Home > A Healer's Promise (Brides of Laurent #2)

A Healer's Promise (Brides of Laurent #2)
Author: Misty M. Beller

 

1

 


February 1815

Rocky Mountains, Rupert’s Land (Canada)

The sound of animal hooves shattered the quiet morn, and a flock of chickadees shot from the trees near Audrey Moreau. Recoiling, she slipped behind a brushy cedar. That noise reverberated much too loudly to be an elk or caribou, even a whole herd of them. Her breath puffed in icy clouds as she peeked through the snow-covered green needles, her heart thumping in her ears.

Down the creek a distance from her hiding place, a man sat atop a horse, letting the animal drink from the rushing stream. Her chest seized for a half second until recognition settled in.

Evan MacManus. Her friend Brielle’s betrothed had returned already. Brielle had been watching for him for days, but Audrey hadn’t really expected his arrival for another few weeks at least. His trip must have gone smoothly. And his desire to see Brielle had likely driven him to travel faster than he might have otherwise.

Audrey stepped from behind the tree and raised her hand to call out to him, but as her mouth parted, another figure caught her notice—this one much closer and tucked in the shadow of the woods. He, too, sat atop a horse.

Beneath the brow of his hat, his gaze locked on her.

Audrey’s breathing stilled as her entire body tensed. Who was this stranger? Their village was hidden deep in the mountains, unknown to anyone except the local Dinee natives. And Evan. And perhaps Evan’s superiors, whom he’d gone back to report to about the mineral he’d found in their caves.

This man must have been sent to accompany Evan. Maybe he was the first of the miners and scientists who would come to harvest the pitchblende to help America win the war against Britain.

She raised a tentative hand in greeting, though her heart thundered with awareness that she’d walked out here alone, with nothing for protection save a small knife to harvest barks for her medicines. That single blade would be little help against a man like this one. She’d been raised to believe all strangers intended to cause harm, like the ten Englishmen who’d invaded their village a decade before, killing and wounding a host of innocents before they, too, were killed.

But if this man was Evan’s friend, he must be safe. Right?

He didn’t return her smile, nor raise his own hand in greeting. He did nod, but something about the way he was tucked just inside the edge of the trees made it appear he was trying to keep himself separate. Maybe even hiding from Evan.

She glanced downriver to where Evan watered his horse, but he’d gone.

Icy dread crept through her, but she did her best not to panic. She had to find out who this stranger was. If he didn’t go with Evan, why would he be here? How had a stranger come to this remote area?

She forced her posture to relax and curved her mouth into as close to a welcoming smile as she could manage. “Hello.” She used English, as it seemed most likely he was from the American states.

The man studied her for a heartbeat. Then his gaze flicked toward where Evan’s horse had stood, then refocused on her, all within the space of a single breath.

He nodded once more. “Hello.” His voice held a different cadence than Evan’s. He didn’t seem to intend to say more. Did he think she ran into strangers on horseback every day in these woods?

She lifted her chin. “I am Audrey Moreau. You are?”

His response came quicker this time. “Levi. Levi Masters.” That unique cadence was even stronger, more stilted than Evan’s speech. But then, Evan had grown up in Scotland, so maybe that accounted for the difference.

She offered another welcoming smile. “And from where do you hail, Levi Masters? Are you traveling with Evan?”

His expression didn’t shift, and he didn’t flick his gaze again to the place Evan had been, but something in his eyes seemed to distance himself before he responded. “I’ve been traveling with Evan from America. It appears he’s about to leave me behind, though. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Moreau. Perhaps we’ll meet again soon.”

As he nudged his horse forward into the clearing along the stream and turned the direction Evan had gone, a frisson of worry slid through her. He probably was traveling with Evan. What reason would he have for lying about that? But it was that slight shift in his eyes that raised the head of caution inside her.

Brielle reminded her so often to be careful not to overlook a person’s ill intentions just because she sought to see the good inside them. There were enough odd details in Levi’s actions to give Audrey pause.

Maybe this stranger simply wasn’t comfortable around people. She well understood that condition, as her father also struggled with the pressures other people’s expectations placed on him and how he thought others expected him to act in public. Perhaps this man simply felt ill at ease meeting a new person.

Yet, the safety of her people might be at stake. Levi Masters rode directly toward Laurent’s gate, the direction Evan had gone. She should catch up with him, surpass him even, and sound the alarm before he entered the village. Her people had created a signal for this very occasion—when an outsider who may be dangerous approached the gate.

She started forward, quickening her step to catch up with the lanky stride of his horse. When he glanced back at her, she slowed. If his intentions were nefarious, would he change his plan if he thought she was following him?

She was no good at stealth, that was for certain.

She kept her gait as normal as possible, even though she dropped farther behind the man. If she ducked into the woods where she wouldn’t be seen and tried to run around ahead of him, he would suspect her motives. At least this way, she could call out to the village before he entered.

Lord, let them be listening for me. With the joy surrounding Evan’s arrival, the guard stationed by the wall might not have his ear attuned to a signal.

 

Heavy clouds gathered on the horizon, threatening more snow. Along with the frigid wind against his back, Levi Masters could sense the woman trailing behind him, though he didn’t let himself glance at her again. Perhaps he’d made the wrong move in saying he’d been traveling with MacManus. When she’d asked the question, it seemed like the perfect cover to allay her suspicions about his presence in the woods.

Technically, he had been traveling with the man, though MacManus hadn’t known it.

Had the beauty by the stream suspected his duplicity? Part of him almost wished she’d seen through him. Then he could finally be honest and forthright.

His gaze sought out the tracks in the snow ahead to ensure he was still following MacManus’s trail. The habit had become second nature these long weeks that he’d followed the man from Washington. He’d perfected his ability to stay far enough behind that MacManus didn’t hear him, but close enough not to lose the trail. When they reached the snow-covered ground of these northern mountains, his job had become easier. Though, at times, more treacherous as the horses maneuvered over the icy stone.

A shrill whistle from behind him pierced the air, filling the open space around him so its source was almost hard to detect.

But he knew.

The woman trailing him must have signaled someone ahead of his presence. Did she intend to warn Evan MacManus? Or the people of her village?

He scanned the landscape before him, but all he could see was the cliffside of a mountain, with shrubby brush clustered in sections around its base. Were the caves the people lived in somewhere in that mountain? He’d overheard enough of MacManus’s report to his superiors to know of the caves and the mineral he’d found within them.

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