Christmas At Copper Mountain (A Copper Mountain Christmas)

By: Jane Porter

Chapter ONE





Harley Diekerhoff looked up from peeling potatoes to glance out the kitchen window.

It was still snowing... even harder than it had been this morning.

So much white, it dazzled.

Hands still, breath catching, she watched the thick, white flakes blow past the ranch house at a dizzying pace, enthralled by the flurry of the lacy snowflakes.

So beautiful. Magical A mysterious silent ballet in all white, the snow swirling, twirling just like it did in her favorite scene from the Nutcracker—the one with the Snow Queen and her breathtaking corps in their white tutus with their precision and speed—and then that dazzling snow at the end, the delicate flakes powdering the stage.

Harley’s chest ached. She gripped the peeler more tightly, and focused on her breathing.

She didn’t want to remember.

She wasn’t going to remember.

Wasn’t going to go there, not now, not today. Not when she had six hungry men to feed in a little over two hours. She picked up a potato, started peeling.

She’d come to Montana to work. She’d taken the temporary job at Copper Mountain Ranch to get some distance from her family this Christmas, and working on the Paradise Valley cattle ranch would give her new memories.

Like the snow piling up outside the window.

She’d never lived in a place that snowed like this. Where she came from in Central California, they didn’t have snow, they had fog. Thick soupy Tule fog that blanketed the entire valley, socking in airports, making driving nearly impossible. And on the nights when the fog lifted and temperatures dropped beneath the cold clear sky, the citrus growers rushed to light smudge pots to protect their valuable, vulnerable orange crops.

Her family didn’t grow oranges. Her family were Dutch dairy people. Harley had been raised on a big dairy farm in Visalia, and she’d marry a dairyman in college, and they’d had their own dairy, too.

But that’s the part she needed to forget.

That’s why she’d come to Montana, with its jagged mountains and rugged river valleys and long cold winters.

She’d arrived here the Sunday following Thanksgiving and would work through mid-January, when Brock Sheenan’s housekeeper returned from a personal leave of absence.

In January, Harley would either return to California or look for another job in Crawford County. Harley was tempted to stay, as the Bozeman employment agency assured her they’d have no problem finding her a permanent position if she wanted one. So far she liked everything about her job on the isolated ranch, from the icy, biting wind that howled beyond the ranch’s thick log cabin walls, to the cooking, cleaning, and laundry required.

The physicality of the work was exactly what her mind and body needed. It was good to lift, bend, carry, mop, sweep, dust, fold. The harder she worked, the better she felt, and today, for the first time in years, she actually felt almost....

Happy.

Harley paused, brows knitting in surprise.

Almost happy.

Wow.

That was huge. Almost happy was significant. Almost happy gave her hope that one day she would feel more again, and be more again, and life wouldn’t be so bleak and cold.

Because it had been bleak.

It’d been....

She shook her head, brushed off the little peel clinging to her thumb and grabbed the last potato, swiftly peeling it, clearing her mind of everything but the task at hand, concentrating on the texture of the wet potato, the cool water in the sink, the quick motion of the peeler, the dazzling white flurries at the window, and the crackle of the fire behind her.

She liked being here. It was good being here. This wasn’t her house and yet in just one week it felt like home.

She enjoyed this kitchen with its golden, hand-planed pine cabinets, wide-planked hardwood floor, and the corner fireplace rimmed in local rock from the Yellowstone River. She loved how the rustic exterior of the sprawling two-story cabin hid the large, comfortable, efficient kitchen and the adjacent over-sized laundry room with its two sets of washers and dryers… to handle feeding and looking after, not just Brock Sheenan, owner of Copper Mountain Ranch, but the hired hands who worked for Brock and lived in the bunk house behind the barn.

In winter the ranch hands didn’t leave the property much during the week. The work was too grueling, the nights fell early, and driving at night could be treacherous on the windy, icy mountain road, so Monday through Friday Brock provided dinners for his five men, and clean, dry clothes, too. Come weekend, they were on their own, but Harley wouldn’t have minded cooking for extra mouths seven days a week.

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