Sophie Harris woke to the smell of smoke. She heard crackling somewhere nearby, a strange sound she didn’t immediately fear. It was just a fire. There was usually a fire burning somewhere nearby, keeping them warm in the winter months. It was December and the year 1882 was coming in with a vengeance, with freezing cold nights and icy weather during the day. This wasn’t rare for Colorado, but that didn’t mean Sophie had to like it.
This time, the smell of the smoke was different. Had someone closed the flue in the chimney? Why would they do that and when would they have had the chance? The fire had been burning for hours before they even went to bed. It was usually constant, sending the heat through the vents in the house to the other rooms.
She sat up in bed, looking around the room. It was dark, but her curtains were open and the moon or perhaps dawn let in enough light for her to see. And what she saw immediately terrified her. Smoke poured from the vent near her floor, rising up and covering the ceiling like a blanket.
Sophie’s heart slammed into action, her blood racing cold in her body. She screamed at the top of her lungs, threw the covers from her legs, and shot across to the wardrobe in a flash. She flung the doors open and yanked at the dresses inside, pulling them out frantically. It didn’t matter which one she got on, she just needed to get it on quick.
She pulled one dress over her head and tugged it down enough for her to see what she was doing. While she shoved her arms into the sleeves, she ran to the window and fumbled with the latch, trying to release it and push the window open. When it resisted, she decided there wasn’t enough time to fool with it.
She had one arm through the proper sleeve and the other one searching for the hole when she grabbed the chair at the dressing table and threw it as hard as she could at the window, shattering the glass and sending the chair down to the street below.
Her second arm came through the sleeve successfully and she yanked the dress down over her nightgown, going to the window and eyeing the sharp shards that were still attached to the sill. Leaning over it, Sophie screamed again into the night before running back toward her door.
She touched the knob to see if it was hot. It wasn’t. She laid her hand flat on the wooden door but it was only warm. Maybe the fire was downstairs. It must have been a spark from the fireplace. Whoever was supposed to be watching it had likely fallen asleep.
Sophie’s mind jumped to Nathan. He was in another room at the boarding house, on the third floor, whereas she was on the second. Her heart cried out. Should she go up to him or down to safety? Was it even safe to go downstairs? She didn’t know.
Sophie yanked the door open and went out into the hallway. There was just one other person there. She didn’t know where the rest of the residents were. She could only think about Nathan. Worried he didn’t know the building was potentially on fire, she went toward the stairs to go up.
“Where are you going?” the other lady in the hallway, who was moving frantically toward the stairs to go down, barked the question at her. “We need to get out of here. This place is on fire.”
“My fiancé is up on the third floor. He’s got a room there and I don’t know if he knows about the fire.”
A loud horn began to blare outside, alerting everyone in Boones Mill there was an emergency. Soon, the fire brigade would bring barrels of water and pumps to make the hoses spray onto the raging flames.
Sophie spun around to go up the stairs again but the other resident grabbed her arm. “You know he heard that, girlie. You need to come with me. He’ll get out on his own. You go up there, you might die, too! He’ll come down. That horn can wake the dead, I tell ya.”
The woman yanked Sophie behind her, clinging to her wrist as if they were glued together. Sophie protested but it was no use. The woman dragged her down the stairs and she had to grab onto the railing with her free hand so she didn’t trip.
“Nathan…” she murmured, looking behind her on the stairs.
They were at the bottom of the stairwell, crossing the lobby to the front doors, when Sophie looked once more and saw Nathan rounding the corner from the other stairs onto the second floor landing.
Seeing his handsome but panicked face gave Sophie the energy and motivation to yank her arm from the woman who’d taken it and run back toward the stairs.
At that moment, the sound of wood cracking and fire consuming it made both her and Nathan look up at the ceiling. To Sophie’s horror, what looked like a stream of fire crossed between her and Nathan on the ceiling, heading for a beam just above Nathan’s head.
“Come on!” Sophie shrieked, throwing her arms in the air. “Run! Run! Run!”
Without another moment of hesitation, Nathan hurried down the stairs. He was halfway down when the ceiling gave way just above him. It came down in a V shape, following the line the fire had made when it streaked across above their heads.
The last thing Sophie saw before passing out was the look on Nathan’s face. He loved her. But he would not escape this. He disappeared underneath a pile of burning rubble and all Sophie could hear was the sound of someone wailing as if they’d had their heart cut out. She didn’t know till later that the screaming had been her own.
Garrett Nash stood on the porch of his Long Horn Inn, a two-story dark brown building with white shutters that served as home to travelers and restaurant to the residents of Durango. There were more than three thousand people in Durango and Garrett was somewhat proud that he knew them all. Well, nearly all. They’d come from around the county to try his food and walk around the town square, which was a bustling marketplace for at least a mile stretch. And he was right in the middle of it, the perfect location for lots of business. He sold other products, too, putting a small general-type store in the inn for travelers who didn’t want to walk out to the bigger shop. Essentials could easily be found in his small store.
Durango was growing every day and Garrett was proud of how well he was keeping up with it. He had a mind for business, thanks to his father and grandfather, who had also been blessed with a brain for making money. Garrett understood what customers wanted and provided it so they would keep coming back. Repeat business, his papa always said. It was the only way to keep a business thriving.
The Long Horn Inn was thriving, too. It had been for the last sixty years, established in the early 1800s when there were only nine families putting down roots in the Colorado valley, surrounded on three sides by the tallest mountains Garrett had ever seen. He’d grown up in Durango, his father, brother, and uncle the only ones left after a freak storm blew through the town and destroyed their family home, killing his mother. The men had rebuilt a smaller home, but all three men besides him had since left town.
Garrett turned away from the street to head back inside but was stopped when he heard his name.
There was only one man who called him by both his names: Sheriff Mack Morris. Mack was twice his age at fifty-two. He was an energetic sort, behaving like a man of at least fifteen years younger. Mack was unpredictable, and Garrett didn’t think that was a useful trait for someone in his position of authority. He couldn’t count the number of times someone in town had come to him for advice before going to the law with their problems. If Garrett’s advice was to seek help from the law, they went to Deputy Andrews before consulting the sheriff.
However, Garrett was determined to show him the respect his position demanded, even if he wasn’t quite right for the job. Mack was okay. There was just something about his personality that rubbed Garrett the wrong way and made him stay alert around the man.
“Sheriff Mack,” he responded, spinning around again and raising one hand when he saw the lawman coming up the steps to the porch of the inn. “Need some lunch? Not many people here at this time of day. Nearly two, ain’t it?”
“Yep that’s right,” the sheriff responded. “I gotta get some food in this belly but I also thought I’d let you know there’s gonna be a bunch of people comin’ to Durango in the next six hours. Lots of ’em gonna need shelter.”
Garrett frowned. “What do you mean? Why?”
“Guess you didn’t hear about that fire over in Boones Mill. Started in the boarding house and spread to the businesses around and a couple of homes, too. Those people been displaced. They’re gonna fill up Durango. Happened early this mornin’. I’m surprised nobody come through and told you about it. You ain’t had much business today, huh.”
Garrett turned to grab the door and hold it open for the sheriff. Mack walked past him, removing his hat as he went over the threshold. There was no one else in the inn restaurant or lobby.
“You ain’t got even one person yet?”
“I reckon they haven’t had time to sort themselves, get their things, pack up, get a ride. That’s a good nine hours away by coach, y’know.”
The sheriff grunted, heading for the bar to their right. Garrett went around the long counter and took a glass from underneath.
“You want a drink?”
“Just give me some lemonade if ya got some back there from this mornin’.”
“I might have some in the icebox in back, I’ll go check.”
Garrett left the sheriff at the bar and headed for the kitchen. He pushed through the door and went to the tall icebox in the corner. The inn’s maid, Diana, and the cook, Elsa, were hovered near each other, their heads leaned together as they whispered. Garrett’s arrival stopped their chatting and they watched him as he crossed the room.
“Boss,” they greeted him in unison.
“Afternoon, ladies,” he responded, looking over at them as he took out the lemonade pitcher. “I need a glass, if you would.”
“Oh, yes.” It was Diana who jumped into action, retrieving the requested glass from one of the cupboards near her. “Here you go,” she said, bringing it to him.
“Thank you, Diana.” He poured the drink and put the pitcher back in the icebox. When he closed the door, he looked at the ladies, who were right next to each other again. “Listen, I just heard about a fire in Boones Mill. Do either of you know anything about that?”
The ladies looked at each other and shook their heads at him. “We’ve been here all mornin’, sir,” Elsa supplied, glancing at Diana again. “We haven’t talked to anyone but each other. Ain’t read any papers either.”
Garrett studied the young cook. She was heavily pregnant but insisted on working because she needed the money. He didn’t think she even knew how to read. “It’s all right if you didn’t know about it. I’m only telling you because the sheriff says a lot of people have been displaced and this is where they are coming. We will have a sudden arrival of a lot of guests so the two of you will need to be on your feet at all times. If you need more help, let me know. I’m not going to request any more right now. Not until I know how many people we’ll get from Boones Mill.”
“What a tragedy!” Diana said emotion deep in her voice. “And at Christmastime, too.”
“Yes, indeed,” Garrett responded with matching sadness. He held up the glass of lemonade. “Taking this to the sheriff. He might be wanting something to eat, so Diana, why don’t you come out and take his order for Elsa?”
“I can do that, sir. Let me get my apron on, I’m a bit of a mess right now.”
“That’s fine, thank you.”
Garrett turned away from the ladies and took the lemonade out to the sheriff. Something in the way the lawman had mentioned the fire made Garrett interested in learning more about it. Had there been someone in it that Mack knew? Was that why he was being so strange, so… tense? If he didn’t know the sheriff, he might have thought the man was guilty of something.
But that was a ridiculous thought and Garrett shoved it away as fast as it came.
Sheriff Mack Morris was pleased the town would be getting an influx of citizens from Boones Mill seeking shelter during the winter months.
A fire was a devastating thing. And so close to Christmas, when people were preparing to celebrate and typically had already spent the money they might have kept in reserve for emergencies.
Many people would end up not having a place to live at all, not without the help of their friends and neighbors. They might have even lost all their belongings.
It wasn’t for him to know. He’d been in Durango his entire life. He’d traveled a bit when he was young, but it had always been his dream to be the sheriff. The first opportunity he got, he stopped traveling, put himself up for the position, and got it. Now, he was one of the youngest men to receive the award for twenty years’ worth of service from the state of Colorado. He had his dealings on the side that the townsfolk of Durango didn’t need to know, but overall, he had the best for the citizens at heart.
Mack didn’t feel like he was over the hill. He was young at heart and impulsive. One thing Mack hadn’t achieved, one goal he was still working on, was to settle down and start a family. He was sure once he saw her, once she was in front of him, it would be a mutual thing. Both he and his bride would fall so deeply in love they wouldn’t be able to breathe without the presence of the other.
It wouldn’t be like it was the first time.
He was looking forward to it. If he didn’t find a bride by the time he was fifty-five, he would give up on the idea altogether and go to Miss Lowell’s near the edge of town and get one of the girls there to marry him just so she could leave the life she was living and be someone’s wife. He needed someone he could leave his fortune to. Not that he had a great fortune, but he was left money by his father and grandfather upon their deaths and his uncle had bestowed a nice sum on him, as well. It was expected. They were businessmen and were successful in everything they did.
He was the odd man out in choosing to become a sheriff, the first in the family. He’d used the inheritance from his grandfather, which came first, to purchase a nice home on the main residential street in Durango. It was a larger house than he needed, but when he’d bought it at twenty-four, he’d thought he would be married at some point and would need the room.
Mack took a sip of his juice and set the glass down on the table in front of him. The flood of people from the Boones Mill fire might bring such a lady to his doorstep. He was anxiously waiting for them for that reason alone. He took to tapping his fingers on the table surface in front of him but when he got a look from Garrett, he stopped.
“Sorry about that,” he mumbled, glancing at the door to the kitchen. “You got anything cooking in there?”
“No, we’re doing cold sandwiches today,” the innkeeper replied, shaking his head. He pushed one hand through his brown waves and eyed Mack in a strange way. Mack couldn’t decipher what he was thinking by that look.
“Oh. You got started on them yet?”
Garrett lifted one side of his lips in a half-grin. “I reckon I can throw a sandwich together for ya since you obviously want something to eat. You look like yer gonna start beggin’ if I don’t offer.”
Mack laughed, the tension in his chest easing a little. “Yeah, I reckon I am pretty hungry. I ain’t ate today, been goin’ around town lettin’ everyone know we’re gonna have a bunch of people coming here to stay for a while.”
“Do you know why they’re coming here and not going to the big city?” Garrett asked curiously, going from table to table with a cloth, wiping away the specks of dust that had gathered.
“No. I reckon they aren’t used to big city life. There might be a bigger hotel but the atmosphere and environment ain’t the same, ya know?”
Garrett nodded, continuing his way around the room. Mack watched him, thinking how active the man stayed. He rarely saw Garrett sitting still. He’d always been impressed with the young man. He was hoping to see him with a pretty young lady on his arm soon enough, as well. Maybe one of the ladies coming from the fire.
“How long till we should start expecting people, ya think?” Garrett asked, tucking the corner of the cloth into his waistband and placing both hands on his hips.
“I’d say about two hours or so. Don’t really know how fast these people are getting themselves together. I imagine they don’t have much they’re carrying with them, depending on how much of their things they lost to the fire.”
“So what happened?”
Mack shook his head. “I don’t know much. Fire started in the boarding house but I don’t know why or how. It skipped over to a couple other buildings, hit the trees behind the schoolhouse so that’s probably gone. Some pretty bad destruction, I’d say, for a town as small as that one.”
Garrett nodded in agreement, his eyes sweeping around the room. “Well, we’ll be ready for ’em. Especially if you’ve been going around tellin’ everyone. That was a good idea, Sheriff. Real good idea.”
Mack felt a surge of satisfaction pass through him, leaving him feeling warm inside. “Thanks,” he said in a smooth tone. He picked up his glass and gestured to the front door. “Gonna head outside and watch for ’em. I imagine here and the hotel across the street are gonna get quite a few callers in the next hour or so.”
Garrett nodded. “Sounds good. I’ll bring ya a beer or somethin’ if ya want.”
“Nah, gonna keep my wits about me. I’ll take another one of these, though.” He lifted his glass to his lips and finished off the drink, setting the glass on the table nearest him. “Thanks.”
“You bet, Sheriff.”
“I’m so sorry, miss, so sorry.”
Sophie was in the carriage taking her to the town of Durango, which was the closest town of under three thousand people in the vicinity. She’d chosen, along with several other families, to go to the smaller town rather than the city. The coach they were taking was the last one going to Durango and it was just her and a gentleman named Dane Bolton.
Mr. Bolton was about ten years older than her at thirty-five. He was trying to soothe her, but she wasn’t feeling any comfort. It wasn’t his fault. She’d explained herself right away by telling him she hadn’t just lost personal items, she’d lost the man she loved. Nathan.
The thought of him made her heart ache so hard, tears came to her eyes. She hadn’t gone fifteen minutes without crying so now her eyes were swollen tight.
Sophie had only lost the things she’d been keeping in the boarding house room. She’d been staying there temporarily until she and her fiancé, Nathan, were married. Then they were to return to Texas.
That was where all of Sophie’s true possessions were. Her grandparents had kept everything from her childhood in their mansion, where she had been raised after her parents were killed in a train accident when she was just one year old. A lot of people died in that accident.
As a result, Sophie’s wealthy grandparents had taken her in. She’d kept them on their toes until she left to go to finishing school in New York. That was where she’d met Nathan.
Sophie had written to her grandparents but needed somewhere to stay until arrangements could be made. She had no money on her person. She’d been relying on Nathan.
Tears filled her eyes again and she covered her face with one gloved hand, looking out the window at the snowy white ground.
Her eyes averted to Mr. Bolton and she realized he had spoken. Even in her state, she remembered what he’d said. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Bolton. I wasn’t intentionally ignoring you.”
The man shook his head, his green eyes flashing at her. “I do understand. You’ve lost someone special. You probably can’t think about anything else. I am sorry you feel such pain. I wish I could take it from you.”
Sophie continued to weep softly, using a handkerchief she’d brought with her to mop up her tears. “I… I just don’t know… what I’m going to do now…” she remarked, her eyes moving back to the scenery passing on the other side of the window. “I was living just for him. He was my world. How am I going to go on without him? I… he…” She covered her mouth again and pressed the handkerchief against her eyes. Her words were cut off as she sobbed.
Mr. Bolton moved to sit next to her. “I’m here for you, miss. You can cry on my shoulder.”
“I… I don’t know you. Did you live in Durango, Mr. Bolton?”
“I was traveling through, if I’m to be perfectly honest,” he said. “And please do call me Dane. I hate to see you so upset but I know there’s nothing I can do. Allow me to offer my shoulder, at least.”
Sophie was moved by the sympathetic look on his long face with deep-set green eyes that grabbed the attention immediately.
“I appreciate it, Dane,” she said purposefully. She tried not to be uneasy about him sitting next to her on the cushioned bench. “I do. I just… It’s hard for me to feel like I’m able to even speak to another man. I keep feeling like Nathan would be upset with me sitting on this bench next to you.”
“I’ve made it worse, I’m so sorry.” Dane hopped back over to the other side so he was facing her. He leaned forward with an imploring look. “I am truly not trying to cause you more pain. When we get to Durango, I will be happy to help you find some shelter and then you’ll never see my mug again.” He grinned at her.
Sophie gave him a grateful look, reaching out to touch his hands, which were folded together in front of him as he leaned toward her with his elbows on his knees. He patted her hand with one of his and smiled.
“Thank you for understanding. I didn’t mean you had to move. You can sit here if you like. It’s… it’s kind of nice and I appreciate your shoulder.
Dane nodded, his eyes understanding and kind. He moved to sit next to her again. This time, he put his arm around her and pulled her into his embrace on one side, using his other hand to tenderly rest her head on his shoulder. She allowed him to move her and settled in till she was comfortable.
For the next fifteen minutes at least, Sophie leaned her head on the stranger’s shoulder, her eyes closed, tears streaming intermittently as she dabbed at them with her kerchief. Durango was a long drive, even though it was the closest small town.
Sophie tried hard to distract herself from what had happened to make her life turn upside down the way it had. She only had to wait for her grandparents to find out what happened, which they only would if they were back from one of their trips. They weren’t usually at home while Sophie was away. She’d never had cause to care before. Now she wished they were home so she didn’t have to wonder how long it would be till she heard from them.
Besides, how was she to pay for her room and board? The jewelry she had would only last so long. She had a few other trinkets and a big iron box on wheels she’d been using to transport some of her things. She might fetch a nice price for her tea kettle. What else did she have?
As she made a list in her mind of everything she had, it occurred to her that she’d stored some money in the bank. She kicked herself mentally for forgetting about that gift from her grandparents. It was a relief but even that made tears sting the back of her eyes.
She lifted her head from Dane’s shoulder and once again gave him a grateful look.
“I might cry again,” she warned him playfully. “I might be cryin’ and cryin’ until I can cry no more. But I don’t expect you to give up your afternoon for me.”
Dane shook his head. “I’ve got a book I bought at the general store but from what I can see, I’m much more needed here with you in reality. I love my books.” He grinned. “Wouldn’t want to take a break in the middle of bein’ somewhere else. You know?”
Sophie thought about what he said and giggled once she sorted through it in her mind. “Yeah, Dane. I do know.”
She liked him. Maybe they could be friends once they reached Durango. Without Nathan, she felt lost. She’d always been taken care of by someone, her grandparents and then Nathan. She wasn’t sure she even knew how to take care of herself—and that was a scary thought.
“The Innkeeper’s Christmas Wish” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Sophie Harris arrives at an unknown town carrying the heavy load of tragedy that has just destroyed her life. The man she was destined to marry, is now lost in a fire, leaving her navigating the desolate streets in search of solace. It is the town’s aging sheriff, Mack Morris, who extends a compassionate hand, steering her towards an unexpected alliance with the enigmatic innkeeper, Garrett Nash. In the company of this austere stranger, Sophie finds herself reliant solely on the compassion and guardianship he extends.
Will a fateful night with the mysteriously kind Garrett restore her faith?
Garrett Nash’s abrasive exterior masks a soul scarred by grief as his estranged brother’s memory haunts him in every shadow. Being the owner of the local inn, he begrudgingly accepts the responsibility thrust upon him by the sheriff to keep an eye on the newcomer Sophie. His stoic demeanor clashes with her fragility, creating a tension that lingers between them. As the season’s festivities loom and an unexpected snowstorm entraps them together, the walls of an inn become witness to the unraveling of heartbreaking secrets…
Will Garrett find peace in the winter’s embrace, melting the icy remnants of old regret?
Love, emerging from the shadows of their haunted pasts, proves stronger than the ghosts that linger. Their hearts, entwined by a destiny neither could escape, navigate the complexities of an investigation into the tragic fire. As the winter winds whisper through the town, will the truth they unearth bind them together or drive them apart in the cold embrace of uncertainty?
“The Innkeeper’s Christmas Wish” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 50,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.