Romance to the RescueCover

Excerpt from PAINTED MONTANA SKY by Debra Holland

Cover of Painted Montana Sky

Lily Maxwell stared out the window of the train, absorbing the beauty of the Montana scenery. For hours, they’d traveled through lonely prairie with only occasional glimpses of a sod or wood house. Now, if she leaned against the glass and looked forward, she could see snowcapped purple mountains presiding over forested hills and valleys green with spring grass.

The excitement of approaching her destination of Sweetwater Springs banished the fatigue from traveling all day. She patted her leather portfolio lying on the empty seat next to her. She hadn’t dared leave it in the baggage car with her trunk, for it contained the botanical pictures she’d painted at her last two stops.

Ten more drawings to go, and I only have eleven days left before the deadline. The dread that had been building all month as she struggled to capture the perfect botanical drawings seized her. What if I can’t do it?

Lily twisted against the seat, trying to relieve the ache in her weak hip, but only managed to send a throb of pain down her left leg. I hope Mrs. Murphy’s boarding house has a tub and lots of hot water so I can soak.

Even more important, she hoped Mrs. Murphy wouldn’t mind the presence of Dove. In the letter she’d sent to book a room, Lily didn’t mention bringing her dog. She’d found that even the most rigid of innkeepers melted when they caught sight of her sweet doggy and received some happy licks and tail wags. Once again, she counted on Dove to work her magic.

Lily gave an anxious thought to her cocker spaniel, riding in a wooden crate in the baggage car. Even though she’d visited Dove at every stop, taken her for a quick walk and made sure she had water, Lily didn’t like being parted from her beloved companion. She couldn’t wait until they arrived in town, and she could release her dog from her box.

With a mournful blow of the whistle, and a whish and screech of brakes, the train pulled into the station. Instead of surveying what she could see of the town, Lily’s attention switched to the man sitting in front of her. He’d dropped the window and leaned out of the still-moving train, waving his arm so hard she thought he might topple from the car.

A plain young woman stood with both hands clasped in front of her protruding stomach, searching the windows of the train. Lily’s artist’s eye quickly categorized her. A thin, ordinary face, made fuller by pregnancy, framed by a faded gray sunbonnet. She wore an ill-fitting brown dress. But when the woman caught sight of the waving man, her delighted expression illuminated her features to beauty.

For a moment, Lily wished she painted portraits instead of plants, for her fingers itched to capture the moment of joy on the woman’s face.

The train slowed to a stop.

The man in front of her caught up a burlap sack and leapt to his feet. After sprinting up the aisle before anyone else even stood, he bounded down the stairs.

Mesmerized by his energy, Lily stayed in her seat to watch the reunion through the window.

The man raced across the platform and swept his wife into a hungry embrace. She hugged him back, and, oblivious to propriety, the two rocked back and forth before separating slightly.

“He paid me a bonus, Ann,” the man blurted out, loud enough for Lily to hear.

His wife’s face glowed with pride. She stepped back and placed a hand on her stomach.

He followed the gesture, setting a gentle hand on top of hers.

Lily’s throat grew tight, and she had to look away. Not for me the joy of marriage and a baby growing within my womb. She shifted in the seat, and the pain in her hip twinged.

Taking a deep breath of the fresh air rushing through the window, free of the smoke that had belched from the engine’s smokestack, she pushed her feelings away. Today isn’t the first time I’ve envied another woman her family, and it won’t be the last.

Lily picked up her portfolio and held it in both hands. I have compensations, she reminded herself for the hundredth time. She could pursue her art without the time constraints of a husband and family. After all, she told herself. I wouldn’t be here in Montana if I had a husband and children.

The other passengers had already exited the train, leaving her behind. She had to squelch a feeling of loneliness.

Lily set her portfolio down on the seat next to her carpetbag. Grasping the back of the seat in front of her, she stiffly pulled herself to her feet. With shuffling moves, she stepped into the aisle and paused, waiting for her various aches and pains to subside enough to walk. Then she picked up her portfolio and the carpetbag that had belonged to her father--on loan for the duration of this expedition--and walked down the aisle to the exit.

I will make the most of this opportunity, Lily vowed.


Tyler Dunn rode his black-and-white pinto Domino along the river dividing Green Valley Ranch from the boundary of the township of Sweetwater Springs located several miles away. The water, swollen with snowmelt, flowed past him in a heavy stream, broken by the occasional boulder jutting through the surface. He couldn’t help feeling satisfaction when he compared the high water level to that of two summer’s ago when drought had lowered the river several feet until it showed the rocky teeth, now hidden by the dark green depths.

His cattle would have plenty of water to sustain them, and the grass would grow long and lush. He forced his mind to stop counting the benefits. As a third generation rancher, he knew what hazards lay between now and shipping the cattle off to market. Too many things could go wrong. But still, he couldn’t help but think, God willin’, I’ll have a good year.

Tyler ran his mind over the never-ending tasks of the ranch, categorizing everything he needed to do. Once he’d finished the chores on his list, he would have some time tomorrow to take his son, Oliver, fishing. At six, Oliver was ready to use his own rod, even though at this time of year, they’d use nets instead of rods. All winter long, Tyler had read to Oliver from The Complete Angler and had told him fishing tales, both the exploits from his own childhood and the ones handed down from Tyler’s father and grandfather.

A bird burst from a small bush. Domino shied, bringing Tyler’s attention to the present. He turned the horse back to the ranch, eyeing the cattle scattered across the pasture, especially the new calves, checking to see if all was well.

In the distance, he could see his home, as small as a child’s toy—a long, narrow ranch house with a wide, welcoming porch, and the big red barn that towered over the house and outbuildings. From here, he couldn’t tell that the walls of the barn needed painting--a task he’d promised himself he’d attend to this summer.

The vista in front of him held all he’d ever loved and wanted. Yet, as sometimes happened at introspective moments, thoughts of Laura, the wife who’d abandoned him and their son, wound into his assessment of his ranch. Their life together hadn’t been enough for her, and that bitterness continued to burn in him, intruding on his sense of well-being. Even her subsequent death hadn’t changed his feelings. After two years, Tyler still couldn’t help the ire burning through what should be feelings of contentment. The flame wasn’t as fierce as it had been, but resentment still flickered, and Tyler feared the sentiment might always torment him.

But not today, he promised himself. I won’t let Laura’s memory spoil what I have and hold.


Carrying Lily’s carpetbag, with her portfolio tucked under his arm, the portly conductor stepped down from the train and then held up his hand for Lily to grasp.

Grateful for his support, she leaned on his strength far more than she would have liked. But she’d long ago given up false pride and accepted that she sometimes needed assistance. He helped her hobble down the steps to the ground.

The conductor held her hand while she took two tottering steps, trying to find her balance after the continual sway of the train. Once satisfied with her stability, the man released her.

Lily mustered up a smile. “Thank you, sir.”

He smiled and handed over the carpetbag and her precious portfolio before climbing back on the train.

She glanced around for Dove’s wooden crate and her trunk. Seeing they’d already been unloaded, Lily limped over to her luggage, heading first to the big box, riddled with air holes, as if shot by a drunken cowboy. Her father had ordered the special crate with a side hatch made for Dove, knowing Lily wouldn’t be able to lift her dog from a box that opened on top.

Dove whined.

“I know, baby. I’ll have you out in a minute.” Lily opened her carpetbag and took out Dove’s leash. She leaned over to unsnap the latch on the side of the crate, lowered the door to the ground, and coaxed Dove out, attaching the leash to the dog’s collar. “There you go, baby.”

She straightened.

Dove pressed against her leg.

A man approached. He was young and wore worn work clothes. He had friendly black eyes and firm cheekbones in a dark-skinned, round face. “Señorita Maxwell?” he said in a Spanish accent.

How does he know who I am? A quick glance around the platform made the answer obvious. Everyone else had left.

Lily nodded, trying to hold her aching body rigid.

“I am Pepe from the livery stable.” He handed her a piece of paper folded in half. “From Mrs. Murphy for you.”

Lily took the letter. She had to fumble to open it; the cotton of her gloves made it hard to slide the edges apart. She glanced at the message and saw that Mrs. Murphy had been called away to the bedside of a sick friend and wouldn’t return until tomorrow. The woman explained that she’d left everything ready for Lily, including some food set out in the kitchen, and gave detailed instructions where to find what she needed.

Relieved that she wouldn’t have to deal with the issue of Dove and Mrs. Murphy until tomorrow, Lily smiled at the man. “Thank you, Pepe. Could you arrange for my trunk and this crate…” she patted the top “to be sent to Mrs. Murphy’s? Is it far?” She prayed his answer would be no. She couldn’t bear the thought of a long trudge.

Pepe gave her a shy smile. “I’ll drive you, Señorita.” He waved toward a faded black surrey parked in front of the station.

The vehicle was a welcome sight. Relieved, Lily allowed her shoulders to relax. “Thank you, Pepe. That would be most kind.”

He picked up her carpetbag and the portfolio. Tipping his head to direct her toward the surrey, he waited for her to pass.

Holding Dove’s leash, Lily limped ahead of him.

Dove squatted to relieve herself. When the dog finished, at Lily’s urging, she leaped inside the floor of the surrey.

When Pepe helped Lily up onto the seat, she bit her lip to suppress a moan of pain. Once the ache subsided, she settled herself, smoothing her skirts and making sure Dove remained near her feet.

Pepe went back to the platform for her trunk and Dove’s crate and stowed them in the back.

As soon as he climbed in beside her, Lily started questioning him about the surrounding area. She barely noticed the town. It seemed normal enough—white-steepled church, brick mercantile, livery, some construction of new buildings—but she wanted to know about the flowers in the region.

She described what she needed, and to her surprise, Pepe understood without her giving a lengthy explanation. By the time they’d reached Mrs. Murphy’s, he’d promised to drive her to a place where she could find plenty of native flowers.

Mrs. Murphy’s house was a two-story clapboard. Pepe took her around to the side and through the door into the kitchen, where he deposited her carpetbag and portfolio on the table.

“You sit here, Señorita.” He waved to a chair at the kitchen table. “I’ll go get your trunk and carry it upstairs. Do you want the crate there too?”

“Yes, Mrs. Murphy might not appreciate coming home to a big box in her kitchen.”

She took a seat, and, while Pepe left to get her belongings, Lily perused the letter from Mrs. Murphy more carefully. According to her instructions, the woman had left a plate of oatmeal cookies on the table as a snack.

 Lily looked up to find a blue-checked napkin covering a plate. She peeked under the cloth, found the cookies, and took one, breaking off a piece and putting it in her mouth. The cookie tasted moist and chewy, just the way Lily liked them.

Dove looked up at her with begging brown eyes.

“No, baby,” Lily told the dog with a shake of her head. “I’ll feed you later.”

As she ate, she continued to read the letter. Supper, according to Mrs. Murphy, was in the icebox, and she’d made an apple pie for dessert and left it in the pie safe.

Lily offered the plate to Pepe when he came back into the kitchen after he’d finished with taking her possessions upstairs.

The man’s eyes lit up.

“Help yourself. There’s plenty.”

“I’ll take one. But can I also take a cookie for my wife?” The infatuated look on his face when he said “wife” showed that he adored her.

“Certainly.”

He pulled a red handkerchief from his pocket and unfolded it. “It’s clean.” He shook his head, an amazed expression on his face. “Having a wife means clean clothes all the time.” He grinned, his teeth white against his dark skin. “Although I dirty them up quick enough.” He picked up a cookie and wrapped it in his handkerchief. “Thank you, Señorita.”

“You’re welcome, Pepe. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He left, and silence settled in the house.

Dove nudged her leg.

Lily petted her head. “Let’s get settled, sweet Dove. For tomorrow we have a deadline to beat.”


The next morning, absorbed in painting a pioneer violet, Lily barely noticed the warmth of the spring sunshine. The breeze tugged at her wide-brimmed straw hat, ruffled her hair, and teased her with the fragrance of new grass and flowers. The nearby river made a rushing sound as it flowed by, a calming noise that relaxed her.

For several hours, Lily had been painting. Pepe had dropped her off and would return for her in the late afternoon. She’d promised him a drawing for the new house he was building behind the livery stable in return for him carting her about for the week.

Lily had already inked in the flower and had tinted the yellow blossom with her watercolor paints. She leaned forward on her campstool, swiped her brush on the green paint on her palate and dabbed a dot of green on a leaf, then with a tiny flick of the brush, spread the paint to the tip.

Straightening, she eyed the picture with satisfaction. Only a little more of the flower to finish. She’d caught the image she wanted after two failed attempts, which now lay crumpled in the grass. The relief of finally painting competently lifted her spirits.

She glanced at Dove, frisking along the bank of the river. The dog leaped after a bird, and Lily shook her head. Dove loved to chase birds but had never succeeded in catching one. It’s good for her to run and play after being cooped up for so long yesterday.

Dove gamboled back to her mistress and thrust her nose under Lily’s arm for some attention. As soon as she felt the animal touch her, Lily lifted her brush off the paper. She’d ruined several pictures before training herself to keep some small part of her awareness on Dove and not become so absorbed in her painting that she didn’t sense her pet’s presence until too late.

“Not now, Dove. I’ll play with you when I finish this one.”

Her pet let out a sigh and collapsed at Lily’s side. The dog dropped her nose on her feet, looking the picture of dejection. Then a bird chirped and flew by, and Dove jumped up and chased it.

For a moment, Lily paused and took a deep breath of the grass-scented air. Just sitting here, surrounded by the beauty of nature, filled her heart and soul. If only I didn’t have to go home to Chicago. After Montana, how can I be content with just painting in parks and gardens?

Lily dipped her brush in the paint and delicately applied the tip to the paper. She continued adding color, shading, fleshing out the beauty of the flower. She narrowed her eyes, trying to decide if she should dab on a dot of black.

A yelp and a splash jerked her attention away from the painting. Dove! Her heart shot into her throat, and she spun around on the campstool, searching for her companion. She ripped off her hat to see better. Where is she?

Lily jumped to her feet, saw Dove being carried downstream by the swiftly moving water, and screamed. The current swept the dog out of sight behind some bushes that screened the river.

“Dove! Dove!” Lily screamed, her voice sharp with fear. She hitched her skirt and hurried downstream, angry at the limp that slowed her to a shamble when she needed to race. This is all my fault. I should have paid attention, not let her run free by the river.

On the other side of the bush, Lily plunged into the water, wetting her skirt to her knees. She made a grab for the dog paddling toward her, but missed.

The current carried Dove beyond her reach. Lily lunged to follow. Her soaked skirt weighed her down, tangling in her legs. She tripped and plunged to her neck in the icy water. The chill took her breath away, forcing her to gasp for air.

Gathering up her skirts, Lily fought the flow of water back to the bank, and crawled out. Struggling to her feet, she ran along the river to catch up with the dog.

Her corset cut off her breath. Despair forced her on. Her foot caught on a tuft of grass and she stumbled and almost went down. Lily barely felt the wrench of pain in her hip as she forced herself to keep going. “Dove!” she cried.

A clump of western alder blocked her view of the river. Would she never get around them? Dear Lord, please! Please save her!

Her breath wheezed. And as hard as she tried, Lily couldn’t move her crippled leg faster.

I’m not going to reach her. She’s going to drown!