compassion in his deep, resonant voice, in the fullness of time. He takes care of the birds in the air and the lilies of the field, you know. Now comeit looks as if the good ladies of Llano Crossing have prepared a nice meal for you. Nodding toward the tables under the trees, he said, Why dont we

II dont think I can stay for it, she said quickly, keeping her gaze on the toes of her high-button boots, but away from the grave. I justI just want to go back to the parsonage and lie down. While I still can lie down thereand try to imagine what Im going to do.

Nonsense, child, you need to put some food in your stomach, and take heart from the others who loved Reverend McKinney, urged his wife, a comfortable-looking gray-haired woman who had returned to her husbands side. Youll feel better after youve eaten a bite, Im sure.

Delia did not want to argue with her, and fortunately the visiting preacher made it unnecessary.

Mrs. Calhoun, cant you see the girl is pale as a wilted primrose? Im sure she knows whats best for her. Theres bound to be plenty of food left, and we can bring her a plateful to tempt her appetite after shes had a nap. Miss Delia, well see you later, Reverend Calhoun said with finality. A look passed between husband and wife.

All right, Mr. Calhoun, Ill walk with her, Mrs. Calhoun said, to Delias dismay. You go say the blessing so everyone can start eating. Ill be back in just a few minutes.

Placing an arm around Delias waist, as if she feared the girl might swoon without it, Mrs. Calhoun started forward.

The parsonage sat some fifty yards down the road from the church. If she wasnt allowed to walk home by herself, Delia figured that at least, once there, she would insist she could find her way to her bedroom without any help. She would be alone in minutes.

They had nearly reached the gate that let out onto the dusty road when they spotted the horse and rider trotting toward them from the west, trailed by a swirl of dust.

If hes coming for the funeral, hes a little late, Mrs. Calhoun said with a sniff.

Oh, I dont imagine he is, Delia said. She thought everyone who had ever attended the Llano Crossing Church had been present for the funeral service. The church had been filled to bursting, with folks overflowing out onto the steps. Probably just another cowboy coming into town to enjoy Saturday night.

Mrs. Calhoun pursed her mouth. And tomorrow all hell have is an aching head to show for his months wages.

As the rider drew nearer, however, Delia began to doubt hed come from any of the many nearby ranches. In back of the saddle were bulging saddlebags, a blanket roll and a rifle. The silver buckskin he rode was wet to his hocks, as if hed just crossed the Llano at one of its deeper points upstream, rather than waiting to cross at the town that bore the name of the bridge that spanned the river.

He reined the horse to a walk a few yards away; then, as he reached them, he halted the horse with a soft whoa. He laid a finger on the broad brim of his hat in an automatic gesture.

Ladies, is Llano Crossing up ahead?

His voice was gravelly and rough, as if it had been unused for a long while. His eyes, which were studying her with a frankness she had never been subjected to, were the glacial gray-blue color of a wolfs. She felt herself shiver as if the sudden chill breeze of a norther had blown upon her spine.

Out of the corner of her eye, Delia saw Mrs. Calhoun give a rigid nod. Just around the bend in the road.

And would a traveler find a hotel there where he could pass the night? he asked, without taking those wolfish eyes off Delia.

She saw Mrs. Calhoun stiffen even more before she replied, He would, if he were a law-abiding, respectable sort.

Delia saw the threat of a smile cross the strangers face like slow heat lightning. He looked as if he would ask something more of Delia, then apparently thought better of it. Much obliged, maam, he said, touching his hat brim yet again, his gaze drifting over to Mrs. Calhoun just long enough to be polite.

The corner of his mouth twitched as if it wanted to turn upward; then, as if noticing the somber hue of Delias black dress, it resumed its previous thin line as he nodded and touched the buckskin with his boot heel. Ladies, he murmured, and once he and the horse were a few yards from them, he nudged the horse into an easy lope.

Mrs. Calhoun sniffed again. Well! He might have shown some respect.

Delia glanced at her, surprised at the indignation in the womans voice. He touched his hat.

I mean to our mourning, my dear! Why, he was staring at you like a wolf set loose in a sheep pen!

Since a wolf was the very creature she had been reminded of also, Delia blinked in surprise. Mrs. Calhoun was probably expecting too much of the man, though, if she thought that the stranger would give a long, involved condolence speech merely because the two of them were dressed in black.

A saddle tramp, I shouldnt wonder, Mrs. Calhoun muttered disapprovingly. There are so many of them drifting through ever since the war. Like tumbleweeds.

Delia was sure Mrs. Calhoun was right, but she didnt want to encourage the woman to linger, so she remained silent as they reached the low, crumbling rock wall that separated the parsonage yard from the road.

Thank you for your kindness, Mrs. Calhoun. Ill be fine, Delia said as she stepped onto the flower-bordered pathway that led up to the white frame house. Ill see you later.

The preachers wife took the hint after giving Delia one last look of concern.

All right, if youre certain you dont want someone to sit with you, Mrs. Calhoun said uncertainly, but then she started walking briskly back in the direction they had come, as if afraid the other mourners would devour everything on the tables before she got back to them. She paused only long enough to call back over her shoulder, Pastor Calhoun and I will be quiet as mice when we return, in case youre still napping. Get some rest, dear.

Delia was sure she wouldnt so much as close her eyes, but at least she had freed herself from the suffocating, if well-meant, sympathy.

She was awakened sometime during the night by Reverend Calhouns sonorous snoring coming from her grandpas former room down the hall. Padding quietly to the kitchen at the back of the one-story frame house, she found that her visitors had been as good as their word and had left her a delicious supper of fried chicken, biscuits and pralines from the funeral dinner. She ate, and then waited for dawn, praying some answers about her future would arrive with the sun.


I dont feel right about leaving so soon, Mrs. Calhoun fretted two days later, after they had break-fasted on eggs Delia had collected from her grandpasshe still thought of them as her grandpashens. Why, this girl is a bereaved orphan! It isnt decent to leave her like this, Mr. Calhoun!

Im not actually an orphan, Mrs. Calhoun, Delia informed her. My father is traveling in the west. Im sure hell be home one of these days soon. Shed said these words so many times before. If hed known about Grandpas illness, hed have been home already, Im sure, she added, hoping it sounded like she believed what she was saying.

Mrs. Calhoun, whod been in the act of levering her bulk up from the chair, turned to her. Now dear, I know that must be a comforting thought, but your neighbor, Mrs. Purvis, told me you and your grandpa had heard nothing from your father since he left! Ill pray he returns home, but dont you think he would have done so already if he was going to? Her voice was so pityingly compassionate that Delia wanted to grind her teeth.

Papa will be home someday, she said. I know he will. After Mama died, he got itchy feet, as Grandpa called it.

He couldve gone to fight alongside our boys in gray, Mrs. Calhoun said, disapproval plain on her face.

Delia didnt bother to tell her that if her father had been inclined to be a soldier at all, he probably wouldve worn blue. Feelings about the War Between the States still ran high in these parts.

He said hed gotten married so young that hed never had the chance to see the West. He promised he was going to be home just as soon as he struck it rich.

She hated the way her voice quavered as she remembered the hurt she had felt as she watched him ride off seven years ago. Why was I not enough for you, Papa?

Mrs. Calhoun tsk-tsked. For the love of money is the root of all evil, she quoted sententiously. She looked as if she was going to say something more.

If I have not charity, love profiteth me nothing, the old preacher paraphrased, giving his wife a quelling look before turning to Delia. I pray your faith will soon be rewarded, child.

Delia tried to assume a carefree expression. Ill be fine, Mr. and Mrs. Calhoun. Really, I will. If I need anything, the Purvises said just to ask.

She wished the preacher and his wife had gone yesterday, but since yesterday was Sunday, Pastor Calhoun felt an obligation to conduct the regular worship service at the Llano Crossing Church. Who knew how long it would be before the town would have another preacher?

It had seemed so strangewrong, evenfor someone else to be standing in the pulpit in her grandpas place, speaking about God. Reverend Calhoun wasnt a bad preacher, and he certainly knew his Bible, but he didnt have Delias grandfathers dry humor. Nor did he place his pocket watch on the pulpit as Reverend McKinney had done so hed know when it was time to close. It had taken several pointed looks from a deacon before Reverend Calhoun had ceased his flow of oratory and said the benediction.

Afterward, of course, Mrs. Calhoun hadnt felt right about traveling on the Sabbath, so Delia had been obliged to endure the womans well-meant but stifling clucking over her and insistence that she knew best what Delia ought to be doing at every moment for the rest of that endless day.

Mrs. Calhoun, if we leave now well be home before supper, Preacher Calhoun said now, laying his napkin aside and rising from the table. Miss Delia has assured us she will write if she needs anything, or better yet, have someone ride with her up the road to Mason for a long visit, wont you, my dear?

Delia assured them she would.

Perhaps I should just help Delia with these dishes. Mrs. Calhoun fretted, waving a plump hand over the crumbs of toast and yellow flecks of egg that adorned the plates. Its not Christian to eat and dash off like that, Mr. Calhoun.

The preacher raised eyes Heavenward as if asking for patience. And then youll say its too close to dinnertime. No, Mrs. Calhoun, we are leaving this very minute. Delia wont mind. Goodbye, Delia, and thank you for your hospitality in this trying time. Please know Ill be praying for you every day.

Thank you, Reverend Calhoun, Delia said, keeping her eyes downcast lest his wife discern just how relieved she was that they were leaving. Having guests could be exhausting in the best of times. Now she was eager to be alone with her thoughts and not have the constant duty of being pleasant and hospitable.

She picked up the picnic basket she had packed with the remains of the ham, several slices of bread and some butter shed wrapped in a cold, wet cloth, and she walked to the door before Mrs. Calhoun could think of any further reason to dally.

Chapter Two

Reverend Calhouns fondness for sweet tea had left Delia with only an inch or two of sugar in the bottom of the rose-sprigged china sugar bowl, she discovered when she sat down to drink her coffee.

Fortunately, the hens had provided eggs she could bring into town to sell at the general store, then buy sugar with some of the money Mr. Dean paid her, and have a few coins to put aside for another day. But what was she going to do when she needed a sizable sum? If the windmill broke and she had to have it repaired, for example? And she had assumed it might take some time for the town to find a new pastor. If the perfect candidate was available, Llano Crossings time without a preacher would be briefleaving Delia without a home. She would have to be able to pay rent somewhere.

Her grandpa had never been a great one for saving, believing that the Lord would meet his needs, even if he gave his meager salary to any down-on-his-luck tramp who showed up at the door. The Lord had always come through, often in the guise of one of the church members who brought them a side of beef or a bushel of peaches. But she couldnt count on that to continue, now that her grandpa had gone on to his heavenly reward.

The Lord helps those who help themselves, she reminded herself. Shed better look into getting a job while she was in town, so when the time came she could afford to put another roof over her head, even if it was just a room at Mrs. Mannheims boardinghouse. Perhaps Mr. Dean could use another clerk at the general store, or Mrs. Jackson might need an assistant cook at the hotel. If worst came to worst, she could offer to clean and cook for Mrs. Mannheim in exchange for her room and board, though she had heard the German widow was an exacting woman who preferred to do everything herself. Or she could write to Reverend Calhoun and have him check into employment opportunities in Mason, as hed offered during his stay.

She hoped, however, that she wouldnt have to leave Llano Crossing. Shed been living here ever since she was eleven, when her father had brought her here as his wife was dying.

Taking a minute to gaze at herself in the cracked mirror, which hung in her room, she made sure the bow of the black bonnet had even loops and her thick brown curly hair was still enclosed in a neat knot on the back of her neck. Black washed out her complexion, making her even paler than she was, but the walk to town ought to bring a little color to her cheeks. In the meantime, she pinched them then picked up her egg basket and went out the door.

Intent on her thoughts, eyes on the path before her, she almost opened the rusted gate into the horse standing in the shade of the oak tree at the roadside.

Oh! I didnt know anyone was there! she said, her hand falling from the gate as she took a step back.

It was the stranger shed seen yesterday, the one whod asked directions into town.

He touched the brim of his hat once again. Yes, maam, you did seem like your mind was elsewhere. I didnt mean to startle you.

Youyou didnt, she lied, though she knew it was plain as punch he had. He had changed since yesterday; if not for the fact that he was riding the same horse, she might not have recognized him. He had the same wintry gray-blue eyes, but hed obviously used his evening at the hotel to bathe and shave and have his clothes launderedor perhaps they were new ones, bought from the mercantile.

Delia was afraid she was staring.

Can Ican I help you? She was used to unknown people showing up at her grandpas door, looking for a handout, or perhaps just spiritual advice, but she didnt want to tell this wolfish stranger she was alone here. Im afraid the reverend isnt available right now.





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