Their Mistletoe Matchmakers

By: Keli Gwyn

CHAPTER ONE

November 1860

Sutter Creek, California

The ominous crack of the large oak tree branch overhead sent a chill racing down Lavinia Crowne’s spine. Despite her mad scramble to get out of the way, she lost her footing on the slippery path and fell backward.

The jarring impact as she hit the ground was nothing compared to the thunderous roar as the limb came crashing down. She gasped, certain that her terror-laced breath would be her last.

To her surprise, she found herself trapped beneath a bend in the branch, staring at the stormy sky above. Her arms were pinned to her sides, but she was alive.

Thank You, Lord, for Your protection.

“Help!” Surely someone would hear her.

Bitter cold seeped through Lavinia’s clothing. The swollen gray clouds that had gathered throughout the day had begun unleashing their burden only minutes ago, quickly turning the yard into a muddy mess. Raindrops fell fast and furious, running off her cheeks like a fountain of tears. If only she’d attempted her dash to the shed earlier.

“I’m on my way!”

Lavinia recognized the man’s voice and groaned. Of all the people who could have come to her rescue, why did it have to be him? She had no desire for Henry Hawthorn to see her in her present state. When she faced her recently orphaned nephew and nieces’ uncle, she’d planned to be in her best form. Instead, she was a muddy mess.

The front gate banged against the wrought iron fence surrounding the corner lot, obviously thrown open in haste. A second shout penetrated the downpour, louder and closer than the first, confirming that the man whose boots were thudding across the soggy ground toward her was indeed Henry. “Hold on! I’m almost there.”

She hadn’t heard him speak since their one and only meeting at the wedding of her sister and Henry’s brother ten years before. Unlike his late brother, Jack, who’d embraced his heritage wholeheartedly, Henry had worked to lose his Scottish burr. The hint of the strong R she’d heard that day remained, though, giving his rich voice an undeniable appeal—even if it was the last one Lavinia had wanted to hear in response to her cry for help.

When she’d arrived in town eight days before, her sister’s friend, who lived next door, had been watching the children. Since Norma had three little ones of her own, she was happy to leave the job of caring for Jack and Pauline’s three children to Lavinia.

Henry had returned to Sutter Creek earlier than expected, having left for Marysville a day before Lavinia’s arrival. He’d told Norma not to expect him back until the day before Thanksgiving. That would have given Lavinia ten days to get to know her precious nephew and nieces on her own. But Henry was here now, cutting short her time alone with them by two days. Although the youngsters had been anxiously awaiting their uncle’s return, she wasn’t eager to face him again.

The irksome man had a knack for showing up at the most inopportune times. What he’d witnessed at Jack and Pauline’s wedding reception all those years ago was nothing compared to her present state. She must look a fright. No doubt, her silk gown was ruined. Thankfully, she’d brought several more when she’d come west—along with the boots to match each of them. Some might see that as frivolous, but what lady didn’t fancy fine footwear?

From her vantage point beneath the broken branch, all she could see when she turned her head were a pair of leather boots and the bottom of a stylish overcoat worn by the purposeful man headed her way. The downed limb blocked everything else.

Henry covered the short distance from the white clapboard house at a jog. He leaned over her, confusion creasing his broad brow. Rainwater poured from the brim of his top hat. “Lavinia! What are you doing here? I left the children with Norma.”

The fact that he recognized her was a good sign. Her face must not be covered with as much mud as she’d feared. It also meant that even though so much time had passed since they’d met on that memorable but melancholy day his only brother had married her beloved sister, Henry hadn’t forgotten her. Then again, how could he after the spectacle she’d made of herself at the reception afterward?

Although she’d been just sixteen at the time, she’d known better than to behave like a petulant child. It wasn’t his fault that his brother, Jack, had robbed her of her only sibling and best friend, whisking Pauline off to the Wild West. Not that Henry had shown much sympathy. Lavinia could still hear his mild reproach. They’re happy. Why can’t you be happy for them?

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