Authors: Susanne Matthews
Krista stood in front of the gas fireplace, lifted the glass of merlot to her lips, and took a sip. Most of the house was just as she remembered it, including her bedroom. The walls had been repainted, but the bed and furnishings were the same ones she’d used all those years ago. The collection of teddy bears she’d had to leave behind sat on the shelf above her bed just as they always had. It had been hard not to break down and cry when she’d seen them. She’d have expected Uncle Charles to get rid of everything that would’ve reminded him of her.
Her jewelry box, the one with the ballerina who twirled around, had been sitting on her dresser, her mother’s engagement and wedding rings as well as the diamond earrings Luke had given her for their tenth anniversary inside it. She’d wanted those items when her mom had died, but Uncle Charles had said they belonged to the estate. It was hard to understand his sudden change of heart.
Thanks to Leah, the evening had been pleasant and relaxing. Surprisingly, the pizza had been tasty, not at all greasy as she’d expected. While Leah had offered to let her choose the movie, she’d deferred to the child, and they’d watched
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
. She’d enjoyed it almost as much as the little girl had. Maybe, when she got back to Ottawa, she could send her the storybook.
“She’s all settled in,” Ethan said, coming back into the room. “She’s a handful, but I wouldn’t have her any other way.” He picked up his wine glass and took a mouthful. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to get the tree tomorrow. It’s still snowing to beat the band.”
The power had gone out during dinner, and he’d gone out to the barn to turn on the generator. Thanks to it and the gas fireplace, the room was warm and toasty. “You can turn up the thermostat if you find your room cold. I filled the generator, and it can run for twenty-four hours on a tank.”
“Ethan, stop, please. The last thing we need to do is make small talk. You said we’d talk once she was in bed, and that’s now. What’s going on? This strange bequest makes absolutely no sense to me. You father accused me of trying to steal his birthright, and then he leaves some of it to me? He keeps my horse, even my damn teddy bears, and my Mom’s rings are in my jewelry box.” The lump of emotions in her throat threatened to choke her. “Why am I here?
“You’re here because this is where you belong. I wanted you to come home for Christmas. There’s no bequest in his will, Krista; there never was.”
“I don’t understand. The lawyer’s letter said … You had a lawyer lie to me? How could you?”
“Don’t get angry. I didn’t want to do this yet. I’d hoped we’d get to know one another again first, but I guess it’s better to get it all out in the open. There’ve been more than enough lies. Sit, please.” He indicated the recliner and sat across from her.
“You’d better have a damn good excuse for this,” she said, both hurt and angry. She’d known the pleasant interlude wouldn’t last, but she hadn’t expected it to end this way, nor this soon. So much for hoping she could somehow start a new life.
“I’m the one who kept your things,” Ethan answered quietly. “When he ordered me to get rid of everything that was yours, I packed it up and hid it in the attic. Your nutcrackers are up there, as well as your mother’s Christmas tree decorations—basically everything you left behind.”
“Why did you keep them?” Her anger had vanished at his words, replaced by confusion and regret.
“Because I hoped you’d come back one day. After you left, I tried to track you down. Dad said you’d gone to Montreal instead of Ottawa. It wasn’t until you married Theo that I got a line on you. Don’t you have a social media account?”
She shook her head. “No. I guess I spent enough time in Appleton to relish my privacy. I used the team one when necessary, but Theo was jealous … I can’t believe you convinced Uncle Charles to let you keep Princess. That mare is worth a lot of money.”
“I refused to let him sell her, and since your name was on the ownership, he didn’t have much choice. I kept her over at the Anderson’s and after a while, I think he forgot about her. I had Cooper clean and polish your saddle and tack, along with your boots. You’re a lot thinner than you were, but I assume shoe size stays the same?”
“It does,” she said overwhelmed by what he was saying. She swallowed awkwardly and swiped at the tears. “So, you invited me here for old time’s sake?”
“Yes, and to straighten out a few things. It’s never been the same around her since you left. I was hurt and angry when I came home, and you were gone. I couldn’t believe you’d go like that without a word to me, and you never wrote—”
“That’s not true,” she interrupted him, the tears running down her cheeks faster now. “I sent you more than a dozen letters.”
“I never got them, Krista. Not the ones you sent to me in Vancouver nor the ones you sent from Ottawa.”
“How did you know I sent them, then?”
“Because I found them when I was cleaning out his room.”
“You found them?” She shook her head. “What do you mean, you found them?”
“He had a metal box under his bed. When I opened it, I found all of your letters to me, the ones I’d sent to you that he hadn’t mailed, and something else. I found Uncle Luke’s will.”
“Why on earth would he have done that? If he stole the letters, why keep them?
“I think his conscience wouldn’t let him destroy them—just like the will.”
“Dad’s will was read after the funeral. There were no surprises there. I suppose he kept it to gloat and remind him his empire was secure. Your father got everything. I was lucky he didn’t kick me out that day. At least he let me finish school.”
“The will read after the funeral wasn’t the most recent will. Uncle Luke made a new will after he married your mom and adopted you. Caswell drew it up, and Dad witnessed it. He knew exactly what was in it and that was the last thing he wanted.”
“I’m confused. Are you saying there was a newer will and the lawyer and your father suppressed it?”
“Why would a lawyer do that?”
“For the two hundred and fifty grand my father was supposed to pay him. When Caswell, died, Dad figured he didn’t have to honor his promise, which was why he kicked you out when he did. Once you turned nineteen, he was afraid you’d question the will and someone else might know about the real one, but if you were gone … What Dad didn’t know was that Caswell’s partner knew the truth, too. Sawyer has been blackmailing Dad for years. I had him arrested six weeks ago when I found out about all this.”
“What did you find out?”
“That Uncle Luke left the controlling shares of the ranch not to my father, but to your mother and you. As the oldest, the main house was his, too.”
Krista stared at him, trying to believe what he was saying. She’d loved her step-father and had found the fact that he hadn’t made any provisions for her or her mother in the event of his death a bitter blow.
“Are you telling me all this is mine?” She waved her hands around to encompass the house. “Has been mine for the last ten years?”
He nodded. “This house is yours, as is 51 percent of the livestock and land. There was also a life insurance policy that went to the estate that should’ve been yours—the money he paid Caswell and Sawyer, money he told me he was sending to you each month to cover your expenses.”
“No one ever sent me a cent. The only money I had when I left here was the hundred grand from my mother’s insurance. It covered my education and living expenses. It was pretty much all gone by the time I graduated.”
“I know. What he didn’t pay out in blackmail money, he used to start a quarter horse breeding operation. You have to understand, I didn’t know any of this. If I had, I’d have combed the country until I found you. This ranch is your home. Leah and I can move back into the manager’s house as soon as I can get it fixed up. I want you to come back where you belong, Krista. Please think about it. I’ve talked to the lawyer about restitution…”
She nodded. “Please, no more. I need time to think, time to process all this.” She sipped the wine, the merlot suddenly as bitter as her tears. “Since I’m assuming none of this was in your father’s will, why say anything? You could have just kept quiet. I’d never have known.”
“But you wouldn’t have come home, and I really wanted you to come home. I needed to make this right.” He raised his glass to his lips, and finished his wine. “I put a box on the shelf in your closet. It’s got the letters in it I sent to you, letters my dad didn’t mail, and some legal documents. Read them, please?” He stood. “I’ll lock up before I go up to bed. Leah’s an early riser and this is a working ranch, one that’ll be doubly busy because of the snow. I won’t expect to see you in the morning, but if you don’t want Leah around, you can send her over to Aggie, Ian’s wife. She and the twins are living in my old house. The sidewalk will be shoveled.”
“I don’t mind watching Leah,” she said. “None of this is her fault, and enough Christmases have been ruined these past years, we don’t need to add another. Besides, I promised to bake cookies, and I keep my promises.
When I can.
She stood, the need to escape before she broke down completely, moving her to end this discussion quickly. “Thank you for telling me this, for being so honest. I always thought you were a man of integrity despite your father. Since you wanted me home, and I’m here, let’s make the most of this for Leah’s sake if not ours. Maybe there’s enough Christmas magic in the boxes upstairs to get us through the holidays. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I promise you one thing, no matter what I decide, Seven Oaks is and always will be your home, too.”
Finishing the wine in her glass, she said goodnight and headed upstairs to her room. Once there, she fell onto the bed, the floodgates opening as she mourned the father who hadn’t abandoned her after all. The ranch might be hers, but the problem was, the man at the heart of it, the man she’d loved all those years ago and still did, wasn’t. He’d said he wanted to make restitution and give her back her home—he hadn’t offered his heart.
* * *
The aroma of fresh coffee tantalized Krista’s taste buds. The room was dark, but she was wide awake, and considering her body was on Ontario time, she was two hours ahead of the game. She had a slight headache, no doubt the aftermath of the emotional maelstrom she’d suffered yesterday. At some point during the night, she’d awakened, cold and shivering. She’d gotten up, undressed and gotten into the pajamas she’d unpacked earlier.
Lying in the bed like this, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the wind howl outside, she felt strangely safe—safe for the first time in years. The nightmares that had plagued her ever since the ugly courtroom scene with Theo hadn’t terrorized her last night. Was it because Ethan was just down the hall, the way he’d been those months after she’d lost her parents? Or was it because she felt she belonged here, just as she had the first night she’d slept in this room. This was home. The bleak future she’d envisioned only hours ago had brightened. She could spend the rest of her life here if she wanted to, but that wasn’t a practical idea.
Sliding her feet into her slippers, she opened the closet door and reached for her robe. The gray metal box sat on the shelf just as it had yesterday. She’d noticed it when she’d hung up the three dresses she’d packed, unable to decide which one she’d wear. Because she hadn’t known what was in the box, she’d dismissed it.
Looking at it now, she toyed with the idea of reading the letters, curious to know what he’d said to her. She raised her hand to take the box off the shelf, but her deep-seated insecurity kicked in. Did she really want to discover that while he’d been sorry about her problems, she’d obviously misunderstood him, and there was nothing he could do? Did it even matter? Ethan was doing everything he could to undo his father’s damage. She couldn’t blame him for any of it, and she certainly couldn’t kick Leah out of her home.
That poor little thing didn’t remember her mother and father. While her own biological father had died before she’d been born, she’d had eighteen years of her mother’s love and thirteen with Luke. Ethan would take care of Leah. He was a man of honor; she should’ve remembered that instead of letting Uncle Charles fill her head with lies.
The fact that Ethan, and probably her uncle, had read her letters to him, those outpourings of girlish hopes and fears, had brought heat to her cheeks when he’d mentioned it last night.
God, he must’ve thought I was an idiot—a needy, immature idiot at that.
While she hadn’t read his letters and wasn’t sure she would, sooner or later, Ethan would want a wife and children of his own. Leah was already wishing for a mommy, and from what she’d seen, Leah got whatever she wanted—just as Luke would’ve given her the world if he could—and he had. She simply hadn’t known about it. She thought of her sixteenth birthday when he’d given her Princess.
You’re my princess, Krista, and now she’s yours. Love her as much as your mom and I love you.
She should’ve known her stepfather wouldn’t have left her homeless, but alone and distraught, she’d believed the man who was supposed to take care of her—the man who’d stolen from her. As angry as she was with Uncle Charles, she couldn’t fault Ethan.
The fact he hadn’t married surprised her. He was still ruggedly handsome and the silver in his hair added to rather than detracted from his appeal. He was muscled and lean, and if she was any judge of a man’s physical condition, he was probably in as good as, if not better, shape than Theo had been.