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Authors: Susanne Matthews

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BOOK: Come Home For Christmas
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“I want a new mommy,” the child said.

Her sad blue eyes punched Krista in the gut, making her swallow sudden tears.

“Honey, that’s an awfully big wish. I’ll make it for you, and hope God hears it, but you know he doesn’t always answer our prayers.”

“Yes he does,” Leah countered. “Reverend Clark says sometimes He says yes, and sometimes He says no, but often He says to be patient and wait.” She frowned. “I’ve been patient my whole life almost. That’s why I want to remind him again this year.”

“That makes sense,” Krista answered, refusing to be the one to destroy the child’s faith. “I’ll even put a twonie in for it.” She dropped the two dollar coin into the angel’s bag, wishing the child wouldn’t be too disappointed. Maybe Ethan had a girlfriend in the wings waiting to be the next Mrs. Terrance. “Please find Leah a new mommy.”

The coin disappeared from view, and the plaster angel nodded, as if granting the wish. As a child, she’d believed that was exactly what happened. As an adult, she knew better.

Leah repeated the process with the loonie Ethan had given her, but her prayer was a little different.

“Hello, angel. Last year I asked for a mommy and got a puppy. Mama says you’re really old, so maybe your ears aren’t good. I love Rascal. He’s the most perfect dog ever, but I still want a new mommy—m o m m y. Thank you.” She turned to Krista. “What kind of pizza do you like? I like Hawaiian.”

The quick change of topic had Krista’s brain scrambling to catch up.

“I do, too,” although in reality the idea of pineapple swimming in grease and cheese made her queasy.

“Yes!”

After placing two large frozen Hawaiian pizzas in the basket, Leah led her around to the meat aisle.

The overhead sign clearly proclaimed the location of the turkey. Krista rolled her eyes.

Why do they always place them in deep freezers?

Hopefully, she’d be able to get one close to the top. Krista looked into the bin and realized it was almost empty. There were only three turkeys left, each one about the same size as the child beside her, reminding her of a scene from
A Christmas Carol
. Oh well, Ethan would have left over turkey until Easter.

“Get a big one,” Leah said. “Everybody comes to dinner on Christmas.”

Of course they do.

Some things, like Mama’s crèche and fudge, didn’t change. Seven Oaks had always been the holiday hub. Mom had hosted the parties, and she’d been gone before the next Christmas. Had Krista stayed at Seven Oaks, she’d have been the official holiday hostess. Now, would she get the job by default?

Who says God doesn’t have a strange sense of humor?

Bending into the freezer, Krista reached for the icy cold but not frozen bird in the bottom. Stretching a little harder, up on her tip toes, she still couldn’t reach it. Leveraging herself on the edge of the chest, she managed to get her hands around the bird, and then it happened. The heaviness of the bird shifted her weight, and she was stuck half-in, half-out of the freezer, ass in the air.

Lord, kill me now.

Letting go of the bird, she tried to push herself off the lip of the freezer, but the button on her coat seemed to be caught on something.

This is just frigging wonderful
.

“Leah, go get your daddy. I’m stuck.” She groaned, bent her knees, and kicked frantically, trying to get some momentum to pull herself up.

“Daddy, come quickly,” Leah yelled at the top of her voice, making sure everyone in the store, and anyone walking by outside, could hear her. “Krista fell into the freezer.”

The sound of several pairs of running feet added to her mortification.

“Need a lift?” Ethan asked.

She grabbed the bird just as he put his arms around her waist, pulling her upright, turkey and all.

“Thank you,” she said with all the dignity she could muster, praying no one had used a cellphone to take a picture of the crazy lady head first in the turkey freezer. Of course, it was he face not her ass that was famous, so she might get away with it.

“Are you okay?” he asked, trying hard not to laugh at her. It was the look of fear on Leah’s face that kept her from making a nasty comment.

“I’m fine. Leah, thank you for getting help.” She bent down and smiled at the child who dissolved into tears. Krista looked at Ethan, who appeared to be as confused as she felt.

“This is probably my fault. I’m Liz Standish, one of the Educational Assistants in Leah’s class. We had a lesson in safety at school last week about not playing in freezers and refrigerators as well as snow banks, although I never anticipated a shopper would go in head first,” she said and chuckled. The woman bent down and pulled the crying child into her arms. “It’s okay, Leah. Your friend wasn’t in any danger. There’s no top on the freezer.”

“But she was stuck,” the child said through her sobs.

“Yes, but your daddy rescued her, and she’s fine, see?” The woman turned Leah to look at her and Ethan.

“I’m good, sweetie,” Krista said bending down to her level. “Your daddy saved me, and we got the biggest turkey in the store. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m all shopped out, hungry, and ready to go home. Who wants a Hawaiian pizza?”

“I do,” Leah said and hiccupped, before throwing herself into Krista’s arms.

If Ethan hadn’t been standing right there, his body moving quickly to support her, they’d have ended up on the floor. Whatever embarrassment she’d suffered in the freezer had been overshadowed by the child’s concern for her safety. Leah Terrance had found her way into Krista’s heart, and no matter what happened in five days’ time, she’d never forget her. Maybe, if she and Ethan worked things out, she could consider coming back to visit again someday.

But if Leah gets her new mommy, will that ever happen?

Chapter Four

 

 

Ethan exhaled, easing his grip on the steering wheel, and pulling into the carport at the back of the house near the barns. Never had he been happier to see the ranch house lights. The twenty minute ride from Appleton had taken almost an hour. At first, Leah had been animated and talkative, telling Krista all about the upcoming Nativity play as church, but it didn’t take her long to realize she needed to be quiet. The truck had fishtailed more than once, and Krista had maintained a death grip on her seat belt and a silent attentiveness to the road.

“Well, looks like we made it in one piece,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.

Krista’s face was paler than it had been and her eyes were huge, the fear she’d felt still in them.

“Leah, why don’t you take Krista out to say hello to Princess while I empty the truck?” He hoped seeing her horse would comfort and calm her. He wasn’t prepared for the stunned look she gave him.

“Princess? My Princess?”

The shock on her face tore at Ethan’s heart.

“Yup,” Leah answered before he could. “Didn’t you know Daddy’s been taking care of her for you?”

Krista’s eyes were bright with unshed tears.

“No. I thought Uncle Charles would’ve sold her,” she said, her voice thick with emotion.

“Couldn’t sell what wasn’t his,” Ethan answered, sotto voiced, knowing full well the old bastard had tried to do it more than once. Princess had been kept at the Anderson’s until a few months ago when the stroke had incapacitated his father, and he’d brought her back to the ranch.

Ethan helped Leah out of the truck and turned to help Krista.

“Thank you,” she said looking into his face as he lifted her down.

“You should be able to ride her a few times while you’re here, and once you get settled, I’ll ship her out to you.”

She nodded and swiped at a tear crawling down her cheek.

“Welcome home.” He still held her around the waist and felt the overwhelming need to kiss her. He’d only done it a few times before he’d left for Vancouver. He’d planned on asking her to be his girl when he returned. He’d wanted to ask her years ago, but their five year age difference had been enormous back then. Her eighteen to his twenty-three was acceptable. He’d been so sure of her answer, he’d bought a promise ring. When he’d discovered she was gone, he’d been devastated. That ring was still in its box in his sock drawer. He hadn’t had the heart to return it, even when years had passed and she’d married someone else. Now that she was free once more, if he played his cards right, he might finally be able to give it to her, but he’d have to tread carefully. His eyes zeroed in on her lips…

“Are you coming?” Leah asked, displaying a typical preschooler’s lack of patience, and snapping him back to reality. “Patches is there, too.”

He released Krista.

“Don’t be too long, he said, his voice husky. “Leah will show you where we keep the sugar cubes and apples. Ian would’ve fed her earlier, but if you to give her a treat, it won’t hurt her. There might be a few carrots out there, too. And Leah, Patches only gets one sugar cube. They’re bad for his teeth.”

The child rolled her eyes. “I know. This way,” she said, taking Krista’s red gloved hand in hers. “Be careful; it might be slippery.”

Ethan watched the two people who meant more to him than anything walk hand in hand along the sidewalk Ian, his assistant farm manager, had shoveled.

There had never been anyone else in his heart or in his life. He’d tried, dated a few times for Leah’s sake, but no one had ever made him feel the way he did when Krista was around. Seeing her now, knowing what a hell her life had been lately, brought out all the love and protectiveness he’d felt for her. Knowing he’d inadvertently played a part in her misery ate at him. If she forgave him and agreed to stay, they could pick up where he’d thought they’d been headed ten years ago. But that was asking a lot, far more than most people would be able to give.

It took four trips to get everything into the house. After carrying Krista’s bag up to her room, he put away the groceries and turned on the oven for the pizza. He was about to go out to the stable and get the girls, when the mudroom door opened, and Leah and Krista came into the kitchen.

“She remembered me,” Krista said, her eyes shining. “She’s beautiful. You’ve taken really good care of her. And Patches, he looks so small. I can’t believe I rode him. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to thank you for this.” She took off her coat and hung it and Leah’s on the hooks near the door, removing her boots and placing them next to the child’s in the boot tray. “You did a beautiful job decorating outside. I can’t believe how tall the pine trees are out front.” She smiled. “And, it still smells like home in here. I could almost expect my folks to come in at any minute.” She swallowed. “I’ll just use the bathroom and come back to help with supper. Which room did you give me?”

“Your old room,” he said, wondering how she’d feel seeing it again. He hadn’t had much time to get it back the way it had been. He’d been sleeping there the last few months, taking comfort from the walls that had been hers for thirteen years. “Take your time. We’re only having pizza and salad. Unpack and then come down when you’re ready.”

“I won’t be long,” she said and left the room.

“Did you make your wish?” Leah asked, the minute Krista was out of earshot.

“I forgot,” he admitted. “I promise I’ll do it the next time I’m in the store.”

Leah let out a heavy sigh. “Daddy, it’s really important you make the right wish. Just tell the angel that you want her to get what Leah, that’s me, asked for.”

He smiled and pulled one of her light brown pigtails. If he could make a wish of his own, it would be that Krista would forgive him, accept his offer, stay on Seven Oaks like she was meant to, and never leave. Assuming Leah wish was for the pony she wanted he chuckled. “I know, sweetie. Don’t worry. Now, why don’t you go and turn on the television while I get supper ready?”

“Okay, but promise you won’t forget about the wish. Do we still get movie night with Krista here?”

“I don’t see why not. Maybe we can let her pick the movie though.”

“That seems fair,” she said, “but can I give her some choices since we have so many movies?”

“You do that, but since it’s Christmas, let’s watch one of those,” he said as she scooted out of the kitchen.

He shook his head. Thank God he’d picked up the pony last month. The odds against finding a Welsh pony for the price he’d paid had been astronomical. Franz had carved a wooden horse and painted it to look like the one in the stable. Ethan would wrap it and put it under the tree with a few sugar cubes and a note to go to the stable.

This would be their first and possibly their last Christmas in this house since it belonged to Krista. As much as he’d like to believe she’d forgive him, and they could get on living the life he’d dreamed of ten years ago, the truth was, he was the interloper here. She’d be well within her rights to kick him and Leah to the curb. He prayed she’d let them stay on the ranch, but even if he gave her all of his share, it wouldn’t come close to covering what his father had stolen from her.

Before his dad’s stroke, he and Leah had lived in the manager’s house, the one he’d grown up in. That house was his, free and clear, but he couldn’t expect to stay in it on Seven Oaks if she didn’t want him to.

Krista entered the kitchen, and he smiled. Coppery tresses cascaded to her shoulders.

“It was a wig,” he said, stating the obvious. “I thought you’d really cut it.”

“I thought about it, but Mom loved my hair. She called me her good luck penny. Theo had me keep it tied back and under control.” She walked over to the island. “The house looks exactly the way I remember it. I see Jonesy got some of the Christmas decorations up before she left.”

“She did. Let me guess; Leah filled you in on everything out in the barn.”

“Pretty much. She seems overly concerned about the turkey and the cookies.”

Krista sat on a stool at the kitchen island and reached for one of the cookie cutters sitting in a basket there. “I remember these. Mom used to bake sugar cookies and let us cut out the shapes.”

“I seem to recall you covered in sugar and flour,” he said, unable to hide the affection in his voice. “For the record, I like your red curls, too. Every autumn when I look at the leaves in the oak trees, I see you,”
and miss you more than you’ll ever know
. “We still have to put up the tree. If the storm lets up, we can go and cut one down tomorrow. If it doesn’t we’ll go Wednesday.”

“I haven’t had a real Christmas tree since I lived here.”

“I suppose you had an artificial one—tell me it wasn’t pink or blue.”

“It wasn’t,” she said and giggled, “although they did have a few red and white ones at the arena—team colors. We didn’t have a tree at all. Theo wasn’t Christian. Hockey was his religion; the only thing he believed in was the game.”

“That must’ve been rough. We’ve always had a real tree, but it’ll be our first time celebrating Christmas in this house. Dad wasn’t big on decorating for the holidays. We lived in the manager’s house. I moved back in there when Leah came to live with me. Dad wasn’t thrilled having a noisy toddler around.”

“But your father must’ve changed his attitude. She’s a terrific little girl.”

“Krista, this is my dad we’re talking about. He was a foul-tempered jerk when you were here, and got worse after you left. Nothing made him happy except riding around the ranch surveying his dominion,” he answered unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice, and noticed how she shrunk away from him.

“That’s too bad,” she said, rubbing her hands together anxiously. “What about her other grandparents?”

“Neither Milly nor Tom had any family left. I’m all Leah has.”

“Not if she gets her wish,” she said nervously.

“What wish?”

“The one she made to the angel and asked me to make as well. I gathered you were in on it, too.”

“Oh, the pony; I’ve taken care of that.”

Krista reached out to touch him, the gentle pressure of her hand on his arm filling him with desire.

“She didn’t wish for a pony, Ethan,” she said gravely. “She wished for a new mommy. Apparently, she thinks Mama Schneider’s angel is hard of hearing since she got a puppy last year instead of the mommy she asked for. I met him upstairs. He seems to like my bed.”

Ethan shook his head. Damn, this wasn’t a situation he’d expected, but he should have. Ever since her friend Sally’s mother had remarried last year, the child had been fixated on families. When her attention had turned to the pony, he thought the phase was over.

“Rascal likes every bed, but close your door and he’ll stay out. He sleeps with Leah at night. And before you start lecturing me about dogs and hygiene, just remember you slept with at least two of the barn cats. But as far as the wish goes, are you serious?”

“Yup. Apparently she’s tired of waiting and has asked again—even got me to ask for her. Unless you’ve got someone waiting to assume the role, you’d better have a talk with her. I’m sure the pony will be a big hit, but she’s going to be very disappointed when the angel gets it wrong again this year. Now, what can I do to help?”

Ethan swallowed awkwardly. He did have someone in mind for that role, the same person he’d chosen ten years ago, but he wasn’t sure she’d believe him, and now that she knew about Leah’s request, she’d be more inclined than ever to assume he was just asking her to satisfy his daughter’s wish. Damn. Why did fate keep kicking him when he was down?

“How about making a salad to go with the pizza? The mixed greens and the rest of it are in the fridge.”

“Leah told me Jonesy won’t be back until January. I’m sorry I’ll miss her. I don’t mind cooking while I’m here. I used to know my way around this kitchen, but it looks like you’ve made a few changes.”

“Yeah, we modernized last year,” he answered, glad to change the topic until he could think clearly. “Things are probably more or less in the same place. There’s enough food in the freezer and the pantry to feed an army for a year, and I picked up bread, fruit, and vegetables, along with wine and that turkey.” He winked. “It’s going to take a long time to get that image out of my mind.”

“Yours and everyone else’s. I just hope no one captured it on their cellphones.”

He laughed. “It’s Appleton, the Internet doesn’t work any better now than it did when you lived here. Most folks don’t even own cellphones. If you want to help, I won’t say no. Leah knows where everything is since she spends a lot of time in here.”

“So I heard. She tells me you make a mean macaroni dish.”

“I can follow the directions on the box.” He watched her tear the lettuce and slice the other vegetables. “This is nice—you and me here together again. I’m glad you’re finally home, Krista. I’ve missed you.”

She set down the knife. “I find that hard to believe,” she said softly, without accusation. “You never wrote, never called, and never answered my letters. When I left here, you and your father wiped me from your lives.”

“I didn’t, Krista. You have to believe that. For Leah’s sake, can we talk later tonight after she’s in bed? Seven Oaks is your home. You belong here.”

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