Lily Singer has never belonged. Taken from her tribe as a child and raised in a white man’s school, she no longer has a place in either world. Teaching has become her life. When that life is threatened by rumors and prejudice after a string of robberies, she must turn for help to the one man who spells disaster for her carefully ordered existence. Will he save her or steal her heart?
Christian Avery, Justice of the Peace, is used to having things his way. Cold Springs is his responsibility, and when its citizens blame the local Indian population for the mysterious robberies, it’s up to him to restore order and maintain calm. The one person who refuses to follow his lead is the beautiful, native-born Lily. Her defiance turns his life upside down and ravages his heart.
But when town gossip shifts from robberies to romance after a foolish indiscretion, Lily’s job and reputation are on the line. She must choose between the only life she has ever known and the only place she has ever felt at home, in Christian’s arms.
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Here’s a peek….
A fresh blanket of snow had fallen on Cold Springs, Montana during the night. It hadn’t been enough to cancel school, but it had covered the town in glistening white. Townsfolk went about their business wrapped in woolen coats and scarves, too tough to let a little thing like winter stop them. The landscape around the town’s new school glowed with crisp white promise, from the field beside the grand building to the blue-bright mountain tops.
Lily Singer paced the shoveled walk around the perimeter of the enclosed schoolyard, a thick wool tam o-shanter hiding her sleek black hair. A matching red scarf wound around her neck, but she resisted the urge to tuck her delicate chin into its warm folds. The laughing, shrieking children throwing snowballs around her shouldn’t see her shivering. She kept her back straight, her chin tilted up enough to project strength but not enough to appear aloof as she clutched her mittened hands behind her.
“Hey! That’s not fair!” one of her young charges roared across the schoolyard.
A few of the boys had built a meager snow fort at the far end of the yard. Jimmy Twitchel stood out among them for his wide, toothy grin as much as Amos Wright did for his chocolate-brown skin. But it was Red Sun Boy who caught her attention when he popped his head up over the top of the fort. He packed snowballs and hollered along with the others, caught up in the game. As pleased as she wanted to be to see the Flathead boy playing with the other children, she worried about him.
There wasn’t enough snow on the ground for Jimmy, Amos and Red Sun Boy’s fort to be more than a bump, but a second group of boys objected to it. They approached, expressions fierce and arms full of snowballs.
“That’s not fair,” sharp-faced Grover Turner repeated.
“Yeah,” his friend Isaac seconded. “The rules say snow should be used for snowballs, not forts.”
“We got those too!”
When Grover’s gang came within a few yards of the fort, Jimmy, Amos, and Red Sun Boy launched a full attack, hurling snowy missiles from a pile the other boys hadn’t seen.
Grover and his friends roared in protest and began their counter-attack.
“Take him out, boys!” Grover shouted, pelting Red Sun Boy in particular with snow. “There won’t be a negro or an Injun left standing!”
“Yes, sir, General Custer!” Isaac answered the call. “Shoot the Injuns!”
Lily winced and inched closer to the boys, keeping an eye on the war. Her own “red” skin had always been light enough to pass if it came to it, but dark enough to betray the truth of who she was. Her students hardly noticed, but for their parents it was another matter.
“Take them out, I said!” Grover yelled.
“You do know that Custer lost in the end, don’t’cha?” Amos laughed and beaned a snowball straight into Isaac’s back. Isaac and Grover both roared.
Lily let out a tight, icy breath and unclasped her hands. It was past time that she put a stop to this. She started toward the war.
“The school’s budget is not bottomless, Hal.”
As the front door of the school swung open, Lily’s path to the boys was blocked. Hal Prescott, the school’s principal, and Michael West, Samuel Kuhn, and Christian Avery from the town council walked out into the snowy yard. Lily took a step back and waited for them to pass.
“The donors that contributed to build this school are generous and eager to see it thrive,” Mr. West continued, “but they are not bottomless pits of money.” He lifted a gloved hand to tip his hat to Lily as he passed.
“We certainly are not,” Mr. Kuhn agreed. The sour look he gave her was as dismissive as Mr. West’s was friendly.
Lily smiled politely and tried to move around the men. The boys continued to shout at the other end of the yard.
“The issue of hiring a wagon to drive children to and from school goes beyond funding, Mr. West,” Mr. Prescott argued, nodding to Lily. “It’s a matter of child welfare. Tell them, Miss Singer.”
Lily paused in her path around them. “It’s true,” she started. She checked on the snow war then took a breath to explain. “These children—”
“It’s not just the funding, it’s the liability,” Mr. Avery spoke over her.
She snapped her mouth shut and clenched her jaw as her argument was stopped before it could start.
“Who would you hire to drive? Whose wagon would you use? Whose horses?” He stopped arguing long enough to acknowledge her. His serious expression melted into a grin. “Who, Miss Singer?” His hazel eyes sparkled.
She met his teasing expression with exasperation. The man had irritated Lily’s last nerve with his too-handsome face and arrogance since he had first interviewed her for the Cold Springs teaching position last summer. Half the women in town were enamored of the mighty Christian Avery, Justice of the Peace. He was the topic of discussion at her boarding house far more often than she cared for. Her fellow boarders couldn’t believe he was still unattached. She could.
“For some of these children, a wagon to bring them to school is the difference between education and no education, Mr. Avery.” She narrowed her eyes at his sparkling ones.
“I’m not saying there aren’t a load of children out in the hills that would benefit from a wagon,” he argued, “but you have to agree that it is an expense and a liability.”
“I have to agree?” Lily balked. “That it is a liability to assure children receive the finest education available?”
“What if something were to happen to that wagon and those children on the way to school one morning? Is it worth the risk? Would you put a child in danger like that?”
His words were far too slick for her liking.
“Children are not a liability,” she pushed on.
“Well, the kind of children these wagons would attract certainly are,” Mr. Kuhn interrupted. “Those farm children are a menace. I don’t want them dumbing my Isabella down.”
A fresh wave of anger rolled through Lily.
“Isabella is a fine student,” she addressed the man, forcing her hands not to form fists. “She would be regardless of who her classmates are.”
“Including that lot?”
He gestured toward the far end of the schoolyard. Lily glanced over Christian’s shoulder at the boys and their war. They had grown louder. Other students in the yard were watching them.
“In my classroom, all of the students help each other,” she went on. “There is more to teach in a classroom besides reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
Christian arched an eyebrow. “That’s an awfully bold statement coming from a first year teacher, Miss Singer.”
“It’s a ridiculous statement coming from an Indian.” Mr. Kuhn sneered.
“I have been teaching for seven years,” she fired back to both men, “in one of the finest schools in Chicago. They never had a problem with my ethnicity or my methods.”
“What methods?” Mr. Kuhn snorted. “All I hear are reports of a bunch of progressive nonsense. I warned you against hiring her,” he said to the other men.
Lily swallowed to keep the reckless urge to kick Mr. Kuhn in the shin at bay. “Learning is more than books and tests, Mr. Kuhn. It is—”
A sharp scream from the far end of the schoolyard cut through her explanation. She turned to look past Christian to the end of the schoolyard where the war was raging.
In an instant her heart dropped into her stomach and the argument was forgotten. Isaac and another boy had a hold of Jimmy and Amos, arms twisted behind their backs. Grover knelt on Red Sun Boy’s chest atop the snow fort, pounding his face with a bare fist. A pack of girls screamed as bright red flecked the white snow.
Lily tore past Christian, not caring that she knocked him off balance.
“Stop this!” she cried out to the fighting boys. Her voice was filled with authority even as her body trembled with half-healed memories of her own school days. “I said stop this at once!”
The ring of anxious children watching the fight rushed to her as she charged across the churned snow. “Oh, Miss Singer, do something!” one of the girls squeaked.
She charged right into the fray, unwilling to let the girl down, unwilling to let any of the children down.
“Grover, you must stop this at once!” she shouted.
Without a care for her own safety, she lunged to grab Grover’s shoulders and hauled him off of Red Sun Boy. A few of the children watching grasped as she lifted Grover and pulled him back. For a moment Grover struggled, flailing as if he would swing another punch. When the shock of the situation caught him, his eyes grew wide. He twisted to see it was Miss Singer who had him in a vise-like grip.
As soon as she was certain Grover was no longer a threat, Lily let go and returned to Red Sun Boy. He groaned and writhed on top of the squashed snow fort. She circled an arm around his back and helped him to sit straight. His nose was bleeding to match a cut on his lip and patches of his brown skin were red over growing welts.
“Put snow on it,” she said, keeping her voice calm and low. If she panicked, the children would panic, and if she fussed and cooed over Red Sun Boy’s wounds, the children would single him out later, as she knew too well. “The bleeding will stop.”
She scooped a handful of snow and pressed it to the side of Red Sun Boy’s face. He nodded and held the snow when Lily pulled her hand away and stood. She rounded on Grover and the boys who had held Jimmy and Amos.
“I am very disappointed in you,” she delivered the most damning words she knew to the line of miscreants. They were all older, twelve and thirteen, closer to becoming men than their parents would want to admit, but they hung their heads in shame as Lily met each of their eyes with a stoic frown. “We have talked about bullying before. I was under the impression we had solved the issue. I cannot stop you from play fighting, though I disapprove, but bullying is unacceptable in my schoolyard.”
“Yes, Miss Singer,” they mumbled as one.
“Isaac, Andrew, you will stay after school and tidy the classroom.”
“Yes, Miss Singer,” the two boys said.
“And Grover,” she met the ring-leader’s eyes with a look of stone, “you will—”
“Do a turn in the town jail in about eight years,” Christian finished behind her.
Furious at the interruption of her authority, Lily spun to see Christian, Mr. Prescott, and the others striding across the snowy yard.
Before they could reach the scene, Lily turned to Grover and said, “You will report to Mr. Prescott, as I think stronger discipline is needed this time.”
Grover made a sound as though he would acknowledge her punishment like the others, but the sight of three angry adults bearing down on him froze the words on his lips.
“You’re Bo Turner’s son, aren’t you?” Christian asked.
He met Christian’s scowl anger for anger. “Yeah. What of it?”
Christian huffed. “I should have known.”
A flash of hurt crossed Grover’s face before it twisted to bitterness, undoing everything Lily had worked for in the boy. He kicked a pile of snow at Christian.
“That’s enough from you, young man.” Mr. Prescott grabbed Grover’s arm and yanked him aside.
To keep from throwing her own punch at Christian for his meddling, Lily reached out to Red Sun Boy and helped him to his feet.
“Those cuts will heal.” She nodded to his swelling face. “Ask your mother for an aspirin after school.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Kuhn demanded, moustache and sideburns bristling.
“The boys were fighting,” Lily replied. “I have—”
“I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about this red savage!”
Anger was hot in Lily’s throat so quickly that she took a step towards Mr. Kuhn before she could check herself. Christian held an arm out to stop her from starting her own war. She glared at him as though the scuffle was his fault.
“Watch your language, Samuel,” he cautioned Mr. Kuhn.
“My language?” Mr. Kuhn gaped. “Who let an Indian into our school?”
“The Flathead children have as much of a right to attend the Cold Springs School as any child in the area,” Lily said, funneling her anger into defiance.
“Flathead children? There’s more than one of them?”
“There’s a small settlement a couple miles outside of town,” Christian said. “A man named Sturdy Oak and his children and grandkids.”
“What in the hell are they doing off the reservation?” Mr. Kuhn demanded.
“My grandfather is a warrior.” Red Sun Boy stood up to him like a man twice his age. “We have earned our home and our place.”
“Your place is where the army tells you it is, boy.” Mr. Kuhn sniffed. “I demand this troublemaker and his red cohorts be kicked out at once!”
“Now, Mr. Kuhn,” Mr. Prescott began with raised hands, “Miss Singer is correct when she says that Sturdy Oak’s grandchildren have every right to attend the Cold Springs school.”
“Sturdy Oak served as a scout for the army. He was granted citizenship and so were his children and their children,” Lily informed him. “Every American child has a right to education.”
“This is preposterous!”
“Would you like to contest their rights in a court of law, Mr. Kuhn?” she challenged. “I’m sure Mr. Avery would hear the case. That is, unless he thinks it would be a liability.”
She underscored her question by planting her red-mittened fists on her hips and staring at Christian with unbendable strength. No one would bully the children in her care. No one.