The Secret Gift

Book #1 in the Harmony Creek Series

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How Could She Fall in Love with an Enemy?

Young Civil War widow Rachel Barnes is determined to put the war and its bitter memories behind her. She and her family are making a fresh start as homesteaders on the Minnesota frontier.

Then she meets Ian McKinnon, who fought for the South during the war. Ian’s charm and his obvious admiration of her make it all too tempting to forget what she knows he really is… an enemy who can’t be trusted.

What will Rachel do when calamity strikes her family and Ian is the only person who can help? 

Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Jane Austen in this romance full of lovable characters, authentic period details, and a deeply satisfying HEA.

Harmony Creek, Minnesota

It’s 1870, and love is in the air in the new town of Harmony Creek, Minnesota. Rachel Barnes and Ian McKinnon are just two of the settlers pouring into the frontier from all over the eastern United States, from Sweden and Norway, and many other parts of the world, hoping to build a better life in a new place.

Some of the new arrivals are starting farms on land claimed under the Homestead Act of 1862. Some are setting up businesses in the new town.

At the same time, the Dakota people who lived in this part of Minnesota from time immemorial have been forced off their ancestral lands and are struggling for survival.

The Harmony Creek series tells the stories of people who lived and worked and searched for love in a time of great change.

Read a Sample of The Secret Gift

Chapter 1
Harmony Creek, Minnesota. June 1870

It was nearly dawn. The covered wagon’s canvas walls took on a faint pearly glow and the early-morning prairie birds were making a cheerful clamor when Rachel gave up on sleep and sat up, bumping her head on one of the many bundles tied above to the ribs supporting the canvas. She rubbed her forehead and glanced around her.

Her father had already gone out to tend the horses. She could hear him talking to them outside. Her mother and her niece Letty were still entombed in deep sleep. It was beyond her how those two could sleep so soundly when the cabin raising was today and there was still so much to do!

But that was all to the good. If she was very quiet, she could escape from the wagon before either of them woke up and go check on the Dutch ovens of beans and salt pork she had left baking in the banked cinders of last night’s campfire.

She took down the clothes she had hung on a nail last night and struggled into her corset, petticoats, and dress as quietly as she could. She cinched the straps of a work apron over everything, pulled on her boots, and hurriedly pinned her heavy plait of dark brown hair into a bun that rested on the nape of her neck.

When all that was done, she paused for a moment and peered into the small rust-spotted mirror tied to one of the tent ribs, turning her head to one side and then the other to make sure she looked tidy enough to go outside. She noted with satisfaction that her hair was pulled back so tightly from her forehead that barely a hint of wave could be seen. That was good. Her frivolously wavy and curly hair was completely out of keeping with who she really was: a childless Civil War widow of nearly nine years standing, one with an especially momentous workday ahead of her.

Her family had so much riding on today’s cabin raising. They had only arrived in Harmony Creek from Pennsylvania a month ago and were barely acquainted with the settlers who already lived in this corner of southeastern Minnesota.

All their new neighbors were hard at work on their own land, trying to carve a living out of the woods and prairie. How many of them would be willing to drop everything to come help them today? What if no one came?

Rachel took a deep breath and told herself not to be silly. Reverend Weatherby had suggested that they hold the cabin raising and announced it from the pulpit of the Harmony Creek Community Church. Surely some of the people who had welcomed them so warmly to their new church would come to their aid today.

She let the mirror drop back on its string and inched toward the front of the wagon. She had just cleared the first tent rib and was straightening from her crouch when her mother raised herself on one elbow and sent Rachel a bleary smile.

Drat! Rachel forced herself to smile back. She had to remember that if Mama was moving slowly these days, it was because the long hard journey from Philadelphia to Minnesota had taken a toll on her. Mrs. Fletcher had never been especially robust, even in her youth. Now, in her fifties, she had followed her husband and daughter halfway across the continent to an uncertain future without ever letting a complaint pass her lips. Rachel had to admire her loyalty.

She motioned to her mother to stay where she was and whispered, “I’ll get breakfast started, Mama! You just stay put and rest awhile more. It’s still very early!”

“Good gracious, no,” Mrs. Fletcher protested. “Rest, today of all days?” She sat up amongst the billows of the feather mattress and started to grope around for her eyeglasses and prayer book. “No, dear, I’ll get right up and do my part! Let me just find my spectacles… they always seem to just …oh, here they are! Now, where’s my prayer book…did I? …oh no, right where I left it, I declare.”

Spectacles glinting on her face and Bible clutched in her hand, Rachel’s mother leaned over and poked gently at the girl rolled up in a quilt at her feet. “Letty, dear! Time to wake up now! Today’s the cabin-raising! And it’s time for morning prayer!”

Letty moaned in protest, then turned over and burrowed her head beneath her pillow. Mrs. Fletcher sighed and tsk tsk-ed. “Come now, Letty. Prayer time!”

Having gently prodded the half-asleep Letty into a seated position, Mrs. Fletcher opened her Bible with a small flourish and beamed happily across the wagon at Rachel. “Now, isn’t this nice?! So cozy! Let us pray, girls!”

“Really, Mama,” Rachel said, “there isn’t enough time…”

“There’s always time to talk to the Lord, especially today when we need His help the most.”

Rachel suppressed a sigh, sank down on the bench seat at the front of the wagon, and reluctantly bowed her head. Be patient, she told herself. It’s just a few minutes.

She had to fight a daily battle against an impatience in her own character, a quickness which made her chafe at other people’s slower ways. But she couldn’t help thinking that if only she’d managed to slip out five minutes ago, the bacon would already be frying and she’d have been able to check on the baked beans before waking her mother and Letty with mugs of tea.

Life would be so much easier if she didn’t have to deal with her mother’s fluttering and chattering, or Letty’s dramatic airs and occasional awkward attempts to be useful.

While Mrs. Fletcher leafed through the pages of the good book, Rachel was already praying. Praying that today’s Bible reading would be a short one. Unfortunately, her mother picked a long passage to read. Rachel bit her lip in silent protest as her mother began reading from the book of Chronicles. How was it that after all the weeks of preparation, Mama did not realize how important it was to make sure everything went right today?

“Jesus wept,” the shortest verse in the Bible, would have been about right this morning. Instead, her mother’s tongue was happily tripping among the complex “begats” and “begottens” of long-dead days.

Rachel stopped trying to listen and thought about the ash-buried beans. What if they were overdone? Or not done enough? Or worse yet, what if a wandering hog or some other animal had found them during the night? A pang of anxiety flared in her chest. Her eyes, which she had closed to pray out of habit, flew open. She needed to check on the beans NOW!

She got up from her knees, muttered a perfunctory “Amen,” and climbed over the side of the wagon, dropping down to the ground and ignoring her mother’s faint gasp of protest. “The beans!” she called back over her shoulder.

Yes, she’d have to apologize later, but God would surely understand. After all, He wasn’t here with his loaves and fishes to help feed the multitudes of house-raisers she hoped would soon be arriving. And if an animal had gotten into the beans, they would definitely be needing some divine intervention!

She skirted the piles of logs and freshly milled lumber that lay stacked on the ground next to the cabin site, ready to become the frame of the new building, and the long plank table laid on wooden crates that stood waiting for the food that would feed the cabin raisers.

For safety’s sake, the fire pit was located well away from any structures or trees that might burn. Her father had cleared all the vegetation from a six-foot circle around the pit to keep errant sparks from starting a fire.

The heaped ashes looked undisturbed. Rachel swept them from the lids of the Dutch ovens and used a stick to lift the lids, one after the other. The rich scent of beans cooked all night with a healthy seasoning of salt pork made her stomach rumble. She gave a sigh of relief. Perfect! Now it was time to build up the fire and make breakfast.

She replaced the lids, put an armful of logs on the fire, started the bacon frying in the cast-iron skillet, and brewed a pot of strong coffee and a pot of the Oolong tea her mother preferred.

She poured a cup of coffee for her father and carried it to the sod stable where he was currying the horses. The team had a hard day’s work ahead of them, hauling lumber into place for the cabin raisers.

“We’re lucky to have such fine weather today,” he said while he drank his coffee.

“It’s about time we had some good luck.” Rachel tried to keep the edge out of her voice, but she saw from her father’s look that she hadn’t succeeded.

“This is the new start you wanted, Rachel. Remember? ‘This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.’”

Rachel nodded, ducking her head so he couldn’t see her expression. That was her father’s favorite verse, and in recent years she had grown very tired of hearing it. Sometimes she wondered if she would ever be able to truly rejoice again.

The Civil War and the deaths of her husband Rooney and her brother Michael in the war had frozen something deep inside her, something that had not thawed in all the years since. What was there to be glad about in those terrible losses? And what about her sweet sister-in-law Katherine, who had caught typhoid while tending her dying husband and died as well, leaving their daughter Letty an orphan?

Hard as she had tried to get over the bitterness of losing them, she had never been able to do it. But Papa was right—today was a new day. She hoped it would turn out to be a glad day.

She took his empty mug back to the fire, then poured two cups of tea and carried them to the wagon for her mother and Letty.

To her relief, they had stopped praying and were standing next to the wagon fully clothed. Mrs. Fletcher was just doing up the last of the innumerable buttons that ran down the back of Letty’s dress. “There!” she said, giving Letty’s shoulder a little pat. “You’re all ready.”

“How do I look?” Letty asked, raising her arms and twirling around to make her skirts bell out around her. She was a pretty girl of fifteen with big blue-green eyes, flyaway golden-brown hair, and a face that could go from charming to mulish and back again in the blink of an eye.

Rachel had already noticed that Letty was wearing her best summer dress, a pink and white windowpane plaid with full skirts and elbow-length sleeves trimmed with eyelet lace. “You do remember today is a workday, don’t you?” she asked.

“Pooh,” Letty returned with a saucy toss of her head. “We’ll be meeting lots of people for the first time. I want to make a good impression.” She eyed Rachel’s faded, twice-turned beige work dress with disfavor. “What will people think when they see you in that old thing? And why will you wear that color? It makes you look washed out. Your green dress goes so much better with pale skin and hazel eyes.”

A sharp retort was on the tip of Rachel’s tongue, but she saw her mother’s distressed look and bit it back. Letty had so few chances to enjoy herself. Let her have her fun today. At fifteen, she was only three years younger than Rachel had been when she married. Maybe Letty would meet some boys and girls her own age today.

Rachel handed her mother and Letty their cups of tea with a reluctant smile, then clapped her hand to her mouth. “Goodness, the bacon!”

Chapter 2

The family was just finishing a hurried breakfast of bacon and squares of cold cornbread left over from the night before when they heard the clattering and jingling of a wagon coming up the track.

“Someone’s here!” Letty jumped up to go meet the first arrivals.

For the next few hours, Rachel was busy greeting neighbors who came on foot, in wagons, and on horseback. It was thrilling to see so many people come to help them get a good start on their new homestead.

Like the Fletchers, most of those who came were pioneers, trying to make a living farming this harsh new land. Rachel had already learned that settlers always had more work to do than time to do it in, so she felt deeply grateful that anyone would take a day away from the constant round of chores to help a family they hardly knew.

The cabin raisers didn’t come empty-handed, either. They arrived bearing plates of biscuits and muffins, baked and sweet potatoes, corn and green bean casseroles, pies and cakes and puddings, sweet and sour pickles, jugs of tea and sarsaparilla, and other delectables.

“Brought you some sausages,” said a burly man who introduced himself as Nordlinger the blacksmith. He thrust a napkin-covered plate into Rachel’s hands. The savory scent of cooked meat filled her nose and made her stomach give a sudden hungry jolt.

“Nice property you got here,” he went on, casting a look around at the busy building site. “You were in luck, finding a place that already had so much done to it.”

Rachel nodded. Their new homestead was a fine piece of land, 160 acres of mostly flat ground with woods in one corner and a creek running along one edge. The settler who sold it to them had broken the prairie sod on three fields, dug a well, put up a sod barn, fenced in a small paddock, and built a claim shanty which had unfortunately burned down the previous summer. He had also sold them his cow, a pregnant sow, and a slightly bedraggled flock of chickens. All those things gave them a big head start over homesteading on raw land.

“I knew Smith, who sold it to your pa.” Mr. Nordlinger shook his head. “His wife never took to life out here—hated the cold winters—but losing the shanty in that fire was the last straw for her. She went back east, and he had to sell up.”

A little shiver ran up Rachel’s back, even though the morning was warm, and the day promised to be hot later. She wondered for the thousandth time if she had pushed her family to take on more than they could handle. She forced a smile. “Everyone warns us about the winter.”

“You’ll do fine. Just lay in twice as much hay as you think you’ll need for your stock and three times as much firewood to keep out the cold.” Mr. Nordlinger touched a huge forefinger to his hat brim and went off to join the men who were starting to frame the cabin.

The sun rose high, and its heat made the freshly cut lumber give off a delicious resin scent. The air rang with the sounds of hammers and saws and men calling out to each other. The frame of the cabin was taking shape when one more wagon came out of the woods. Rachel’s father was busy hauling lumber, her mother was arranging food on the trestle tables, and Letty was off carrying water to the workers, so Rachel went to welcome the new arrivals.

The wagon seemed to be packed with identical blond heads and wide shoulders covered in blue cambric. She recognized the Swensens, a large Norwegian family who lived fifteen miles away, on the other side of town. No wonder they were arriving so late. They must have been on the road since early morning.

Mr. Swensen jumped down from the wagon and pumped Rachel’s hand. “Hope you still have some work left for us.”

“Thank you so much for coming to help,” Rachel said gratefully. She had only met him once, at church, but she liked his blunt friendliness.

Mrs. Swensen leaned down from her perch on the front seat to hand Rachel a dish covered in a snowy white cloth. “I sure hope you like ginger cakes! They do a body good on a hot day like today.”

“On any day!” one of the younger Swensen sons said.

He and a crowd of his burly brothers spilled out of the wagon, then gathered behind it while another man handed tools down to them.

Rachel saw at a glance that the man in the wagon wasn’t another Swensen. He was tall, lean and rangy, where the Swensens were broad-faced and thick-set. His shirtsleeves were turned up and sunlight caught in the red-gold hair on his forearms as he handed a saw over the lip of the wagon to one of the waiting brothers. A hired hand? A visitor from back east? She didn’t recall seeing him with the Swensens at church.

Something about the set of his shoulders reminded her a little of her late husband Rooney, although this man was taller and leaner.

The stranger’s head was bent down and his broad brimmed hat shaded his face while he worked, but he looked up suddenly, as if he felt Rachel watching him, and met her eyes.

Rachel felt a jolt of something like recognition, though she had never seen him before.

Gray eyes regarded her intently from under straight reddish-brown brows. His thick brows lifted slightly and his eyes widened as they stared into hers, as if he felt the same surprise she did.

Her heart gave a little skip of interest, something she hadn’t felt in years. An uncharacteristic blush swept up over her neck and face. She dropped her gaze and stared down at the dish of ginger cakes in her hands, not knowing where else to look.

Why hadn’t she listened to Letty and put on her good green dress instead of the drab old one she was wearing?

On her left, young Bo Swensen was boasting about how many shingles he was going to tack to the roof today, and his brothers teased him genially about how many ginger cakes he was going to eat.

“We’re late,” Mr. Swensen said, looking across to the cabin site where other men were already busy working. “Come with me, boys, except you, Bo and Ian. You two help Mother first.” He and the older boys hefted their tools and headed across the farmyard.

There was a thud as the stranger jumped down from the wagon bed. Rachel stole a look as he went around to where Mrs. Swensen sat on the front seat. So, his name was Ian. She’d always liked that name. Her cheeks felt even warmer than before.

Mrs. Swensen was collecting various small parcels and gathering her skirts as she prepared to be helped down. The stranger leaned forward and deftly relieved her of most of her bundles, handing them over to young Bo with a smiling admonition to mind what he was about.

Rachel froze. That accent! Why, he sounded almost like a southerner. But maybe she hadn’t heard him right.

“Allow me, ma’am,” he said to Mrs. Swensen, and lifted her down in a smooth flow of skirts and parcels.

There was a twang in his words that made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Definitely a southerner.

“I don’t think you’ve met Ian, our hired man,” Mrs. Swensen said before Rachel could escape. “Ian, this is Miz Rachel Barnes.”

“How do, ma’am,” said the man, taking off his weathered hat. He handled it a little awkwardly. “You folks sure have a nice spot here.”

Rachel stared at the ugly raised scars scattered across the back of his left hand. They looked like shrapnel scars. Her hot cheeks turned to ice so quickly she felt dizzy. She had spent too much time in army convalescent hospitals not to recognize a battle wound when she saw one.

“Were you in the war, Mr…?” she asked, knowing her question was dreadfully rude but feeling compelled to find out if the scars and the accent added up to what she feared they did.

“The name’s McKinnon, ma’am,” he said. He looked down at his injured hand a little sadly. “Yes, I was in the war.”

“Which army?”

He raised his eyes to her face and regarded her for a long moment before answering. “Lee’s.”

Mrs. Swensen’s platter of ginger cakes felt like lead in Rachel’s hands. A soldier in the Confederate army! A rebel. One of the traitors who had killed her husband and her brother.

It took all her willpower to give the rebel and Mrs. Swensen a brief nod before she turned away and carried the plate of ginger cakes toward the food tables with head held high. Her hands were trembling, and her heart beat rapidly against her stays. What had possessed the Swensens to hire a man like that? And whatever had made them think they should bring him here?

She had thought Minnesota would be a refuge from her memories, a place where she could leave the sad past far behind. It had never occurred to her that a southerner could come here and spoil her peace of mind before she even had a chance to put down roots.

Setting the plate down carefully on the table, she drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes, willing herself to calm down. Then she let out her breath, straightened her spine, and forced a smile onto her lips. As her father had reminded her this morning, this was supposed to be a happy day, and she would make it happy, even if it killed her!


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