Authors: Susanne Matthews
Krista stared out the window at the driving snow, praying the damn bus would make it to Appleton in one piece, and then wondering if dying out here along the highway might not be the best thing for everyone concerned. She shook her head. Just because her situation was the pits didn’t mean the driver and the passengers didn’t deserve life and happiness.
For the last three weeks, she’d vacillated between excitement and despair, tinged with fear. The nightmares were back, making it impossible to sleep, leaving her irritated and cranky, too exhausted to do what she had to and get on with living.
Seven Oaks. She was finally going home—no, not home—home was where you were loved and wanted, where you were safe from the bullies in this world. Ten years ago, she’d been told to pack her bags and leave. Now, according to the lawyer, the front door was wide open. The will’s conditions were explicit. She had to spend one last Christmas in the old homestead, and then she would be free to turn her back on Appleton, the family, and whoever the hell else she wanted to once more. If it weren’t for the fact that she was in desperate need of money, she would’ve told the lawyer and Ethan to shove it. There was nothing she wanted from her step-uncle or his family, but faced with reality, she’d swallowed the pride that almost killed her these last three years and agreed to go. After verifying that the team wouldn’t be on the flight, she’d accepted the first class ticket to Calgary, and packed her bags. If she were going down in flames, at least she’d do it in style. The irony didn’t escape her.
Five days. I can make it through five days, and as soon as Christmas is over, I’m out of here.
As if an omen that she’d made another colossal error, the flight from Ottawa to Calgary had been delayed three hours because of a storm, and she’d hoped once she got to Alberta she would’ve left all that bad weather behind her. No such luck. They’d had to circle the airport several times before someone managed to clear a runway so they could land. First class or not, she’d been terrified the plane would run out of fuel, and they would plummet to the ground. That certainly would’ve made Ethan happy. He would have everything he wanted, and it wouldn’t have cost him a cent.
Once the plane landed safely, it had taken everything in her not to drop to her knees and kiss the carpet in the Calgary airport, but no doubt someone would’ve captured that image on their cellphone, and it would’ve gone viral. She would’ve been front and center in the news again. She’d tried to change her appearance, but even with the wig and glasses she wore, she couldn’t be sure no one would recognize her. If someone did, then they would figure out a way to link her odd behavior to her ex-husband, too, since hockey was a religion in Canada, and all hockey players were gods—even lying, cheating, abusive scumbags like Theo.
She’d headed to the car rental place, planning to lease a vehicle for the 125 mile drive to Appleton, but not only had there been nothing suitable available, with the way the snow was coming down, she didn’t trust herself behind the wheel. Instead, she’d taken a cab to the bus station and had texted Ethan that she’d be there by seven-thirty at the latest, asking that he arrange to have someone meet her. She didn’t mention that she would be trapped at Seven Oaks without a means of escape. He would figure that out on his own. The trip would take close the three hours and that was fine by her—put off the family reunion as long as possible.
Family reunion. What an odd way to think of seeing the man she’d thought to marry, the man who’d swept her out of her life as easily as he did the soiled straw out of the stable. Now that she thought of it, that analogy fit since she certainly felt old, used, and abused.
The elderly woman beside her snored loudly, startling Krista. How anyone could sleep through this ruckus was a mystery, but judging by the number of items she’d placed up top, the woman had probably “shopped until she dropped.” The driver, a man she recognized as Ted, one of her school bus drivers from years ago, was pumping Christmas music through the speakers, loud enough to be heard over the din of conversation. As it had been in the past, the bus was packed with holiday shoppers with their bags and packages overflowing in the overhead storage bins. She’d actually been lucky to get a seat. Parking in downtown Calgary was a nightmare at the best of times, and most of the people living along this particular bus route avoided it when they could.
How many times had she and Mom made the annual shopping trip into the city? It used to be one of her favorite Christmas activities. The holiday hadn’t meant much once she’d been on her own. Theo only paid lip service to the celebration, participating as the team insisted he had to, but for the three years of their marriage, there’d been no tree and presents in the condo. She couldn’t call it home. There’d been no love there, either.
Krista shifted in the seat, hoping to help the circulation in her legs. While the driver had put her suitcase underneath, her backpack sat on her lap, and she could barely move. Across the way, two kids were having a noisy argument over a video game and their parents seemed oblivious to the fact the little darlings were acting up, probably because they couldn’t hear them over the music and the drunks at the back of the bus. No doubt the boisterous men had been to a Flames afternoon game and were on their way back home. She didn’t dare look at any of them in case they recognized her. Her face had been flashed on the big screen more than once, and it had been on television last week when one of the game analysts had wondered if Theo’s recent “heartbreaking” divorce was responsible for his scoring slump. Sports’ announcer would grasp at any excuse to keep flapping their jaws.
Sooner or later, someone was bound to identify her, and those who loved to gossip about the girl who’d dumped the Gladiators’ star player would have a field day. No one would care that he’d lied, cheated, and beat her. Hell, they wouldn’t even care she’d walked away without a cent just to get her freedom back. She’d quit her job working with the team, and wouldn’t look for anything similar in the league. The last thing she wanted was to see him again. She wouldn’t even watch the team play on television.
The letter from Ethan’s lawyer last month, just after her divorce had been finalized, had caught her by surprise. It had informed her that she’d been named co-heir in her step-uncle’s will—something that had come as a shock since she hadn’t heard a word from the family since the day Uncle Charles had tossed her out with two suitcases, a ticket to Ottawa, and the admonition that, if she ever stepped foot on his land again, he’d have her arrested for trespassing.
For the last ten years, she’d tried to forget Seven Oaks and the people living there, especially Ethan, who’d crushed her heart under the cowboy boots he wore. Within a couple of hours, she’d have to face him again—hell, she’d be living with him, and whatever family he had, for a week. Could she smile and be nice to the woman who’d taken the place she’d hoped would be hers? Was the money really worth subjecting herself to all that pain?
Almost three years ago, just after she and Theo had married, she’d seen Ethan at a Calgary Flames game with a bunch of guys she recognized from Appleton. One of the town’s own had made it to the big leagues—albeit as a team trainer—and he must’ve comped the tickets and the box. Ethan had been too far away to see clearly, but she’d recognized him. Like the commercials were so fond of saying, “you never forgot the one that got away” or in this case, tossed you away. Theo’s jealousy had kept her from approaching Ethan and her old friends.
Forced to spend Christmas together. It would be just like her uncle to try to screw his son out of his inheritance. Ethan resembled his mother and because of that, theirs hadn’t been an easy relationship. She’d accidentally walked into the house when they were arguing and Uncle Charles had questioned Ethan’s paternity. It had been an ugly scene. No wonder her aunt had died young—it had probably been the only way she saw out of a marriage that couldn’t have been much easier than the one Krista had had with Theo.
Starved for affection as she’d been, the Russian-born hockey player had swept her off her feet, but that glamorous life had quickly turned into a nightmare when her husband had shown his true colors. The league’s darling on the ice was a mean bastard, and like so many other abused wives, she’d hidden the truth of what had been a failed marriage almost from the start, behind plastic smiles and excuses. In the end, irreconcilable differences had made her the villain of the piece, and that was fine, as long as she was free.
After paying off her own lawyer, Krista had barely enough in the bank to cover the next three mortgage payments on her condo, the one thing Theo had let her have since it was mortgaged to the hilt. She’d put the apartment on the market, but she’d be lucky to get enough for it to cover what she owed. Ethan’s money would help her get back on her feet, and that was why she’d do this even if it killed her. She needed to find herself, so she could heal and be whole again.
Ten years ago, when her uncle became abusive, she’d tried to contact Ethan. For some reason, Uncle Charles had canceled their internet service, and when she’d asked for Ethan’s contact number, since he hadn’t called as promised—something that should’ve warned her things had changed—Uncle Charles had called her a bitch sniffing after his son, informing her Ethan had left the ranch to avoid what was becoming an embarrassing and unwanted situation between them. The words cut deeply. She’d believed Ethan loved her. With no other option, she’d gone to snail mail, and even though he’d never contacted her after she’d left the ranch, she couldn’t let him lose the land he’d loved, the land she’d thought would always be her home.
What was it they said about foolish dreams? She’d envisioned herself raising her children, Ethan’s children, in the foothills of the Rockies, on the land that had been in her stepfather’s family for four generations. She’d turned the other cheek to her uncle’s abuse; what she hadn’t expected was to get a boot there from the man she loved.
A sudden jerk brought her back to the present. The snow fell relentlessly. She hated snowstorms, no matter where she was, and snow here, now, on this road, brought back the fear and pain she’d never been able to overcome. Had Ethan or Uncle Charles ever given a thought to the lost, lonely girl alone in a city full of strangers? Sure, they hadn’t been blood relatives, but they’d been part of her life for more than thirteen years? Why had that not counted?
Stop by stop, the bus disgorged its occupants. Thankfully, her seat companion had been among the first to go, and she could stretch out a bit. The hockey fans and the kids had gotten off at the last town, and the bus was blissfully silent. She pulled out her phone and texted Ethan once more.
Despite the weather, the bus seems to be on time. Have you arranged pick up for me?
Seconds later, the phone buzzed indicating a message.
Will pick you up myself. May be a few minutes late since I have to collect Leah first.
After texting her thanks, Krista sat back. She’d hoped he would send one of the ranch hands, and she could put off the awkward first meeting for a while longer. Who was Leah? His wife?
Her phone buzzed again. Thinking it was Ethan, she swiped to answer.
Have potential buyer. Wants to move in Feb 1. Offering 10K more if he can have it furnished. Please respond.
She clicked on the keyboard.
Take the offer. Will be back by New Year’s to clean out personal belongings.
She chuckled ruefully. How perfect was that? Merry Christmas. No job, no money, no home. One lone tear slipped down her cheek.
has a name,” Ethan reminded his five-year-old daughter who hadn’t stopped asking questions since he’s strapped her into her car seat. “It’s Krista. She grew up on Seven Oaks. Her stepdad was Grandpa’s brother. The first time I met her, she was just about your size. She’s going to spend Christmas with us this year.” Ethan turned down Main Street. If the streets were this bad in town, the highway would be brutal. He hoped Krista was hanging in there okay, remembering how weather like this used to bother her.
“Why did she go away?” his daughter asked.
“It’s complicated,” he answered, knowing the queen of
wouldn’t let it go at that. He breathed a sigh of relief when she apparently did.
“Did she have her own pony?”
Thank you, God.
As long as Leah was fixated on horses, she might not ask too many embarrassing, unanswerable questions. She’d asked Santa for a pony and right now the animal was in the Anderson’s barn until he could send one of the men to pick it up Christmas Eve and sneak it into their own stable. The saddle, tack, and riding helmet were already there, and Clint had been working on fixing up a stall. Cooper, the bootmaker, expected to have her new boots ready anytime, but in this weather he might not be able to pick them up until Tuesday or Wednesday.
“Yes. Patches was the pony she rode. Princess is her horse. I’ve been taking care of her until she comes back.”
The fact Krista had left Princess, and so many of the items she treasured behind, hadn’t made sense to him, and he should’ve realized she wouldn’t have done so unless she’d had to. The black Arabian with the white blaze had been five years old when Uncle Luke had given her to Krista, and she’d loved that animal. He’d refused to let his father sell her—had actually paid for her feed and seen to her care and exercise himself—rather than cut Krista’s last tie with the ranch. Now that he understood what had happened, he hoped Krista would accept that he’d done the best he could, even when he hadn’t understood how deeply she’d been wronged.
“Princess is my second favorite horse after Patches.”
“Well, Princess is a well-behaved lady, but you know Patches is an old pro.”
“Will Patches be sad when I get a new pony?”
“No, sweetie. He won’t be sad. He’ll get to spend his days in the paddock with the other horses, and you can still bring him treats.”
She nodded. A few moments later, his daughter spoke again. “Will she like me?”
“Who? Your new pony? Well, if Santa brings one…”
“Not the pony, Daddy, Krista.”
He heard the uncertainty in her voice, put there no doubt by his father, a crotchety old bastard who’d ruined his own life. Just because Charles Terrance hadn’t believed in love didn’t mean it didn’t exist. Uncle Luke had loved Aunt Jill, and Krista had been his pride and joy, just as Leah was Luke’s. A man didn’t have to be a child’s biological father to love her.
“Everyone likes you, button head, and you know it. I haven’t seen Krista in ten years, but she was very nice back then, and I’m sure she hasn’t changed.”
Although from the media circus that had followed her divorce, it would be a miracle if she hadn’t. He didn’t know Theo Nitchkov, but he had a couple of buddies on the Flames who did, and they said he was one mean son of a bitch, especially after he’d been drinking. It had come as a shock when he’d seen Krista’s face splashed across
The Hockey News
last spring, especially when he’d seen the haunted look in the silver-blue eyes that had plagued his dreams for years.
Ethan had been crushed when she’d left the ranch while he’d been at Simon Fraser, and he hadn’t realized why she’d done that until his dad’s death two months ago. His father had said she’d wiped her feet of both Seven Oaks and him, preferring her fancy family back east. According to his old man, all she’d wanted had been money to support her extravagant lifestyle, money he’d claimed he’d sent her each month. Ethan had been hurt that she’d gone without saying goodbye, and when none of his letters had been answered, he’d seen no reason to question his dad. Why would he? Eventually, he’d given up and stopped writing.
“Now, unbuckle yourself, and put your mitts back on. We’ll go inside and wait for the bus. Mama got fresh turkeys in yesterday, so we’ll stop at Schneider’s before we head back and pick one up for Christmas dinner and get fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s coming down pretty heavily, and we might get snowed in.”
The idea of being snowed in with Krista appealed to him, especially if it kept her on the ranch long enough for him to plead his case.
“Who’s going to cook the turkey and the rest of the food for us while Mrs. Jones is away?”
“I am,” Ethan said, although his menu choices were limited to boxed, canned, or frozen.
“Ugh! I don’t want macaroni every day, and who’s going to make the cookies?”
“Aggie will make cookies with you. For the record, I can make more than macaroni. As far as the turkey goes, there are all kinds of cookbooks in the kitchen.” How hard could it be?
Jonesy, the woman who kept him sane and helped care for Leah, had left for Estevan, Saskatchewan, yesterday because her sister had fallen and broken her hip. She’d bemoaned the fact she would miss Krista since she wouldn’t be back until after the New Year. When he’d asked the lawyer to help him out and invite Krista for Christmas, he hadn’t expected to have to share the house with her and only Leah as chaperone. Appleton was a small village, one with old-fashioned, conservative morals, and he hoped having Krista share the house with him wouldn’t set tongues wagging.
Ethan turned off the engine, helped his daughter out of the truck, and pulled up the collar on his sheepskin jacket. The knitted wool cap he wore covered his ears, but the cold wind seemed to blow right through the wool. Unlike a few of his friends, he still had hair, but it was tinged with silver and not nearly as thick as it used to be. He scooped Leah up into his arms and hurried into the depot.
“Hi, Mabel,” he said depositing his hot pink bundle on her feet. “Is the bus from Calgary in yet?”
“Hello, Ethan. Princess Leah, how are you?” Mabel said, addressing the child. “I’ll bet you’re anxious to have Santa come.”
Mabel turned to him. “No, but it should be here anytime. Ted radioed he was about five miles away. I’ll be glad when he’s off the road. We can always use the extra money from the overtime, but … I doubt anything else will be moving tonight, not even the plows. The weather channel says we can expect over twenty inches before it’s over.”
“Does that mean Santa won’t be able to come either?” Leah asked, her lower lip trembling.
“Of course he’ll come,” Mabel said. “He lives at the North Pole, and on snowy nights, Rudolph’s nose guides him. Why this kind of weather is his absolute favorite.” She turned to Ethan. “You got a package coming in on the bus?”
“Not a package,” he said, trying to curb his anticipation. “Krista’s coming home for Christmas.” He’d hoped to be able to say that for years, and now that the moment was here, he had to pinch himself to be sure he wasn’t dreaming.
“Krista Jacobs? Halleluiah! That’s wonderful news. I never understood what happened that summer. I expected you two would end up together … Poor thing. I saw all that nonsense about her divorce in the tabloids. Mama wouldn’t even put them out on the rack. Well, coming home to family when you’ve been hurt like that is always good. It must’ve been hard on her losing her mom and stepdad like that. He doted on her something fierce. At least she had folks back east. I suppose they’re all gone now, too.”
Ethan nodded, knowing the lie was something his dad had led people to believe. He didn’t kid himself for a second. As much as he’d prayed Krista would come back one day, he knew she wasn’t here because she wanted to be, but because she had to be. When he’d discovered his father’s deception, he’d asked Cal Knight, a trainer with the Flames, to talk to one of the league lawyers and get the real scoop on her divorce, not sure how he could get her to come home so he could fix things.
As awful as it was, he’d been thrilled to discover she’d been screwed, left with nothing, and was in need of not only money but a job. He was offering her a fistful of money, which he hoped she wouldn’t take, and a “job” he hoped she would. He prayed she wouldn’t be too angry to listen to him and blame him for his father’s actions when she learned the truth.
“Daddy, can I have a candy cane?” Leah asked pointing to the one Mabel was offering her.
“Sure. We’ll pick up something for supper at the store. Maybe pizza.”
“If that’s what Krista likes, yes; otherwise we might have to get you a small one and something else for her.”
“Okay, as long as I get Hawaiian.”
“Determined, isn’t she?” Mabel asked, and laughed. “The bus is here.” She handed Leah the candy. “I’ll watch her while you go meet Krista.”
“Thanks.” He bent down to Leah’s eye level. “Just one candy cane,” he said holding up one figure in front of his daughter’s eyes. “I’ll be right back.”
Pursing his lips, he headed toward the bus bays, hoping he’d made the right decision. Ted opened the bus door and stepped out to assist the passengers. He saw Maggie Smith and Edna Frump get out, their arms loaded down with packages. His eyes fixed on the door, he exhaled the breath he held when Krista stepped off the bus.
The first thing he noticed was that her curly hair, the color of fall leaves on the oak trees his great grandfather had planted near the main house, had been replaced by straight, dark brown hair that reached her shoulders. His uncle used to say that hair was proof she belonged on the ranch. He’d like to think that was still true.
The darker hair changed her, made her appear paler, more fragile, but the silver-blue eyes he remembered were the same. The gray tweed coat she wore seemed too big for her. Had she been sick? Maybe it was just a four hour flight followed by a three hour bus ride that had taken the roses out of her cheeks, but he’d bet that bastard, who’d probably used her as a punching bag if his friends were to be believed, had something to do with it.
Hurrying over to the door, he smiled at her, hoping he looked friendly and not nervous. He wanted to take her into his arms, but suppressed the urge, knowing she would be as skittish as a new filly. The last thing he wanted to do was scare her. He’d forgotten how tiny she was—no more than five foot tall to his six foot three—and he’d filled out a lot in the last ten years.
“Krista,” he said, his voice husky despite his best effort to curb his emotions. “Welcome back.”
“Ethan,” she smiled, but her eyes were sad and wary. She offered her hand as if they were mere acquaintances.
It pained him to realize she probably hated him, but he reached out and shook it, holding on longer than he should.
“Thanks,” she said. “You look good. The years have been kind. I’d like to say it’s good to be back, but the weather isn’t helping.”
She released his hand, but not before he’d felt her tremble.
“I hadn’t expected bad weather…” he said, feeling like an idiot. Bad weather in December was a given. “Where’s your bag? You’ve got more than that? You did say you’d stay five days.”
She shrugged. “I’ll leave sooner if you want me to, but I don’t know how soon I can get a flight back.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said feeling like a jerk. He didn’t want her to think she wasn’t welcome. “Seven Oaks is your home as much as it’s mine. Stay as long as you like.”
That sounds even worse.
Her brows furrowed, but she didn’t comment on what he’d said.
“That’s my suitcase.” She pointed to a tapestry bag the driver had just removed from the luggage area.
He reached for it. “Thanks, Ted. Merry Christmas. Mabel’s glad you’re home safe and sound.”
“So am I,” the driver answered. “It’s coming down harder than ever. It’s nice to see you again, Krista. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you without your red curls.”
“It’s okay. I should’ve said something.”
Ethan lifted her bag and noticed her unease. She reminded him of a mustang, accidentally rounded up with the stock, looking for an escape, and unable to find one.
“Ollie’s plowing the road for us,” he commented, assuming the weather was at the root of her discomfort and hoping to reassure her. “We need to stop for a few things at the store, and then we’ll be good. Got the chains on the tires, too. Shall we?” He indicated the door to the station. “The truck’s out front, and Leah’s inside with Mabel. Don’t worry. We’ll make it.”
“If you say so,” but the look on her face showed she wasn’t convinced. “Who’s Leah?”
“My five-year-old daughter. I had to pick her up from a friend’s house. She was at a birthday party for one of the kids in her kindergarten class.”
“I see, and is your wife waiting at the ranch?”
“I don’t have a wife, Krista. I had someone in mind for the job, but it didn’t work out.”
“But you have a daughter…”
“Leah’s the daughter I chose, just like Uncle Luke chose you.”
The crestfallen look on her face made him want to kick himself.
“I hope that turns out better for her than it did for me,” she said sadly.