Authors: Susanne Matthews
“Uncle Luke loved you,” he said quietly.
She snorted. “Well, leaving me homeless was a strange way of showing it.”
“You’ll love Leah,” he said changing the subject slightly. “She’s a lot like you were as a kid. She’s Milly Carmichael and Tom Wilkes’s daughter. I was her godfather. When Milly and Tom were killed in a car accident four years ago, I became her legal guardian. I adopted her officially the following year.” He smiled. “I fell in love with Leah the minute Milly placed her in my arms, and when I realized I was all she had, there was no way I’d let anyone or anything hurt her again. She’s a sweetheart. Come on. I’ll introduce you.”
Pulling open the door, he let her go ahead of him. Mabel had come out from behind the counter.
“Krista, welcome back. It’s so nice to see you again.” Mabel threw her arms around her and hugged her.
From the stunned look on Krista’s face, Ethan realized the warm welcome was the last thing she’d expected. Did she think everyone in the town had forgotten her?
“Mabel, you look great,” Krista said, returning the hug, barely hiding the shock in her voice. “It’s been a while.”
“It certainly has. We all expected you to visit—especially for the centennial celebration a couple of years ago, but the invitation we sent to the address your uncle gave us came back.”
“That’s a shame. We moved out of Ottawa into Kanata around that time. I’m sorry I missed it.”
She was lying to save face. His dad hadn’t kept track of her. After her wedding, Ethan had searched all the social media sites, hoping to connect with her. He’d found Theo’s, but that site was devoted to his hockey career. The guy was vain, not well-liked by the other players, and it had been easy to see why. He’d sent a private message introducing himself and asking about Krista, but the jerk had never replied and had blocked further contact.
“We have to stop at the grocery store before we head back, Mabel, so I’m going to steal her away for now.”
Mabel nodded. “Of course, and you’ve had a long day to boot,” she said patting Krista’s shoulder. “That’s the problem with holidays. I hate traveling to get there, but once I arrive … Ted and I host an Open House on Boxing Day, and we’d love to have you—you, too, Ethan … Will you be coming to the pageant on Christmas Eve?”
“I’m in it,” Leah said, no doubt deciding it was time she was introduced. “I’m a talking cow named Lulu, but my real name is Leah.”
“Pleased to meet you, Leah,” Krista offered her hand. “A talking cow? That sounds really interesting.”
Leah’s eyes glowed as she shook Krista’s hand. “I have six lines—more than anyone else. Dad says you’re my step-cousin. Is that the same as a real cousin because I don’t have any of those either. I’m an ‘only’ and that makes me special. You’re pretty. Did you know my mommy and daddy? I don’t remember them because I was too little when they died. Daddy said your parents died, and you had to go away. Are you an ‘only’ too? Do you have a horse where you live? Where are you going to sleep?”
The last question had Krista’s face red as a beet, but then she burst out laughing, the action transforming her appearance. Ethan relaxed, grateful for the five-year-old’s curiosity since it had broken the ice.
“Do you always ask so many questions?” Krista asked, a huge grin splitting her face. “I don’t know what to answer first.”
“Leah is the undisputed queen of questions, but she usually gives you time to answer,” Ethan said and chuckled, picking up his daughter in his free arm and Krista’s case in the other. “Let’s get out to the truck and maybe she can ask them again—one at a time. We’ll see you Christmas Eve, Mabel, and I’ll let you know about the Open House.”
Krista felt as if she’d pulled an Alice—fallen down a rabbit hole and landed in a completely different world from the one she’d expected. As she watched Ethan buckle Leah into her car seat, she tried to make sense of things. Despite the invitation and the first class ticket, she hadn’t anticipated a warm welcome. In fact, she’d counted on belligerence and barely suppressed frustration at being made to jump through hoops for what was rightfully his.
Not only did Ethan seem genuinely happy to see her, Mabel had been friendly, and there’d been nothing false about her smile or her invitation. Krista had loved Appleton and its people, and while she knew the rumor mill would have a field day with her back on the ranch, she’d regretted leaving the town almost as much as she had Ethan, even if he hadn’t wanted her after all. It was too bad she’d never gotten the invitation. Theo wouldn’t have let her come, but she could’ve sent a nice letter expressing her regrets.
After safely tying his precious and precocious daughter into her car seat, Ethan took her case around to the truck’s covered box.
Screwing up her face and cocking her head to the left, Krista stood back, eyeing the height of the step into the truck with trepidation, not at all sure she was going to manage it with even a semblance of dignity. There was a handle by which to pull herself up, but the step was at least a foot and a half off the ground, and from here, even that handle was beyond her reach. She could try a run and grab, but with this much snow on the ground, she’d likely miss and face plant into the door.
Ethan came around the truck and hopped up on the step to open the door. “Let me give you a boost,” he said, grabbing her waist and sending a thousand volts of electricity through her as he hoisted her up. “Grab the handle and pull yourself onto the seat. I know it’s kind of high, but it’s the best vehicle for this weather.”
Fighting to hide her body’s reaction to his touch, a response she suppressed along with her bittersweet memories, she managed to sit on the seat. In spite of her trembling hands, which she hoped he’d put down to nerves, she fastened her seatbelt. He handed her the backpack before closing the door, as if nothing of any great importance had happened—nothing had shaken him to the core.
“You’re short,” Leah said from the back seat, dragging her back to the moment. “Grandpa said my mommy was a pipsqueak. Daddy says that means she was small and precious. Are you a pipsqueak, too?”
“I guess,” Krista agreed, although she was fairly certain the term was a derogatory one for someone considered insignificant and worthless. Since insults had been Theo’s forte, she was familiar with most of the ones that could be used in public under the guise of affection. His preference had been for Russian terms no one understood.
Ethan got into the truck and started the engine
“I hope you don’t mind a quick stop on the way home. I need to pick up a few things to see us through. We can’t count on being able to get into town before Christmas Eve.”
“I understand,” she said nervously. Snow was bad enough, but being snowed in would be even worse. She’d go crazy, caged in like a tiger. She hoped she’d get along with whoever else was staying in the house. The child would be an excellent buffer during the day, but she was probably in bed by eight. When she’d left Seven Oaks, there’d been a live-in housekeeper who spent the evenings with the family.
Was Jonesy still there? She’d had an apartment on the main floor at the back of the house, and after Mom’s death, Krista had spent hours sitting there talking to her. Mrs. Jones had been away visiting her sister when Krista had been forced to leave.
As they drove along, Leah chatted away, filling what would have been an awkward silence by describing the various Christmas events scheduled, talking about her role in the pageant, and pointing out the familiar landmarks. Here and there, a store had been renamed or had moved, but for the most part, Appleton was just the way she recalled it.
“They’ll light the big Christmas tree tomorrow night, won’t they, Daddy?”
“They will, if the snow lets up. If not, they’ll do it the next day. The rink will be ready then, although it’s going to need some serious work after this snow. Do you remember the first time we were there for the tree lighting?” he asked her. “You didn’t know how to skate and kept falling down.”
“And you got me this bright orange pylon to push around the ice.”
“I did that last year,” Leah added. “I’m a good skater now.”
“I’ve improved, too,” Krista said, chuckling at the memory. That had been her first Christmas at Seven Oaks, and Ethan had been her hero—a persona he’d maintained until he’d turned his back on her. The thought dispelled the happy image.
“I suppose you would be what with your marketing job with the team,” Ethan continued, obviously trying to make conversation, probably for the sake of the child. Kids had an uncanny knack of sensing underlying tension and emotions.
Krista noted he hadn’t mentioned Theo and her marriage.
“I skated whenever the team held a charity or community event,” she answered determined to be as pleasant as he was trying to be. “I used that pylon thing a few times when the team hosted a ‘Skate with the Players’ day. Last Christmas, we had a party for underprivileged children at the stadium. I fell and broke my ankle, and with what happened … I haven’t been up on skates since.”
She swallowed the painful memory. She’d fallen because of the sudden pain in her abdomen. Not only had she broken her ankle, she’d lost the baby. Theo’s cruel words had been almost as devastating as the loss of the child, but after the scene at the hospital, he’d agreed to a divorce.
“Here we are,” Ethan said pulling into the crowded parking lot. It looked as if half the town was shopping.
“I can stay here and wait with Leah,” she offered, praying no one would recognize her and come over to the truck.
“No,” Leah cried indignantly. “I want to see the angel and make my wish. You have to make one too, Daddy. You promised.”
Ethan shrugged his shoulders. “If you want to stay, I can leave the truck running…”
Leah turned to her, suspicion on her little face. “You like candy and Christmas, don’t you? You’re not a Grinch like Grandpa was?”
“Leah, don’t be rude,” Ethan said.
“Well, he was a Grinch, and his heart never got bigger no matter how much I sang and prayed.”
Krista shook her head, coming to the child’s defense. “It’s okay. She didn’t mean to be rude. No, I’m not a Grinch,” she said unfastening her seatbelt, although Christmas hadn’t meant much over the years. No trees, no gifts, no church services. To try and please her ex-husband, she’d given away most of her soul, and had gotten nothing in return but pain. It would be nice to celebrate Christmas again the way she had as a child.
Ethan turned off the engine, helped Leah out of the truck, and did the same for her. While she was expecting his touch this time, the sensation was no less intense.
“I take it we’ll be looking at the Nativity scene in the corner and putting a coin in the angel’s pouch.”
He nodded. “Not everything had to change, Krista. Some things were good. You used to love doing this when you were a kid.”
“Well, you might’ve been five years older than I was, but you enjoyed it, too.”
“I liked the fudge.”
“The fudge was to die for,” she said, remembering the creamy butterscotch confection.
“It still is,” he agreed, picking up Leah to trudge through the snow and slush to the doors. “This shouldn’t take too long.”
They entered the crowded grocery store, and one person after another greeted Ethan. It seemed he knew everyone. While she recalled a few faces, she knew the wig’s shorter, dark hair confused them, and that was good. She was confounded enough for all of them.
“Krista? Krista Jacobs,” a voice she would’ve recognized anywhere called loudly, getting everyone’s attention. “Liebling, you’ve finally come home.”
The gray-haired woman dressed to look like Mrs. Claus was exactly as she remembered her.
“Hello, Mama Schneider,” she said fighting to keep the tears back, as the woman grabbed her, folded her into her arms, and held her there tenderly. When was the last time anyone had shown her that level of affection?
“Let me look at you,” Mama said taking her by the shoulders and pushing her back a bit. “You look just like your mama with your hair like that, but I miss your red curls.”
“It’s just a temporary change,” Krista said, trying to swallow her emotions. The last thing she needed was to breakdown in public.
“Some men are fools,” she shrugged, “and Russian hockey players? Spoiled brats.”
Krista chuckled. Leave it to Mama to peg Theo for what he was.
“Come have some cider and a piece of my fudge,” Mama continued. “You loved that fudge. You’re so thin, have two pieces. You’re home for good now, yah?”
Krista shook her head. “I’m staying for five days,” she said. “There are some things to iron out in Uncle Charles’s will.”
The woman frowned. “There are?”
Ethan interrupted. “Hey, Mama. How’s Franz? You can tell him we got all the lights up and the dent in the tree hardly shows.”
“What happened to Papa?” Krista asked.
“He’s fine, driving me crazy, but he’s good.” She turned back to her. “That old fool fell off the ladder putting up the lights in the tree. Fell right into it. He has a few bumps and bruises, but you’d think it was the end of the world.”
“Well, he’s lucky,” Ethan continued. “It’s time he let younger people take care of things like that. Now, we have to hurry, the weather isn’t getting any better. I need some wine. I know it’s after six, but could you open the wine rack for me?”
“Of course. You have to celebrate her coming home where she belongs.”
“Leah, why don’t you and Krista go and get a turkey while I pick up the rest of the stuff we need? Grab a couple of those pizzas, too.” He smiled at her. “What kind of wine do you like?”
“Dry red, please. A cabernet or a merlot.” She’d need more than one glass to get through the next few days.
Maybe I should ask him to get a case.
“Daddy, don’t forget your wish.”
“This way,” Leah said, taking charge of her as if she were some kind of celebrity. “First we’ll make the wish, then get the pizzas, and after that the turkey.” She screwed up her face. “It probably won’t taste very good this year.”
“Why is that?” she asked.
“Because Mrs. Jones had to go to her sister’s house, and she won’t be back until after New Year’s when I go back to school. Daddy’s got to cook it, but he’s only good at macaroni.”
Krista chuckled at the forlorn look on the child’s face. So much for wishing for a buffer. The little girl was growing on her by leaps and bounds. She’d hoped to have a child like this, but at first she’d had her job, and then things had gotten bad between her and Theo. When she’d miscarried, he’d accused her of doing it on purpose and had hit her so hard, he’d cracked her cheekbone and blackened her eyes. The team lawyer had walked in on him and escorted Theo out of the room while the doctors attended to her. The news reports had said she’d hit her face on the ice when she’d slipped. No mention of the lost child. Two weeks later, someone had served her with divorce papers. Theo had moved out of the condo before she’d returned home from the hospital.
“Maybe I can help out with that,” she said, knowing the time would pass more quickly if she had something to do, and she loved cooking.
“Are you a good cook?” the child asked skeptically. “Can you bake cookies?”
“Peanut butter ones?”
Leah grinned. “Chocolate ones, too?”
Krista nodded. “We can make some tomorrow, just for practice.”
“That would be fun. Mrs Jones lets me help when she makes cookies,” the child added. “Daddy likes oatmeal raisin ones.”
“I seem to remember that. Maybe we can make some of those, too. Here’s the angel,” Krista said as they reached the small crèche set up in the store. Like so many things she’d seen since her arrival, here was another familiar one that brought back good memories. The figures had to be at least a hundred years old. They’d belonged to Mama’s mother, one of the few things the woman had managed to take with her when her family had left Germany after the war.
“Do you have a wish ready?” Leah asked.
“No, I don’t. I didn’t know I’d be making a wish today,” she answered as solemnly as the child had spoken, although she could probably think of a few—if she still believed in angels and wishes.
“Then, can I ask you to make a wish for me?”
“I’m not sure it works that way,” Krista said smothering her concern. Whatever the child wanted, she wanted badly. It was never good to make promises to children you couldn’t keep—promises like you’d love them and protect them forever.
“Neither am I,” Leah answered resigned, “but I heard Daddy tell Mr. Slocum that sometimes you had to have faith and take a chance.”
“Who’s Mr. Slocum?”
“He’s Daddy’s lawyer.”
“I see.” Ethan probably thought she was going to give him a hard time about the ranch. If she didn’t need money to start a new life, she’d just give up her share, whatever it was, and walk away. “Okay. So what do you want me to wish for?”