Temperance by Lily Graison

Chapter 1

Temperance Hayes didn’t believe in bad omens but since leaving Savannah, her trip had been plagued with one mishap after another. As the stagecoach she’d spent the last few hours on tipped to the side, then slid to the right, she was having second thoughts about those bad omens.

The icy conditions they were traveling in were just another problem in a long list of them. She was still one trunk short and doubted she’d see it again. The frightening ordeal with the man on the boat still gave her nightmares and if she ever made it to Angel Creek, Montana, she vowed to never leave again.

The back end of the stagecoach slid. She grabbed onto the wall and said a silent prayer until it straightened itself out. That was the third time in the past hour they had lost traction with the road, and she wasn’t sure her heart could take much more.

She peeked out the window. This was the wrong time of the year to travel. Ignorance of what the weather was like this late in the season was to blame. It had been nice and sunny, if not a little cold, when she left Georgia, but the further west she traveled, the worse the conditions became. Now, she was stuck in the Montana Territory with snow blowing in heavy swirls, the temperature so cold her nose felt frozen, and she had a hard time seeing anything past the windows.

She settled back into her seat and tried to relax, which was easier said than done. Her nerves were too rattled. She’d been nervous for the past week. Add in all the misfortune along the way, and those jitters were enough to make her sick at heart for being so foolish. She should have never left.

And you would have spent your life miserable.

She clutched her reticule in her hands, her nails chipped from where she’d dug them into the fabric for so long. The letter she knew was inside of it was probably so wrinkled now it would be impossible to read, not that she needed to. She hoped. After sending her money to make the trip, surely the man she had agreed to marry wouldn’t turn her away without proof she was who she said she was.

Thoughts of him made those nervous jitters intensify. George Jenkins had sounded decent enough on paper, but she’d heard horror stories about the men who placed ads for wives. She ignored them, but with every passing day, and whatever new calamity befell her, something told her she was making a mistake. That she should turn around and go back home to face the mess she’d created head-on instead of fleeing like a coward. As the stagecoach slid again, she wished she would have listened.

She grabbed onto the seat and glanced out the window. They were traveling too fast. What trees she could see were passing by at a greater speed than they should be for such poor road conditions. Or at least, she thought so. The way they were slipping and sliding, she wouldn’t be convinced otherwise.

The driver yelled something before the stagecoach once again slid. Her heart slammed against her ribcage when the entire thing bounced, her along with it. When she hit the floor of the coach, she barely had time to grab onto the seat before the horses made the most unsettling noise she’d ever heard. It was as if they were screaming. Her world turned upside down a moment later, the stagecoach tilting before she was airborne.

Temperance screamed as the stagecoach tumbled. She hit the sidewall, then the ceiling, before spots flashed in front of her eyes. When her head slammed into the floor, everything went black.

* * *

Sawyer stilled when he heard the screams. Clem ran toward the sound and barked before turning to look at him.

“I hear it. Now be quiet,” he said, before trying to figure out what it was they were hearing. Someone yelled a moment before what sounded like something crashing echoed through the trees. Then there was nothing but silence.

He turned in the direction he'd heard the crash. The forest was eerily silent, the only noise that of the wind shaking the ice-covered tree limbs. Creaking branches made the silence feel ominous, and the screams he’d heard were still echoing through his head.

He wasn’t far from the road. Curiosity made him turn east. “Come on, Clem. Let’s go see what that was.” The snow grew deeper with every step they took and he was out of breath by the time he spotted a stagecoach laying on its side, crumpled at the bottom of the embankment. He ran as fast as he could in the deepening snow and knew before he even reached the busted mass of wood that the driver was dead. The man’s head was twisted at an unnatural angle.

One horse lay motionless, his sightless eyes opened wide. The other was breathing heavily, blood spraying from his nostrils with every snorted breath.

Hurrying toward the wreckage, he said a silent prayer for the driver’s soul and went to see about the horse. Its back leg was broken, his breaths uneven. Blood was seeping from its chest as well. It would never survive its injuries.

The horse blinked at him before snorting another harsh breath. He’d like to say he felt sorry for the animal, but he held no love for them. The death of the driver that these two had a part in only drove that fact home.

Sawyer stood and grabbed his rifle from where it was strapped to his back. The blast it made was deafening in the stillness. He watched the life drain from the animal's eyes before turning to the stagecoach. It was on its side, one wheel still spinning, the others scattered like firewood across the ground.

He laid his gear down and climbed on top of the coach before looking through the window to see if anyone was inside. A woman lay against the other door, half-buried in snow. There was blood near her head and he couldn’t tell if she was breathing or not.

It took several minutes of yanking on the door to get it open. Several more to lower himself down into the splintered coach without falling on her.

His feet landed on either side of her head. She had a large cut above her eye, the gash still bleeding. He laid two fingers to her neck, his breath caught in his throat until he felt the pulse beating there. She was alive.

“Miss, can you hear me?” She wore a heavy cloak. It, along with her dress, was nothing more than yards of fabric so thick, he could barely see her.

He maneuvered himself around until he was kneeling beside her. It took a while to check her for broken bones, and he was glad she was unconscious. There wasn’t a lady he knew that wouldn’t have a fit if some strange man started touching them in such a personal way without permission.

He glanced up at the door he’d climbed down into the coach from before looking back at the unconscious woman. He blew out a breath before reaching for her.

Getting her lifted and over his shoulder was made harder by the mounds of fabric she was wearing. He had to push her heavy skirts from his face before reaching up with one hand to grab onto the doorframe above his head and spent the next ten minutes crawling from the wreckage. He slipped twice and almost dropped her, but getting her through the doorway, he was able to lay her down on the side of the stagecoach, rather hard, before pulling himself out.

Her bonnet had slipped over her face, but without even looking, he knew she was still unconscious. Thankfully, the hard knock he’d given her by all but dropping her hadn’t even registered. He blew out a breath before picking her back up and crawling down from the stagecoach.

He was more gentle this time when he laid her on the ground, arranging her skirts before righting her bonnet so he could see her face. The blood from the cut was everywhere. He grabbed the edge of her cloak and tried to wipe most of it away, but more leaked from the laceration near her hairline. He sat back on his haunches and drew in several deep breaths while staring at her. She was a pretty little thing. Her skin looked as if it were made of porcelain. Dark lashes framed her eyes and her lips were plump and red. Her hair was as black as a raven's wing and lay in a riot of curls across the snow.

Clem leaned down and sniffed her head. He pushed him away and said, “Leave her be.” The dog barked at him and Sawyer knew he was asking the same thing he’d asked himself half a dozen times now. What was he going to do with her?

He looked up the hill toward the road. Angel Creek was miles away. Beaumont even further. He had no idea which way the stagecoach had been headed, not that it mattered. Climbing the embankment and carrying her to either town would take him until nightfall and beyond, and the temperature was already dropping. The snow was falling harder now as well, and he knew he’d never make it. She wasn’t heavy, but carrying someone for two miles through the snow would wear anybody down.

His cabin was only a mile away over the next ridge. He stared down at her again, the cut above her eye drawing his attention. Did she need a doctor? Her wound wasn’t bleeding as bad as it had been, but any head wound was serious, especially way out here in the middle of nowhere. He wasn’t a healer. If something was seriously wrong with her…

Memories flooded his mind of another time he’d needed the help of the local doctor and couldn’t get to him, and he pushed them away as fast as they came. He distracted himself from old hurts by wiping what blood had run down the side of her face away before standing and looking around the wreckage. Luggage was spread across the snow. He hurried to it and looked through the baggage. A large carpetbag had a few personal items he assumed were hers. A large trunk had busted open, more items of clothing spread across the ground.

He grabbed what he could and shoved it into the carpetbag and his own until both were so full he could barely get them closed. He strapped her bag to his hunting pack alongside his rifle and slung the gun and both bags across his back, adjusting the straps so they fit snug and wouldn’t fall off his arms.

Kneeling at the woman’s side, he wrapped one arm behind her back and the other underneath her legs and lifted her, bridal style, from the ground. She weighed next to nothing in his arms.

He glanced at the driver, guilt at having to leave him behind weighing heavy on his mind, but there was nothing he could do for the man. Burying him would have been the decent thing to do, but it would take time he didn’t have. The forest light grew dimmer by the minute now that the sun was going down.

Shifting the woman’s weight to lie against his chest, he gave a shrill whistle. “Let’s go home, Clem. Lead the way.”

The dog took off at a run and he followed. It was a long walk. Even though the woman was slight in form, carrying her for over a mile strained his muscles and wore him out quicker than he thought it would. The snow was knee-deep in places and he had to stop several times to rest and catch his breath.

When his tiny cabin came into view, he forced himself to keep going. He was crossing the creek when he felt the woman stir in his arms. Her eyelids fluttered, and he stilled, his boots filling with water as he stared down at her. Her eyes were so blue they appeared violet. She blinked up at him before her eyelids fell shut again.

He hurried to the cabin and let himself in, kicking the door closed with his foot before carrying her to the bed and laying her down. He stripped the pack from his back and tossed it and his coat to the floor. She never stirred when he removed her bonnet, cloak, and boots. Removing the heavy travel dress she wore would make her more comfortable, but he couldn’t bring himself to take it off of her. If she woke half-naked, she’d think the worst, so he left it alone and covered her with the blankets instead.

He grabbed his discarded things from the floor and stored them away, and watched her as he stripped out of his hunting gear. That morning, he’d woke feeling so lazy, it had taken him well past noon to rouse himself enough to go out. He hadn't even crossed the creek before he tried to talk himself into going back home. There was enough venison to last most of the winter but he was in the mood for something other than stew, so he’d trudged up the hill despite not wanting to.

Good thing he had. What would have happened to her if he hadn’t?

He removed his wet boots and set them by the hearth, then built the fire until the flames were high and threw off heat again. He warmed his hands before pulling off his socks and putting on a dry pair. The woman hadn’t moved an inch since laying her down.

Her face was still bloody. He fetched water from the stove reservoir, filling the washbowl with it before grabbing a few towels. Setting everything on the bedside table, he sat down on the edge of the mattress.

The blood was dry now. He took his time cleaning it off, careful of the cut. It didn’t look as if it needed sewing, which he was thankful for. She never moved, never looked up at him with those alluring violet eyes, and even though he knew she’d be frightened when she woke, the longer she slept, the more nervous he became. What was he to do if she never woke up? He’d have to rouse her soon.

After getting her head wound cleaned, he dumped the water and lit the stove to heat the leftover stew from the night before. He slipped on his old boots, wincing as they pinched his toes, and headed outside to carry in more firewood. Clem watched him walk back and forth from his spot on the rug. By the time the sun sank behind the mountain, he saw her stir.

Sawyer stood from the wood box and wiped his hands on his trouser legs. The woman blinked several times before turning her head to take in the room. When she tried to sit up, he said, “Don’t try to move.”

She jolted at the sound of his voice and turned wide eyes his way. They stared at one another, neither speaking for long minutes. He was the first to recover. “Are you in any pain?”

Her mouth opened as if she were going to say something, but she looked around the room again before meeting his gaze. “Where am I?”

Sawyer shoved his hands in his pants pockets and tried to stay far enough away from her she wouldn’t feel threatened. “About three miles outside Angel Creek.”

“How did I get here?”

“I brought you.” She looked calm, her words were a bit slurred as if she was still groggy. He crossed to the foot of the bed. “Do you remember anything?” At the confused look on her face, he thought maybe she didn’t. “I heard the stagecoach you were in tumble down the embankment. I found you in the wreckage and pulled you free before bringing you here.”

“And where is here?”

“My home.” She laid back down, but the look in her eyes was weary. “My name is Sawyer,” he said. “It would have taken me hours to carry you into town and the sun had already started to go down. I wasn’t sure what else to do with you, so I brought you here.”

She said nothing for a long while. Just stared at him before looking around the room again. “Temperance,” she finally said, before meeting his gaze again. “Temperance Hayes.”

He nodded. “It’s nice to meet you, Temperance.” She said nothing else, nor did she move. Her eyes fluttered shut again. Sleep claimed her a moment later.

Sawyer headed to the stove and ladled out a bowl of stew for himself before sitting at the small table by the wall. His gaze never left her as he ate. He took in her every feature as he listened to the wind howl past the house. If the storm kept up, it would take an entire day to get her into town.

Clem plopped down at his feet. He tore a hunk of bread from the loaf and tossed it down to him before looking back over to his bed. For the first time in three years, he wasn’t alone in his house. It was an odd feeling. He was a loner by nature, so the sooner he got her into town, the better off he’d be.