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Finding a Family in the Mountain's Embrace

Lost in the woods, Nelly finds unexpected refuge in the arms of a solitary mountain man. But secrets can’t stay forever hidden…

Nelly, the spirited daughter of a domineering nobleman, has long yearned to break free from her father’s suffocating grip. Tired of being told she’s incapable, she sneaks into town wearing a maid’s dress. But fate takes a sharp turn when she finds herself lost and injured in the woods, far from the safety of her sheltered world.

Silas is a solitary mountain man who lives in a remote cabin in the woods with his little brother. A skilled rancher and horse breeder, he prefers the company of animals to people. When he finds Nelly, he has no choice but to take her to his cabin and care for her injuries.

In the shadowy depths of the towering pines, two different worlds unexpectedly collide. When she learns her father’s true identity and the hurt he’s caused, she’s torn. Amid secrets and an undeniable attraction to Silas, she discovers the family she’s always longed for. But she soon realizes that no secret can remain hidden forever…

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Clearwater, Texas, 1882

 

Twelve-year-old Nelly Everheart stood beside her father. She wore a knee-length black dress with sleeves that buttoned tightly at the wrists. The stiff collar itched the back of her neck terribly, but she dared not scratch it. Her long chestnut curls were pulled into a tight plait that hung down her back.

A rumble of thunder echoed in the distance, and Nelly looked up just as the first raindrop fell, landing on her cheek and rolling down off her chin.

“Come, Cornelia,” her father said.

However, Nelly did not move as she watched the three gardeners shovel sand into her mother’s grave, listening to the hollow thuds as the dirt hit the coffin again and again and again.

“Cornelia,” her father repeated, his tone sharper this time.

She turned and followed her father up to the house. They lived in a two-story house made from limestone. The outside boasted a wraparound porch with intricately carved wooden railing. A porch swing on the right side of the large double doors creaked softly in the breeze, and a lump rose in Nelly’s throat as she thought of her mother. She’d spent her last days sitting out there, staring into the distance, a shawl wrapped around her skeletal shoulders. Nelly had sat with her on many occasions, holding her bony hand, praying that she’d get better. However, her prayers had gone unanswered; her mother was dead, and she wasn’t coming back.

Nelly followed her father through the front doors and could hear the people talking softly in the sitting room. They’d all walked up to the house after the service. Nelly knew she was expected to join them, to drink tea and listen to their condolences, but all she wanted to do was be left alone.

“Father,” Cornelia said. “May I go upstairs and lie down, please?”

Archibald Everheart turned around, his creased brow furrowing in disapproval.

“Of course not,” her father said. “You will come into the living room and speak to our guests, as is expected of you.”

“But Father—”

Archibald’s steely blue eyes hardened, and Nelly swallowed her words, a hollow in the pit of her stomach. She’d been foolish to think that even on a day like today, the day they buried her mother, her father would be gentler on her, kinder even.

Without another word, Nelly walked down the long hallway lined with family portraits dating back hundreds of years. Her father’s family had been among the first Europeans to come to America in 1607. They’d helped establish Jamestown in Virginia. From there, her ancestors had moved to Texas and bought a ranch. Today, the Everhearts were one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the state.

Nelly paused outside the sitting room doors and exhaled softly before stepping inside. The room was filled with over fifty people, most of whom she did not know. As she entered the room, a few people turned to look at her, their eyes filled with pity.

Nelly walked over to the window and stared outside as the rain continued to fall. Suddenly, a hand was on her arm, and she turned to find Lily Jones holding a tray of sandwiches, their ends curling up to reveal their middles.

Lily was the cook’s daughter, only two years older than Nelly. Although they were not allowed to be friends, they were.

“Sandwich?” Lily offered, giving them an excuse to talk.

“Thank you,” Nelly said, helping herself.

“How are you doing?” Lily asked, lowering her voice.

Nelly shrugged as she looked around the room. “Who are all these people?”

“Everyone who’s anyone in Clearwater,” Lily explained.

“Most of these people didn’t even know my mother,” Nelly said, shaking her head.

“My ma said that no one would have dared miss it,” Lily explained.

“So they are here for him and not her?” Nelly said bitterly.

Lily pressed her lips together but said nothing as Nelly turned and looked out the window again.

“Well, I’d better get back to work,” Lily said. “I’ll see you later.”

Lily turned, leaving Nelly alone again; however, she wasn’t alone for long. Soon, a line of people had formed, all waiting to tell her how sorry they were. Nelly thanked them all, hardly hearing a word anyone said. She felt as if she were swimming underwater, and everything was muffled and distorted, and then all of a sudden, it was as if the room was closing in on her, and she couldn’t breathe.

“If you will, please excuse me,” Nelly said.

Without waiting for a reply, Nelly rushed out of the room. She turned and headed down the hallway, through the large kitchen, and out of the back door. As she stepped outside, she stopped, gulping in the fresh air.

When she’d caught her breath, Nelly headed out past the barn and the stables to her mother’s garden. The garden had been established over a hundred years ago. Tall limestone walls surrounded it, the same limestone used to build the farmhouse. The wall had been built around the garden to keep the deer and wild boars out, but that had been a long time ago, when there were more wild animals than people.

Nelly walked along the outside of the walls until she reached the old wooden door. She put her left hand on the brass ring handle and pushed. The door was swollen with dampness and did not budge. Nelly put her shoulder against the door and pushed. The wood groaned softly before the door finally gave way.

She stepped inside the garden. As she did, her knee-length skirts caught in a bramble bush; she reached down to gently pry the material from its thorny grip. Nelly looked around. Ever since her mother became too sick to tend to it in the past few months, the garden had become overgrown with weeds.

Nelly walked slowly down the overgrown path as the rain fell softly. In addition to the bramble, the other unwelcome visitors in the garden included patches of pigweed, yellow nutsedge, and crabgrass. Nelly knew how disappointed her mother would be to see the state of her garden and so, without overthinking it, she began to pull out weeds. She worked slowly at first but grew more furious until she was out of breath, her face splattered with dirt, and her hands and face caked with mud.

Nelly was so busy that she did not hear the door to the garden open, and as she reached for a clump of yellow nutsedge, she saw him, her father, standing at the entrance, his eyes gleaming dangerously. She dropped the handful of weeds, which fell silent to the ground.

“Father—”

“I do not wish to hear any excuses, Cornelia,” he said, his voice low. “You have embarrassed me.”

Nelly dropped her head. “I am sorry, Father.”

“I do not wish to hear your apologies,” he said sternly.

“I will come back inside—”

“You will not,” her father said shortly. “I will not have our guests seeing you like this, like some commoner covered in dirt. You will remain outside until I see fit for you to return to the house.”

Without another word, Nelly’s father turned and left. Nelly watched him go, her stomach at her feet.

Nelly stayed in the garden a while longer, but the rain grew heavier, and as the temperatures began to drop, a thick mist rolled over the gardens, making it impossible to see anything. Nelly left the garden, closing the door behind her. She walked back up to the house, and as she did, she saw the guests leaving, getting into their buggies and carriages. Hoping to avoid her father, Nelly walked around the house. But as she approached the back door, she found Montgomery, her father’s personal servant and bodyguard, standing there, his arms crossed. His shoulders were so broad he almost touched both sides of the doorframe.

“Are you going to let me pass, Monty?” Nelly asked.

“Sorry, Miss Cornelia,” Monty said. “But your father said not to let you back inside until he says so.”

“But it’s raining,” Nelly reasoned. “And all the guests have left; I saw them go.”

Monty said nothing, but Nelly noticed a passing glimpse of sympathy in his eyes.

“I am sure your father will come around before too long,” Monty said. “Why don’t you wait in the barn in the meantime?”

Nelly opened her mouth and then closed it again. It was no use arguing with Monty; he always did precisely what her father told him to do.

“Fine,” Nelly said.

She turned and walked across to the barn. She pulled open the doors and walked over to a stack of wooden crates used to transport chickens and the like. She carried one to the barn entrance and set it on the hard ground. Nelly sat down, resting her chin in the palm of her hand, and she sighed. She’d known that today would be one of the worst days of her life, but it had proved to be even more terrible than she had imagined.

By the time Monty came to call her, it was almost dark. Nelly was stiff and shivering, wet to her bones.

“Your father says you are to clean up and meet him in the dining room,” Monty said.

Nelly sighed. All she wanted was to go to bed.

“Come on, Miss Cornelia,” Monty said.

“How many times do I have to tell you? It’s Nelly,” she grumbled.

Monty said nothing, but Nelly saw the corners of his mouth turn up.

Nelly followed Monty into the house. She found Lily waiting in the kitchen, her face pale.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

Nelly nodded, a shiver running down her spine.

“You’re as cold as a brass doorknob in a blizzard,” Lily’s mom said, her tone dripping with concern. “Lily, go and help Nelly get warmed up and then get back downstairs post-haste. You know Mr. Everheart hates to be kept waiting.”

Lily grabbed Nelly’s icy hand and pulled her out of the kitchen and upstairs. She helped Nelly remove her damp clothing and wrapped a thick blanket around her shoulders while she rifled away in the dresser, searching for fresh stockings and underclothes.

“Someone arrived when you were out in the barn,” Lily said, glancing over her shoulder.

“Who was it?” Nelly asked.

“I don’t know,” Lily admitted. “I didn’t get a look at her, but I heard your pa speaking with her in the hallway.”

Nelly frowned. Who could it be?

“I asked my ma, but she told me to mind my business,” Lily said, grimacing.

A short while later, Nelly was washed and dressed. She glanced at herself in the tall looking glass in her room and sighed. Everyone had always told her she had her mother’s beauty, and she’d been proud of it, but now she wished she could trade it all in just to have one more moment with her.

“You’d better get back downstairs and into the dining room,” Lily said. “Before your pa comes looking for you.”

Nelly sighed again as she turned away from the mirror. She walked across the room and to the bedroom door. She put her right hand on the doorknob but hesitated a moment as she looked over her shoulder to see Lily picking up all the soiled clothing and bundling it into her arms. Sometimes, Nelly wondered what it must be like to be Lily.

“Go on, Nel,” Lily encouraged. “You’ve been in enough trouble today.”

Nelly pulled open the door and left the room. She walked down the hallway and then down the stairs. As she reached the dining room, she hesitated again. She could hear low voices coming from inside. She stepped closer, and the floorboard under her left boot creaked under her weight.

“Cornelia?” her father said.

She stepped into the dining room. It was a large room with windows all down the east wall that looked out onto the garden. In the daytime, the room was brightly lit and airy, but the heavy crimson drapes had been pulled across them, and the room was dim, lit by the only light coming from the oil lamps. Running down the center of the room was a mahogany dining table made from the same tree as the double front door. Sixteen chairs were seated around it, each with a velvet crimson cushion that matched the drapes. On the wall behind the head of the table was an oil painting illustrating a scene from the first days in Jamestown.

Nelly did not notice the woman right away; perhaps it was because she was dressed in all black and might have been simply a shadow cast by one of the antique bronze candelabras with their multiple arms and branches.

“Cornelia,” her father said. “This is my sister, your Aunt Matilda.”

The older woman swiveled around in her seat. Like Nelly’s father, she had a thin face but lacked his handsome nose and broad jaw. Instead, her nose was curved and beaky, and the skin around her jaw hung off her face in an unusual way for such a thin woman.

“Hello, Cornelia,” Aunt Matilda said.

Nelly said nothing as she stared at the older woman.

“Cornelia,” her father said sharply. “Come over here and give your aunt a proper welcome.”

Nelly walked down the left side of the table and approached her aunt. She leaned over and kissed her on the cheek; she smelt like talcum powder and tobacco.

“Hello, Aunt,” Nelly said politely.

Nelly stepped back while Aunt Matilda assessed her, starting at her feet and ending at the top of her head.

“You look like your mother,” she said.

“That’s what everyone says,” Nelly responded.

“Mmm,” Aunt Matilda said. “You know we’ve met once before.”

“We have?” Nelly asked. “I don’t remember.”

“No?” Aunt Matilda said. “Well, it was years ago—”

“What are you doing here?” Nelly asked plainly. “Did you come for my mother’s funeral? Because I am sorry to say you missed it.”

“Cornelia!” her father snapped. “Where are your manners?”

“It’s quite all right, Archibald,” Matilda soothed before she looked back at Nelly. “I had intended to be here for your mother’s funeral, yes. However, my train was delayed.”

Nelly said nothing.

“Your Aunt Matilda is coming to live with us,” her father said.

“Why?” Nelly asked.

Archibald exhaled in frustration. “Because a girl should have a mother.”

“I have a mother,” Nelly said, setting her jaw in determination. “I don’t need another.”

Before Nelly had a moment to think, her father raised his hand and slapped her across the face, and her head jerked to the side, her cheek stinging. She caught her aunt’s eye and saw her brow furrow in disapproval.

“I’ve had enough of your insolence for one day,” he snapped. “Go to your room.”

Nelly did not need to be told twice. She turned and fled, racing up the stairs and into her room. She slammed the door and collapsed against it, sinking to the floor in a puddle of silk and ribbons. She reached up and touched her cheek, blinking back tears. It was not the first time that her father had struck her, but this time, it stung worse because her mother was dead, and Nelly was all alone in the world.

Chapter One

Clearwater, Texas, 1890

 

Nelly sat on the grass beside her mother’s tombstone. Almost eight years to the day had passed since they’d buried her. Since then, thick moss and lichen had grown over the stone, nature’s telltale sign of the passing of time. Nelly had also grown into a beautiful young woman who resembled her mother even more. Her long chestnut hair had darkened over the years, her round face had narrowed, and her features were delicate, almost brittle. The only thing that had remained unchanged were her emerald-green eyes.

Nelly sighed as she reached over and ran her fingertips over the stone, tracing her mother’s name. Missing her had gotten easier, bearable, but there were still times when she ached to hear her speak, to feel her touch.

“Miss Cornelia?” Monty yelled. “You’re late.”

She turned to see Monty standing on top of the grassy hill. Time had also grown on him. He was thinner now, his dark hair thinning on the top.

Nelly sighed as she pulled herself up, dusting grass and sand off her dark green skirts. She turned and trudged up the hill where Monty was waiting.

As they approached the house, Nelly saw her father and Aunt Matilda waiting beside the buggy. The rest of the household stood in a line, all dressed in their Sunday best. Lily was among them, and as Nelly caught her eyes, she gave her a small smile.

“Where have you been?” her father barked. “You’ve kept everyone else waiting.”

“Sorry,” Nelly mumbled, bowing her head.

Aunt Matilda had her mouth pressed into a tight line as Nelly quickly climbed into the buggy. Her aunt climbed in and sat beside her, smoothing her black skirt as she did.

“Really, Nelly,” she said, her voice low. “Why do you insist on irking your father so?”

Nelly shrugged. “I lost track of time.”

Aunt Matilda opened her mouth to respond but closed it again as Archibald climbed into the buggy and sat down across from them, his face dark and broody.

“Let’s go,” he ordered.

The buggy pulled forward a moment later, bumping down the driveway toward the gate. No one spoke, and the atmosphere in the buggy was tense. Nelly was used to it. Over the past eight years, she and her father’s relationship had only worsened, like milk standing in the hot sun for too long, turning sour and lumpy. Aunt Matilda had done her best to smooth things over when she could, but no matter what Nelly did, she always seemed to displease and disappoint her father somehow. Whether it was being late for church, talking too much at dinner, not talking enough, or airing an opinion he disagreed with. In truth, Nelly had stopped trying to earn his favor. She’d decided it was rather like madness, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

At the ranch gate, Monty turned the buggy to the left and they were on the road into town. The staff followed behind, walking two by two, just like the animals did into the ark.

A short while later, they arrived at the stone church, and Monty stopped the buggy right outside the wrought iron gates. Archibald climbed out and offered Aunt Matilda his hand. Nelly climbed out the opposite side, jumping onto the dusty road and earning yet another disapproving look from her father.

Nelly walked around the buggy to join them. As they walked through the churchyard, the crowds parted. Nelly was used to her father’s effect on the community members of Clearwater, Texas. It had been the same at her mother’s funeral—people falling over their feet to earn his good graces.

They entered the church, where pale sunlight poured through the stained glass windows. They walked down the narrow aisle and took their seats at the front. There was no reserved seating in the house of God, yet in all the years, not one congregation member had ever sat in the front bench. It was as if there were some unspoken rule that only the Everhearts, the self-proclaimed royalty of Clearwater, ever sat there.

After the final hymn was sung, the congregation left the church, gathering in the churchyard to talk and gossip. Nelly broke apart from the crowds and walked over to the small graveyard. She walked between the stones, stopping every now and then to read the words written on them.

“Hello,” a deep voice said.

Nelly turned to see a handsome young man around her age, maybe a few years older. He was tall, with thick blond hair that hung past his chin and dark blue eyes. He was wearing a plain cotton shirt and blue trousers. The top button of the shirt was hanging open, revealing his collarbone. He held a small garden trowel in his left hand.

“Hello,” Nelly said politely.

“I am Finnigan Fielding,” he said. “I’ve just started working here in the church gardens.”

Nelly nodded but said nothing. She knew that her father would never approve of her speaking to someone of such low birth.

“Do you have a name?” he asked, his eyes twinkling.

“I do,” Nelly said somewhat coyly.

“Are you going to make me guess?” he said, flashing her a brilliant smile.

“Cornelia!”

Nelly closed her eyes and sighed before turning around to see her father standing a few feet away. His dark eyes were hard.

“I’d better go,” Nelly said.

Without another word, Nelly turned and walked over to her father. He grabbed her arm roughly, twisting the skin beneath her the material of her dress.

“You’re hurting me, Father,” Nelly complained.

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  • This sounds exciting and I want to pound the head of Nelly’s father. He is ruthless and I can’t wait to read the rest of the story.

  • Hurry up I can’t hardly wait to see the rest of what else happens to Nelly. Be sure to send me copy

    • Haha…exciting times ahead for Nelly! I’ll make sure you get a copy as soon as it’s ready! 😊

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