"There's no s in encyclopedia, Frederick," Hannah mumbled disgustedly to herself as she corrected her students' weekly spelling exams at the small oaken table in the middle of what passed as the dining room of her tiny cabin.
With a sigh, she rose to her feet and crossed to the cast-iron cookstove where a pot of water was just beginning to boil. She poured the steaming liquid over a spoonful of loose tea leaves in the bottom of her earthenware mug and carried it back to the table.
She was about to sit down, ready to continue grading papers, when she heard a low sort of scuffling noise outside the cabin door. At first she thought it might be leaves blowing across the ground, or a stray raccoon sniffing around for something to eat. But a moment later, she heard the sound again, followed by what was almost certainly the nicker of a horse.
Cautiously, Hannah moved to one of the small windows on either side of the front cabin door, lifting the gingham curtain just a hair to glance out.
It was dark, the tall trees surrounding her small house obscuring any moonlight that might otherwise illuminate the yard. But even so, Hannah thought she saw something. Slight, shadowed, but a movement nonetheless.
For one panicked moment, she thought about biding or escaping out the back. But then reason returned and she reminded herself that she had always been safe here--just a few minutes' walk from the main street of Purgatory, Texas--and that it was unlikely anyone would want to hurt her, anyway.
Just then, the horse nickered again, and even though her heart stuttered in her chest, she let the curtain fall and moved to the door. She opened it in one quick, smooth motion, without hesitation.
"Hello?" she called, not loudly but with enough force to be heard by whoever was lurking about.
A pale arc of light shone from inside the cabin and illuminated several feet in front of her. A large piebald stallion sidestepped into that shaft of light and Hannah's breath caught in her lungs.
Mounted astride that horse were a man and a child. Both wore buckskin shirts and leggings, and leather moccasins on their feet. Both had straight black hair that fell to their shoulders and beyond. And both stared at her as though she were the one out of place in this quiet little spot outside her cabin.
But it was the man who made Hannah's mouth go dry. Not only was he towering and intense, but she found him handsome beyond belief.
If any of the citizens of Purgatory who had hired her to educate their children could have read her thoughts at that moment, they would surely have thrown her out on her ear.
More than his dark skin and penetrating gaze, however, she couldn't help feeling that his strong features were somehow familiar to her.