Authors: Susanne Matthews
While she couldn’t remain here forever, she could stay for a few months until she decided what to do with her life. She had six years’ experience as a marketing expert with the Gladiators. Would she be able to transfer that knowledge to another sport? As she recalled football was almost as big as hockey out here, and of course, there was the Stampede. If she moved to Calgary, she could come back to Seven Oaks to ride Princess, visit with Leah, and renew herself.
The delectable aroma of coffee tickled her nose once more and spurred her to action. Opening the door quietly so as not to wake Leah, she went downstairs, hoping Ethan was the one in the kitchen with the coffee. More than once she’d walked in on her uncle holding court with the hands, and that had never been pleasant.
“Good morning,” she said as she entered the room. “Where are the hands? You don’t look after all the stock alone, do you?”
He looked up and smiled, reminding her of other mornings when she’d walked in to find him sitting at the table.
“You’re up early,” he said, spooning cereal into his mouth. “Coffee’s ready.”
She found a mug and poured herself a cup.
“Is that fresh milk?”
“I haven’t had that in years.” She poured a generous amount in her cup and added sugar.
“We have six men working with us year round and we take on another six April to October,” he said answering her questions once she sat across from him. “When I moved in here, Ian, my assistant manager, and his wife, Agatha, took over my house. The other five men have a new bunk house, over near the breeding operation, with a state of the art kitchen. Mosey doubles as a hand and cook. He takes care of their needs with a little help from Mrs. Jones who does the baking. Once a week, we all have dinner together. Aggie, that’s what we all call Ian’s wife, has offered to help with Christmas dinner. She and Mrs. Jones put up quite the meal for Thanksgiving in October.”
She hadn’t celebrated Thanksgiving again this year, and considering she’d been knee-deep in a hostile divorce, she’d had nothing to be grateful for.
“How did you sleep?”
“Very well—better than I have in ages.” She took a mouthful of coffee. “Delicious. I want to talk about last night while Leah’s not around. I thought about what you said. No matter what you think, you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m going to be honest with you. My life is a mess right now. The divorce wasn’t an amicable one, and I need to lick both physical and emotional wounds.”
He clenched his fists. “He’d better not come within a hundred miles of here. If he does, I’ll shoot the bastard.”
“And I’d let you, but if you end up in jail, who takes care of Leah? If you don’t mind having me around, after I settle my affairs in Ottawa, I’d like to come back here for a while until I decide what to do with the rest of my life.”
“It’s your home, your house, not mine. You belong here,” he said.
From the size of his grin, she knew he meant it.
“I have a proposition for you, but this isn’t the time to bring it up. We have other matters to settle first. I have to help Ian look after the stock, but when I finish, I can bring down those Christmas boxes, and we can finish decorating inside. I’ve missed all your nutcrackers standing at attention on the mantle, daring anyone to attack the Sugar Plum Fairy, but it didn’t seem right to unpack them without you.”
She smiled. “I distinctly remember the year you tried to wage a war with them.”
“I broke the leg off one of them, and Uncle Luke fixed it.”
“And that banged up Dollar Store nutcracker became my prized possession. I haven’t celebrated Christmas properly since Mom and Dad died. I’m due.”
“You are,” he said seriously. She thought he was going to say something else, but he shoveled the last of his oatmeal into his mouth.
She sipped her coffee to give him a chance in case he reconsidered. When he didn’t, she continued. “I’m out of practice looking after animals, but I
want to pull my weight. I’ll take over from Jonesy until I leave. When I return from Ottawa, maybe she and I can split the work. I won’t promise you a hot breakfast each morning at 5:30 a.m.,” she said glancing at the clock, “but I’m good for lunch and supper.”
“It’s a deal.” He held out his hand to shake hers. “Jonesy rarely gets up to do breakfast for me, but she looks after Leah’s and gets her ready for the school bus. Since school is out until January, you’re off the hook for that.”
She trembled as heat coursed through her. They’d been close once, maybe that friendship could blossom again.
But is friendship what I want?
“Now, I’d better get out there before Ian thinks he’s on his own,” Ethan said. “I’ll shovel the walk to the stable, but don’t go too far from the house. The snow’s still coming down.”
“Are the animals going to be okay out on the ranges?”
“Yeah, it’s been cold enough for them to all have their shaggy, heavy coats, and since we haven’t had much rain, they’re pretty dry. We built a few windbreaks for them—three-sided stables really—and we’ve got lots of feed and water available. Two of the men will keep an eye on the sheep in the north and west pastures, while the other two will watch the cattle in the south and east. Mosey will handle the breeding stock, and Ian and I will look after the riding horses, dairy cows, and chickens. We don’t keep pigs anymore. I had enough of them the year you left.” He stood. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours. After I’m done here, I need to bring a load of feed to the halfway barn.”
“Be careful,” she said, reminded of her girlish dreams of being a rancher’s wife. This was probably as close as she’d get.
He put on his boots, jacket, knitted cap, and reached for his lined work gloves. “I’m really glad, you’re going to stay,” he said.
“I have to leave on the twenty-seventh as planned, but I’ll be back by the middle of January. Are you sure you won’t mind sharing the house?”
“If you don’t mind sharing with Leah and me, we won’t mind sharing with you,” he answered before going out the door.
Krista dropped into the chair, surprised by the warmth in Ethan’s eyes. Of course, the fact that she was allowing him and the child he loved to stay here was probably the reason for it. Sipping her coffee, the image of the gray box upstairs kept flitting through her mind. He wanted her to read the letters. That was why he’d given them to her. Could she take a leap of faith that nothing he’d said back then would destroy her new found serenity?
After getting a container of yogurt from the fridge and the box of granola Ethan must’ve bought just for her, Krista made herself breakfast, surprised at how hungry she was for the first time in weeks. While she ate, she made a list of what she’d like to do today in terms of Christmas baking. Putting her bowl in the dishwasher, she grabbed a second cup of coffee, and mug in hand, climbed the steps and went back to her room. After turning on the bedside lamp, she went and got the small metal box and carried it back to the bed with her. She stared at it for a full five minutes before returning it to the closet. She’d definitely read it, but not today.
Once she’d made her bed and tidied the room, she showered and dressed in jeans and a kelly green sweatshirt with a Christmas pattern on it. She finished her coffee, and carried the cup with her out into the hallway. If she were going to pull her weight, she might as well start now. She opened the door to the master bedroom, the one her mother and stepfather had used. It was strange that she’d never thought of Luke as a stepfather. He’d just been her dad. The room, looking different, darker than it had when her parents were alive, was musty as if it hadn’t been used in a while. If Ethan didn’t sleep in here, where did he?
Opening the door next to the master bedroom, in the glow from the nightlight, she saw Leah still soundly asleep in her canopy bed. She closed the door and moved to the one across the hall, the one her mother had used as a sewing room. Instead of her mother’s sewing machine and craft supplies, the room held a double bed, dresser, and an array of boxes as if the person occupying the room had moved in quickly.
Guilt pierced her. Ethan must’ve been sleeping in her old room, and he’d vacated it for her, but why hadn’t he taken the master bedroom? Maybe he hadn’t wanted to sleep in the bed his father had—old Scrooge that he’d been. Come to think of it, she wouldn’t want to either. If ever there was a man doomed to walk the earth for his misdeeds, Uncle Charles was that man.
Ethan probably felt that since the house was hers, the master bedroom should be hers, too, but it would need serious redecorating before she could sleep in it, and he’d have realized that.
Quickly making his bed and collecting the discarded clothes, she went back downstairs to the laundry room. Since they were still on generator power, she’d wait until the electricity was up again to do laundry.
Once in the kitchen, she rooted through all the cupboard, the pantry, the fridge, and the freezer to see what was where. Recognizing so many of the dishes that had been her mother’s brought tears to her eyes again. She’d thought all of her family heirlooms had been lost forever.
“Why are you crying?” Leah asked, standing in the doorway, a pink blanket in her hands.
“Good morning, sunshine. I was crying because I was lonely, thinking of my mom and dad, but now that you’re here, I feel so much better,” Krista said, and smiled weakly. “Are you hungry?”
“I’m always hungry. Grandpa said I was born hungry,” she answered solemnly as if it were a bad thing.
“All babies are born hungry,” she said and smiled to take the sting out of words that had obviously hurt the child. “Your grandpa was just teasing you. What would you like for breakfast?” She reached for a tissue and wiped her eyes.
“Can you make pancakes?” Leah asked.
“Chocolate chip ones?”
“If Mrs. Jones has chocolate chips in the pantry.”
“She does. Right over here,” Leah said, opening the door to the large walk-in pantry.
Four hours later, the kitchen was filled with the aroma of homemade beef and barley soup simmering on the stove and the scent of both chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies cooling on the rack. She and Leah had been out to the barn to see the horses, and had taken Rascal out for his morning walk, although they had stuck to the cleared paths around the house and the barns. Leah and Rascal had played on the edges of the paths with the child insisting it was ideal snow angel making weather. She’d plopped down half a dozen times along the path to the barn. Now, the little dog was exhausted, parked on the sofa next to his mistress in the living room, watching
Krista stood at the sink, lost in thought, drying the last bowl she’d used to mix cookie dough. She jumped when a man’s hand came down on her shoulder and raised her own to protect herself, humiliated by the look of stunned surprise on Ethan’s face. She put down her hands and turned away to put the dish in the cupboard.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” she said, hoping he hadn’t noticed her terror.
“I came in through the front after shoveling the walk.”
She heard the concern in his voice and prayed he wouldn’t ask, although from her reaction, he had to know his touch had upset her.
“Something smells good,” he said. “Where’s Leah?”
with Rascal. The little sheltie is certainly quiet. We took him out for a walk this morning. What have you got there?” she asked, noting the box he carried.
“Her new boots and your old ones, resoled with brand new heels. You can see yours, but hers are a Christmas present. I’ve got to sneak them upstairs to hide them.”
She wiped her hands on the tea towel at her waist. “I’ll carry them up to my room and put them in the closet. You can move them tonight after she’s in bed. There’s fresh coffee in the pot.”
Reaching for the box, she hurried up the stairs, hoping to calm her hammering heart. How long would she be this way, jumping each time a man touched her? Ethan would never hurt her, yet her reaction had been instinctive. After depositing the box on the floor of her closet, she washed her face, combed her hair, and refreshed her lip gloss. When she returned to the kitchen, Luke sat at the table, a warm cookie halfway to his mouth. He stopped and looked at her guiltily.
“I’ve waited ten years to taste these. Don’t tell me I have to wait until later.”
She chuckled. “I seriously doubt Jonesy didn’t bake you cookies.”
“But they weren’t yours, and I love yours,” he replied soberly.
She swallowed awkwardly. His words warmed her heart, but there was a universe between “I love your cookies” and “I love you.”
“Go ahead. Never let it be said I made you beg for baked goods. Besides, I’m sure you worked hard enough this morning to have two.” She poured herself a cup of coffee, doctored it the way she liked it, and sat across from him, her emotions under control once more. “How are the animals?”
“Good. Smarter than most people think. They were all huddled together in the stables out of the wind. They’ll be fine, no matter what Mother Nature throws at them. This kind of weather isn’t much of a problem now, but once calving starts, it can be murder. I brought in milk. It’s in the fridge. It’s up to you if you want to skim the cream off. Jonesy usually takes some of it off for baking and desserts, and shakes the rest into the milk. The eggs are on the counter.” He pointed to the wire basket her mother used to use to collect them. All but three of the eggs were white.
“Thanks. You’ve got red hens?”
“Yeah. I bought them off Harvey Anderson three months ago and believe me I wish I hadn’t.”
“What do you mean? Aren’t white eggs the same as brown ones?”
“They are, but I had the dickens of a time convincing Leah that just because the brown hen gave brown eggs, it didn’t mean the brown cow would give her chocolate milk. I walked into the barn a couple of days after collecting the brown eggs for the first time to hear her giving Bessie, our Guernsey, holy hell for holding out on her.”
Krista burst out laughing. “She didn’t.”
“She did, but don’t remind her because I’m not sure I have her convinced.” He popped the last of the cookie in his mouth. “Delicious—even better than I remembered. I’ll go up and get the Christmas boxes. Where do you want them?”
“Where do you want to put the tree?”
“How about in front of the window, like your mom used to do?”
“That would be nice, but since the television isn’t in there anymore, could we get two—a smaller one for the den?”
“Sounds good, so do you want the boxes in the den or the living room?”
“Put them in the living room, and we can go from there.”
Ethan placed the last of the boxes of Christmas decorations on the living room floor. He heard voices from the kitchen. Krista was probably getting lunch ready. The soup she’d made smelled delicious, and she’d promised grilled ham and cheese sandwiches to go with it. There would be cookies for dessert.
From the way she’d reacted to his touch, he was certain Nitchkov had hit her. Why hadn’t she charged him? If she had, it would’ve made the news. A lot of abused women didn’t come forward because they felt they were somehow to blame, something their lousy husbands had probably told him. While he’d never seen it, he’d be willing to bet his dad had taken his fist to his mom. He’d never hit him, but his abuse had been more insidious. Bruises healed, but the pain inflicted by cruel words and actions cut even deeper. If he ever saw Nitchkov up close and personal, he’d punch the bastard’s lights out.
Since Krista hadn’t mentioned the note he’d placed in the box, he assumed she hadn’t read it yet. The sooner she did, the better things would be. The will and the other legal documents had to be discussed. Once she accepted his offer for restitution for the ranch, he could begin to make things right between the two of them. If she rejected either of his offers, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. One thing was certain, he wasn’t going to give up this time.
“Daddy, come and eat,” Leah yelled. “Krista said we have to eat before we open any of the boxes.”
“Coming.” He needed to get into Schneider’s as soon as he could and visit that angel because he planned to amend Leah’s Christmas wish.
Two hours later, he sat on the sofa in the den untangling mini-lights and testing them as he did. Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” and for the first time in years, all was right in his world. Krista’s gold macaroni wreath, paper plate Santa, and handprint tree had been given places of honor, and tomorrow they’d hang her construction paper lamb and clothes peg reindeer in the tree.
Earlier, there’d been an emotional moment when Krista opened the box of nutcrackers. She’d fought tears as she’d carefully unwrapped each one, dutifully explaining its history, including how the soldier had been broken. Right now, Leah was lying on the rug in front of the fireplace looking through the book on nutcrackers he’d given Krista one Christmas. It had always been kept with her collection and he’d boxed it up accordingly.
“Are those lights safe?” Krista asked, coming into the room. “I don’t know when they were used last.”
“These are only a couple of years old. I replaced them when Leah was old enough to understand Christmas. You’ll find a box of keepsake ornaments I bought for her in there, too. I didn’t want to chance breaking any of your mother’s heirloom ones. They’re yours. Maybe we can use them this year on the main tree. I bought new lights for that tree last week.” He shrugged. I figured you’d want one in here, too. You used to love Christmas.”
“I used to love a lot of things,” she said. “As far as the ornaments go, let’s mix them up. Let’s not have any yours and mine this year. For once, let’s make it all hers. I think it’s time for hot cocoa and cookies.”
“With little marshmallows?” Leah asked.
“If there are any.”
“Okay,” Ethan agreed, her comment about Christmas eating at him. “I’ll go out and refuel the generator and then when I come back, maybe we can play a game.” He turned to Leah, now standing looking at the crèche his grandfather had carved years ago. “As I remember, Krista plays a mean game of
The afternoon flew by, and after a homemade spaghetti dinner he’d never have been able to make in a hundred years, they settled down to watch Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman, two of Krista’s old favorites.
By nine o’clock Leah was exhausted, and he carried her up to bed. Instead of the two stories she usually needed, she was out like a light before he got halfway through
The Poky Little Puppy’s First Christmas
. Grateful for the reprieve, he headed down the stairs to enjoy time alone with Krista.
“Can I get you anything,” he asked coming into the room.
“No, I’m good. So what’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” she asked moving away from the window where she’d been standing. “It’s stopped snowing.”
“Well, after I take care of the animals, we can go and get a couple of trees. Reverend Clark called and wants to have a pageant rehearsal. While Leah’s there, I thought we could go and see my lawyer, Mr. Slocum, and iron things out. There are documents to sign. There are copies of them all in the box in your closet. You may not want to read my letters, but it would be best if you read those before we see him. No surprises that way.”
“If you insist, but I’d much rather put all this off until I get back in January.”
“That won’t work. The ranch’s year end is December 31, and we really have to get this straightened out this year. It’ll be my accountant’s worst nightmare as it is.” While he’d find a way to divide this year’s income, if they started January with the new split, it would be easier.