A Mail-Order Hope

By: Janelle Daniels

He watched her eyes move around the glade, looking for a familiar path, studying the brush for signs they’d come through them. He wanted to smile; she had more skills than he’d originally thought. “Guesses?”

“There.” She finally pointed to an opening in the forest.

He knew why she picked it, as it seemed the most logical and had a big opening. But they hadn’t come through there. “Try again.”

She didn’t argue, but simply refocused her attention on their surroundings, searching again for something she’d missed. His mind staggered a step back. He’d expected her to argue or complain, but there had been none of that.

“I’m not sure,” she finally said. “At first I thought the opening, because it seemed like a natural path for animals and us.”

“That makes sense. And it’s smart.” Her eyes flew to his at his praise. “What?”

“I’m just not used to hearing myself referred to as smart,” she admitted. “Funny, nice, even pretty on occasion, but never smart.”

Anger speared him. Belle was clearly intelligent. The fact someone had convinced her otherwise infuriated him. “I don’t lie. I call things how I see them. On that same note, I don’t flatter, and I won’t tell you anything that isn’t true.”

Her cheeks flushed a becoming shade of pink, and he knew she believed him.

He gestured around the meadow. “What else do you see? What could be used to tell you where you are or what direction you need to go?”

She bit her lip and looked around. “The sun. Although, I’ll admit I don’t know how to utilize it. Also, I’ve heard moss can help, but I don’t know if I believe that.”

“It’s true. Moss growth can tell you which direction to go in. The sun can as well. Come on,” he said, nodding toward a cluster of trees. “Moss may be helpful, but if you don’t know what to look for, it could also send you in the wrong direction. It only needs moisture to grow, so when you find moss, you need to ration out why it’s moist there. It’s almost always moist near the ground, so ignore any moss found there. Also, if there’s overhanging branches, moisture most likely drips from there and should be ignored. Really rough bark can also produce moss, even when facing south.”

He walked past the cluster of trees and pointed behind them. “This is what you’re looking for.” He gestured to the moss growing on the bark. “It’s almost completely vertical, and the bark isn’t too rough, so water will run down it at a good rate. There’s no low-lying branches either. This moss is growing because it gets less sun during the day, allowing moss to grow, which means—”

“That’s north!” Belle interrupted with excitement while pointing in that direction. “The moss is growing because that part of the tree is facing north.”

He raised a brow in amusement. “Exactly.”

She began laughing then. “I’m sorry,” she said between breaths. “I get a bit too excited at times.”

“I can see that,” he replied dryly, which only made her laugh more.

“Teach me how to read the sun.”

With joy shining in her eyes, he couldn’t deny her. He taught her how to read the sun to gauge direction. From there, he taught her how to find water, and more importantly, how to treat it. He pointed out various vegetation and explained which could be eaten, and which would poison her. She soaked up each piece of knowledge like a sponge, and he was impressed with the way she picked it all up quickly.

After a few hours, he glanced at the sun. “It’s getting late.”

She nodded, but didn’t look happy about it, and for once, he almost wished that things were different for him. He wished he could be someone who could spend time with her and get to know her, possibly even be her friend.

But it was better if that never happened.

Better for both of them.

“You’ll win that scavenger hunt, I’m sure,” he finally said. “You picked up everything quickly. I have no doubts.”

She gave him a small smile. “You could help me, then we would be sure to win. I’d even let you keep the money,” she said offhandedly, but he could tell it was forced.

He studied her as she looked everywhere but at him. “What would I need the money for? You’d have better use for it.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Maybe you could stock up on food or buy a few new shirts?”

As she listed more ideas of how he could spend the money, it hit him—she thought he was broke. She thought he couldn’t even afford food. Before he could stop it, laughter rumbled in his chest and poured out in a way he hadn’t experienced in years.

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