Christmas in Briarwood
Montana Gallagher Series
Book 8 (novella)
Briarwood, December 8, 1885
FROST NIPPED HER reddening nose, and a crisp breeze brushed her cheeks as the winter sun shined through two puffy white clouds.
Life, she reasoned, was not about achieving happiness for the whole of one’s existence, but to enjoy the moment—for it might be the last. Rachel Watson once believed in hope for the future, and never more than now did she long to believe in it again.
Snow dust glistened through the air to land on and around her as she passed beneath the long branches of a tall pine. With the snow came a scent she had yet been able to describe since winter came to Briarwood. The fragrance of earth and air, light and dark—no matter what time of day or night she strolled the dirt roads, the sweet and refreshing smell grounded her.
In those moments when she thought herself unable to stay and face the events since her arrival, the wide valley and thick, green forests, with soaring mountains beyond, steadied her spirit.
More than the landscape kept her sane, she admitted. The people waved hello, smiled whenever she passed, and invited her into their homes. Although she avoided accepting many of the invitations—save for those at Hawk’s Peak or with Doctor Brody and his wife—they continued to make the offers. It’s what friends do, she imagined. Her job as a governess in San Francisco had left little time for friendships beyond the staff and her sister, Mary. She thought of all the years spent caring for another couple’s children, and wondered, somewhat guiltily, if they hadn’t been wasted.
Pine boughs and red ribbon adorned many of the storefronts, and the spicy fragrance of Tilly’s apple cider wafted from the café. The faint melody of song carried from the church choir, which practiced the carols it would sing around the town tree. With less than three weeks until Christmas and the opening of the inn, Rachel pictured the grand tree—described in detail by the storekeeper and his wife—covered with homemade ornaments.
Rachel navigated her way up the stone path to the wide front porch of The Briarwood Inn and stopped. A pile of lumber and snow blocked the doorway, so she walked instead to the back door, all the while smiling.
“Oh, wonderful. You’re here.” Katharine stood on the covered back deck that, when three feet of snow did not cover the ground, allowed for a view of the creek and the mountain range in two directions.
“The front door is blocked.”
“One of the builders caught the Smith boys trying to sneak in this morning.”
Rachel laughed. “It’s no wonder, with all the secrecy. You’ve piqued everyone’s imagination as to what is going on inside.”
Katharine held the door open and waved Rachel inside. “It’s a hotel. No, not even a hotel. A well-appointed inn. There isn’t much mystery in it.”
“You’ll be chasing off the boys again—and others I’m sure—until you open the place.”
Rachel set down her cloth-covered basket and unwrapped the thick white scarf from around her neck. “It is looking splendid.” She removed the cloth to reveal an assortment of muffins. “I stopped at Tilly’s for breakfast, and she asked me to bring these over for the workers. She knows you’re not starving because your husband has more sense than to let you go without a meal.”
When Katharine raised a brow, with a fresh pecan muffin in hand, Rachel tried not to smile too much. “Tilly’s words, not mine.” She hung her scarf and decided it was warm enough inside the inn’s kitchen to add her long, wool coat to the same hook. “I’m honored to be among the few who get to enter before your grand opening, but I am curious why I get the privilege.”
“I am going to work up to answering your question. In the meantime, would you help me distribute coffee and these muffins to the men working upstairs? There are three today, and they are almost done with the last bathing room upstairs.”
Rachel almost dropped the tin coffee pot before she could pour the strong brew through a strainer into the silver pot Katharine had set out. “Indoor plumbing? Here?”
Katharine nodded. “I fretted over it while they drew the plans up. The hot and cold running water wasn’t going to be an issue since others here have managed it, but sending guests to an outdoor privy . . . well, that wouldn’t do. I didn’t think it was possible until Brenna Gallagher mentioned the man who was installing a similar system at the ranch. I wish I could say that I knew how it all worked . . . suffice to say there are suspended tanks, pull chains, and great lengths of wood pipes going from the building to, well, out there.” Katharine waved toward an empty expanse of land beyond the trees.
Rachel’s laugh prevented her from finishing her task without splashing a little coffee on the table. She set the pot down and found a cloth to soak up the mess. “You might recall that I came from San Francisco, though I should like to see your expression again.”
“Right, of course.” Katharine placed half a dozen muffins on a plate. “We enjoyed some modern amenities in Astoria, but you are used to a far more sophisticated life than anyone else in town, I’m sure.” Her voice lost its amusement. “Have you heard from Mary?”
Rachel filled a third tin mug with coffee and set the pot aside. The intentional delay gave her time to force back the start of tears that always threatened to fall when she thought of her sister. “A letter arrived yesterday, in fact, and she cabled last week.”
Katharine hesitated before asking, “Is she well?”
“As well as can be.” Rachel fought every day to forget what had happened to both her and Mary when their journey to Montana turned from an adventure to an unimaginable nightmare. “She is living with our aunt. Before the weather cooled too much, she visited the beach almost daily. Sometimes I still feel the salt air and smell fish from the day’s catch by the wharf.”
“Do you miss it?”
How many times had Rachel asked herself that question since she watched her sister board the train bound to the coast? “Some days I do, but most of the time I can’t find the words to explain why I stay.”
Katharine touched a hand gently on Rachel’s arm. “Our circumstances were not the same, and yet, I understand what you mean. It took the thought of not seeing Finn again to admit why I wanted to remain in Briarwood.”
Rachel thought of Doctor Finnegan Brody, the man who had saved her life and soon after became a trusted friend. She had only known him as one half of a pair with Katharine, and she could not imagine either without the other. Her ruminations then shifted of their own accord to Julian Frank, the Pinkerton who kept his promise and saved her sister.
She looked at Katharine, who now stood in the kitchen doorway with the tray of coffee mugs.
“Did you hear me?”
With Julian’s face flitting through her mind, Rachel nodded and picked up the plate of muffins. “Wait. You haven’t yet told me why I am here.”
“No, I haven’t.” Katharine indicated the wide staircase leading to the second floor. “Let’s pass these around and then how about a tour of the place?”
With her curiosity growing, Rachel followed her friend across the spacious foyer to the stairs.
“Will you spend Christmas in Briarwood now?” Amanda Stuart asked.
Wife to Ben Stuart, the foreman at Hawk’s Peak, Amanda had become one of Katharine’s dearest friends since moving to the valley. Rachel considered herself blessed to call many at the Hawk’s Peak ranch her friends.
“We will. Brody has fretted about leaving the town without a doctor for so long, especially with winter so harsh already.” Katharine removed a vase from the final crate her father had brought with him from Astoria. Most of the large wooden boxes contained belongings, but the last two included favorite items from around the seaside house where Katharine had grown up. It was fitting that the mementos would now grace her own home.
Amanda placed a lid back on the empty crate. “At least you had that week in Denver for your honeymoon.”
Katharine grinned in return. “Yes. Yes, we did. Though I daresay we saw little of Denver.” The women laughed as Katharine found a place for the crystal vase on her new fireplace mantel. “He had his heart set on showing me Ireland, but he won’t go so far until he can find another doctor to stay on. Hopefully, in the spring. I heard we aren’t the only ones who have delayed a holiday across the sea.”
Amanda’s raised brow didn’t require her question to be verbalized.
“When Eliza was in last week, she mentioned something about Ethan and Brenna visiting Scotland next year, and not wanting to put it off any longer.”
Amanda nodded with new understanding. “Every time they plan to go, life makes other plans for them. Brenna feels Victoria is now old enough to withstand the crossing, so they’ve talked of going in the spring.”
Rachel listened to the women chatter while she unpacked a picture frame and set it on a small table between two stuffed chairs covered in tweed. The polished silver square framed a photograph of a beautiful woman who shared Katharine’s eyes and hair, leaving no doubt to their relation.
Katharine and Finnegan Brody had saved her life. Were it not for the skilled hands of Doctor Brody and the generous heart of Katharine Kiely—now Brody—Rachel’s story might have had a different ending.
“Do you think they’ll make it next year?” Katharine asked Amanda. “To Scotland?”
“Brenna has said as much.”
Amanda had confessed to Rachel that it was at Christmas two years ago when she fell in love with Ben Stuart. Her journey to the valley she now called home had been an arduous one, filled with a little hope and a lot of desperation. The Gallaghers took a chance on Amanda when she arrived in town, alone and unknown, just as they had Katharine and her grand ideas.
Rachel wondered how many others they’d rescued and brought into their lives. She supposed she was now counted among the lost, weary, and orphaned embraced by the Gallagher family and the people of Briarwood. She often thought how alike Ethan Gallagher and Brody were with their fierce sense of responsibility to others.
“Are you all right?”
Rachel heard the question twice before realizing it was meant for her. She nodded to Amanda. “Thinking is all. Is the last crate empty?”
“It is, thank heavens. Brody emptied the heavier items last night.” Katharine wiped a speck of dust from the vase and scanned their progress. “Thank you both for helping today.”
“I’ve enjoyed the company.” Amanda folded the wool blanket that had protected the crystal.
“As have I.” Rachel tapped the edge of the picture frame once before turning away. “You and Brody have built a beautiful home. I can imagine a grand Christmas tree right there in front of the window, with the snow falling behind.”
“It is a perfect spot.” Generous windows broke up sturdy walls of smooth-cut timbers in the expansive great room. Katharine told them she had fallen so much in love with Hawk’s Peak, and the Gallaghers indulged her when she asked if her architect could use their ranch as inspiration. “All credit goes to our builder. It delayed the inn by several months, but it was worth it, and Brody now has all of his clinic rooms back and available for patients.”
“I still find it odd that you call him Brody,” Amanda said.
Katharine laughed and tucked the folded blanket Amanda passed her into a trunk in the room's corner. “There is less confusion when I speak of him to others, but he is Finn when we are alone.”
Rachel said, “Your father seemed pleased when he was last here.”
“Oh, yes. Between the spur line and the new inn, he is quite pleased. Even with the train depot five miles from town, it has proven a worthy investment.” With hands on hips, Katharine studied the room. “It has turned out rather nice, hasn’t it?”
Amanda ran her fingers over the edge of a polished shelf, now partially covered with books. “It’s beautiful. I see the similarities to Hawk’s Peak, but you’ve put your touch on it. Does the inn look anything like this? You have allowed no one inside except the workers.”
Katharine and Rachel shared a glance and a smile. Rachel already had the pleasure of touring the impressive interior yet reminded herself to ask again why she was given such an honor before everyone else. Her friend had managed to avoid answering before it was time for them to come here to meet Amanda.
“It’s supposed to be a surprise. My father suggested we hire someone from San Francisco or Chicago to decorate, but I have enjoyed doing it myself.”
“And how is that going?”
Katharine chuckled and led the way from the great room to the kitchen. “I may have taken on more than I bargained.”
Rachel wanted to keep her hands busy and had to stop herself from preparing the tea in her friend’s home. She still wasn’t used to others doing for her. “Folks have noticed wagons full of deliveries.”
Katharine nodded. “Yes, and there’s more to come, but we will have most of the furniture made here.”
“At the Petersen farm.” Amanda grinned at her friend. “You didn’t think that would be kept secret, did you?”
“How long have you known?”
“Since the beginning, I expect. It is safe to assume that most everyone knows. When the Petersen’s last crop failed, they planned to leave the area. Not only did they stay, but they also hired on half a dozen men. Why keep it quiet?”
Katharine put the kettle on the stove for the water to heat. “It seemed unnecessary to mention. The men have work they can be proud of, and truly, it would cost more to ship furniture in. It was a business decision, and if it helps Hugh Petersen build his business, then I am happy to help.”
Not only business, Rachel thought. Katharine was not one to draw attention to her good deeds. Rachel had learned over the months that everyone she had met in town gave as much of themselves as they could, without expecting recognition in return. Amanda must have understood because she shifted her attention to the man under topic.
“How did you know Hugh Petersen built furniture?” Amanda asked. “I’ve lived here for two years and did not know.”
Katharine’s shoulders lifted in a dainty shrug. “Brody. He mentioned once that with Hugh’s poor farmland, he ought to switch to woodworking. Brody also shared that Hugh had built a few of the pieces in the clinic, and the workmanship was impressive.”
“Still, the inn must be taking a tremendous amount of your time, and it hasn’t even opened. And with all your work helping Brody at the clinic . . . you don’t have to do it all alone.”
“Amanda’s right,” Rachel said. “It must be a lot of work.”
“It was arrogant for me to think I could. Please, both of you have a seat. We’ve earned a respite.” Katharine pulled down three teacups with saucers and her favorite Wedgewood teapot, which had once belonged to her mother, checked the kettle, and decided the water was hot enough. Placing a combination of dried herbs and flowers in the teapot, she let the herbs steep for a minute.
“Is there much left to do?” Amanda asked. “And what about when you open? You can’t think to manage the inn on your own.”
Katharine gave her friend an indulgent smile. “If I didn’t already know how busy you were at the ranch, Amanda—and with your own household—I would think you were looking for a job.”
Amanda’s light laugh accompanied a shake of her head. “I’ll be busier come spring.”
The glance, followed by a studied perusal of her friend’s face, shifted Katharine and Rachel’s attention. “You are?” Both women simultaneously asked the same question.
Katharine enveloped Amanda’s hands and squeezed. “Brody is officially the best keeper of secrets this town will ever know.”
“Which is why we all trust him. He confirmed it last month, but I wanted to wait before telling anyone.” Amanda sobered. “Ben and I have come close twice before, and I couldn’t bear to make it real until I was certain.”
“And are you certain this time?”
“The good doctor said I am in perfect health, and I’m much farther along than ever before.”
“Spring.” Katharine guessed at a time frame. “We’ll certainly wait until the baby comes before going to Ireland.”
Amanda shook her head. “There will always be expectant mothers, broken bones, and mysterious illnesses. Don’t let any of it stop you from living your life. Speaking of life in motion, let’s get back to the inn?”
“Your news is far more exciting, and we’ll give it proper celebration later. As for the inn, there’s not too much left. Thankfully, the exterior, piping, and most of the interior were completed before the first snow. The builder estimates two more weeks to finish, which means not a day to spare before we prepare for the Christmas party. Many others could oversee things now to give me more time with Brody and at the clinic, and I trust the builder, but it would be handy to have someone—”
“I’d like to help.”
Amanda held the knife above the coffee cake as she looked at Katharine before both women faced Rachel. “Would you really?” Katharine asked.
“I would.” Rachel took pride in her work at the general store and appreciated all Loren and Joanna Baker had done for her, but increasingly, she found herself with too much time to remember. She needed to keep busy. Really busy.
Katharine placed a strainer over the first teacup and poured tea from the pot into one cup, then the other two. “I won’t turn down your offer, Rachel. Why don’t you stop by the inn again this afternoon if you have time? Will two o’clock work?”
“Again?” Amanda asked.
“I gave Rachel a tour this morning.” Katharine set one teacup in front of Amanda and acted as though she had said nothing out of the ordinary.
“This morning, you say? And you let me carry on.”
Katharine handed Rachel a cup and then sat down to join the other women. “Well, it will still be a surprise.”
“Then on behalf of myself, at least, I look forward to the inn’s interior unveiling.” Amanda sipped her tea and took a small bite of the coffee cake while directing her next question to Rachel. “Will you return to San Francisco to spend Christmas with Mary?”
Rachel held her teacup level with her mouth to hide the thin line of tension. She did not blame anyone for their curiosity. “I have heard the town is at its most beautiful and festive on Christmas day. I look forward to seeing it.” She had written as much to Mary in the letter that now lay in her skirt pocket.
Amanda asked, “What are the holidays like in San Francisco? Much the same, I should think.”
“Festive, certainly.” Rachel enjoyed Christmas, but it had always been just another day. She went to church, ate supper with the children, and shared a cup of warm cider with the other house staff. She spent a few hours every Christmas Eve with her aunt and sister, though often felt rushed to get back to her charges. “The family I worked for did not make a big celebration of Christmas.”
“Then you are in for a treat this year,” Amanda promised.
Katharine sat in silence for a few seconds before asking no one in particular, “Have you heard anything from Julian Frank?”
Amanda glanced at Rachel first before saying, “As it happens, I have—or, rather, Ramsey did and he shared it with everyone at the ranch.” Amanda stared at the slow rise of steam from her teacup but made no move to touch it or more of her cake. “Julian has returned to the territory.”
Rachel had come to know everyone at Hawk’s Peak well since her arrival more than a year before, including Ramsey. Eliza’s husband, a sometimes-acting U.S. Marshal when needed, and a horse breeder alongside his wife knew Julian Frank better than anyone else in the valley. “For what purpose?”
Amanda looked directly at Rachel. “Ramsey didn’t share all the details. He said only that Julian returned, and he has news for you.”
Rachel almost choked on her next sip of tea. “What news, and why did he not write or cable me directly?”
“I don’t know, Rachel. I swear I would tell you if I did, but it seems Julian swore Ramsey to secrecy on whatever else he revealed.”
Katharine stood, cleared away her cup and half-eaten cake, and poured the rest of her tea into the washbasin. “Rachel has more of a right to know than anyone here.”
“Please don’t be upset on my behalf.”
“After everything . . .” Katharine took a deep breath. “I don’t know which of them I want to give a good scolding to more, Julian or Ramsey.”
“Neither.” Rachel crossed the kitchen to take Katharine’s hands. A few months ago, she would not have been so bold, and she considered it a significant achievement. “This morning we laughed, and you showed me your beautiful inn. Let us go back to that. Julian will share the news the next time we meet.”
“I’m sorry, Rachel.” Katharine nodded. “It’s just that—”
“I understand.” And she did. Katharine had been with her through the recovery, through the uncertainty, and had even become an almost-surrogate sister after Mary left. “It is time for me to fight my own battles, from wherever they may come. Besides, I trust Julian, and if he needs to tell me the news himself, then I’ll wait.”
Amanda left the table to stand next to her friends. “Julian’s telegram specifically said he would be here by week's end.”
Katharine nodded and pumped water into the basin. “Well, Rachel and I have plenty to keep ourselves busy at the inn until then.” Katharine stopped pumping water and faced Rachel. “How long has it been since Julian was last here? Three months?”
“Four.” Four months, one week, and three days, to be exact. Rachel kept the by-day tally of Julian’s lengthy absence to herself. He stuck around only two days on his last visit to Briarwood. A month before that, it had been one day. She often asked herself why he bothered to return for such brief visits. Briarwood was not his home, though she always hoped she’d see him again, regardless.
“Ethan happens to agree with you, Katharine, which is why he read the telegram and rode into town with me and Ben this morning.” Amanda wiped the table of a few stray crumbs. “Ethan and Ben said they would come by here after a stop at the livery and general store.”
Fierce pounding echoed into the kitchen and propelled Katharine to the front door. On the other side, Loren Baker’s hand was raised to knock again. “Loren, whatever is wrong?”
The older man huffed before asking, “Where’s Doc Brody?”
“At the Fenton farm. Mrs. Fenton had a difficult delivery. He’s been there all night.”
“I’ll go and find Ben. He can ride out to fetch the doctor.” Amanda pulled her coat from a row of hooks and slipped her arms into the sleeves. She followed with a thick knitted scarf and wool hat.
“No, I’ll go. In this weather and in your condition, if you fell, Ben wouldn’t forgive any of us,” Katharine said. “Come in, Loren. What’s happened?”
“Joanna fell climbing a ladder she shouldn’t have been on. She says she is fine, but I won’t rest until the doc has a look at her and tells me himself.”
The door opened again and would have slammed against the wall had Brody not kept a firm grip on the handle. He closed the door quickly behind him but made no move to discard his outer clothes. “Katharine, what’s—” Red-faced and breathing heavily, Brody asked, “Loren, are you here for me?”
Katharine reached for her heavy wool coat and scarf. “I’ll go with you.”
Brody put a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Not this time. The weather is worsening faster than expected. Even between here and the general store, the road is barely visible. I saw Ben and Ethan a few minutes ago, and they’ll be along soon to fetch Amanda. Please, you and Rachel stay here until I return.”
Rachel knew Katharine wanted to argue with Brody’s decision, but refrained, especially in front of the others. Going where he was needed—wherever someone required a healer’s touch—was Brody’s calling, and expecting him to do otherwise would be the same as demanding he become someone other than the wonderful, dedicated man and doctor Katharine loved.
Katharine stood on her toes and pressed a hard kiss to her husband’s lips. “Be careful.” She opened the door to a flurry of snow. Brody braced himself against the rising wind and followed Loren back into the icy air.
END OF EXCERPT
Excerpted from Christmas in Briarwood by MK McClintock. Copyright 2021 © MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.
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