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Authors: Susanne Matthews

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BOOK: Come Home For Christmas
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“If you say so, but I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Can we just sit here and pretend it’s fifteen years ago and watch
It’s a Wonderful Life
?”

“Of course, but if it’s fifteen years ago, then you probably shouldn’t be having that drink. There’s a lot of rum in that eggnog,” he said and laughed, trying to keep things light. If she’d said ten years ago, he could’ve put his arm around her, but fifteen would keep him in his chair on the other side of the room.

“You’re not getting it back,” she said, “now quiet. It’s starting.”

Together, but separate, they watched the Christmas classic. When the movie ended, she had tears in her eyes.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

He watched her limb the stairs wishing it was fifteen years ago because if it were, he could avoid what had happened five years later.

Chapter Seven

 

 

Light filtered into the room telling Krista she’s slept in later than the previous morning. She glanced at her alarm clock. It was just before seven, her usual wake-up time. For the second night in a row, she’d slept soundly. While Leah would be up by half-past seven, that gave her almost an hour to herself. Time to look in the box as she’d promised Ethan she would. It only made sense that she should know what he expected her to sign before she did.

Putting on her slippers, she donned her robe and grabbed the box off the shelf she could easily reach. She’d wanted Theo to lower the shelf in their closet like this, but his answer had been to tell her to stand on a chair. The shelf was just fine for him. Forcing her thoughts away from one of the two men who’d made her life hell, she went down the stairs and set the box on the table.

She made a fresh pot of coffee, grabbed a banana from the tree on the counter, and stepped out into the mudroom. The sun poured into the small glassed-in porch. As much as snowstorms were unsettling, they always left so much beauty behind. Everything was pristine and fresh. Even the snow angels had vanished under a new coating of the white stuff.

Going back inside, she tossed the peel in the green bin for recycling, fixed her coffee and then sat at the table. She opened the box, surprised to see it was almost full. On the very top, Ethan had left her a note, with very specific “Read me first” directions on it. Dutifully, she pulled the sheet of paper out of the box and unfolded it.

Krista,

They say handwritten correspondence is a lost art, and that’s a shame. So many important documents were penned by hand, and they survived the test of time.—like the letters I read from you and the ones you’ll find in here. When I heard from my lawyer that you’d accepted my invitation to come home, I was thrilled and scared to death. I don’t know how you’ll react to what you’ve learned. I can tell you that it took days for me to fully accept the enormity of the situation.

The last few months have been hard on you, and I pray I’m not going to add to your pain. I’ve dreamed of seeing you again, having you back at Seven Oaks for ten years, and I never gave up hope that you’d come back one day, not even after I found out you’d gotten married. This is home—your home—the place where you’ve always belonged.

I’ve never been good with words face-to-face, and you know that, because somehow, the message I thought I’d conveyed ten years ago got misunderstood. Why else would you have left and not come to me? I thought it would be easier to show you all this, and let you make the decision to stay or go on your own. If you’re reading this, it means you’ve decided to give me a chance to prove I didn’t know what my father did. I can’t figure out why he did it. I suppose he was jealous of what Uncle Luke and Aunt Jill had because from what I remember his time with Mom wasn’t a happy one. I think, given the chance, we could’ve been happy, too.

In the box, you’ll find Uncle Luke’s last will and testament, the one that should’ve been used at the time. There are also the most recent bank statements and the notices of assessment from the tax department for the last ten years. I had the accountant copy them for you. You can talk to him if you want. His number’s on the document. Finally, you’ll find the restitution agreement I’d like you to accept. I’ll never be able to repay what’s been stolen from you, but I’m offering to raise your stake in the ranch to 75 percent as long as Leah and I can keep living and working here. I took over as manager after Dad’s stroke, and you’ll see the ranch is doing well. There are some legal matters concerning the blackmail and other stuff that the Calgary police and Mr. Slocum, my lawyer, are dealing with and he can explain it all when we see him. This is the best I can do; I hope it’s good enough.

You’ll also find the letters I sent you ten years ago. They’re open, but that’s the way I found them, which means my father knew how I felt about you—how I thought you felt about me. You have no idea how deeply his betrayal hurt me. It just proves what a vindictive man he was. What they say about misery liking company must be true since he made us and everyone else around him miserable. The only bright spot in my life has been Leah. For her sake, I’m trying to be a good, God-fearing man. I’ve joined the church and while I’m not overly religious, I do believe in a loving God, and I know I have to forgive if I ever want to be forgiven, but it’s hard to let go of all the hurt and pain he caused. Having you home again, returning to you what’s rightfully yours and making amends for it will go a long way toward making things right between us once more.

I’ve reread the letters I wrote, and I hope that by reading them, you’ll see I never meant to mislead you. There’s never been anyone other than Leah who meant as much to me as you did and do. I loved you, Krista. I’d like to see if we can recapture the friendship we had. Seven Oaks is your home. You were happy here once; I’d like to think you can be again.

Ethan

Krista swiped at the tears running down her face.
I loved you
;
we could’ve been happy.
Past tense. The words were a death knell. Ten years ago he’d loved her, but that was then; this was now. He was offering her half of his inheritance and asking for her friendship, when what she wanted now, just as she had ten years ago, was his love. Why hadn’t she gotten on a plane and gone to Vancouver? She’d asked herself that questions a thousand times, and each time she did, the answer was the same. She’d lacked faith in his love and have believed the awful things Uncle Charles had said. When Ethan hadn’t answered her letters, she’d assumed the worst.

Reaching back into the box, she removed the will, legal papers, and tax statements, and pulled out the pile of envelopes held together with an elastic band. There were twelve of them. She reached for the first one on the pile. Changed her mind and put it back. Instead, she went over the will, the other legal document and the tax notices. Seven Oaks was doing well—well enough to support both of them as it had her stepfather and Uncle Charles.

She shook her head. She would not allow Ethan to give away his birthright. There was no need for restitution. Wiping away her tears, she packed everything back into the box and went upstairs before Leah found her crying for the second day in a row.

When the chores were finished, they took the horse drawn wagon out into the woods and selected two Christmas trees—a full sized pine for the living room and a smaller one for the family room. Ian and Ethan set them up in their stands. They’d have to sit a day before they could be decorated, but there was something magical about doing the tree on Christmas Eve. She remembered all the fun she’d had and looked forward to watching the awe and wonder on Leah’s face as they brought the tree to life.

After lunch, they got ready to go into the town for the rest of the day. Ethan had opted to use the SUV since the roads were plowed, making it easier on Krista to get in and out. They brought everything they’d need for the tree lighting ceremony, and Krista was disappointed she wouldn’t be able to skate. She’d gone up to the attic looking for her old sports equipment. Her skis were there, but not her skates. She must’ve taken them with her, or they’d been left out in the barn and Uncle Charles had gotten rid of them.

“You’ve got this daddy thing down pat, don’t you,” Krista said, coming into the kitchen, carrying her snow pants. She was amazed at how well organized he was with the skates, extra socks, mitts, and hats he had packed for the child.

“Jonesy has been a big help. She’s the one who taught me about pre-packed travel bags. I don’t know what I’d have done without her. You know, I’d have expected you to have children by now. You used to want a big family.”

“I used to want a lot of things. I learned you can’t always get what you want.”

She realized Leah would learn that lesson this year when she didn’t get her new mommy, and that was just sad.

* * *

“Mr. Slocum, the offer is a generous one, but I have to refuse,” Krista said.

“I see,” the lawyer said, pursing his lips. “How much more do you want?”

“You don’t understand. I don’t want Ethan to make restitution,” she said quickly. “To paraphrase, he didn’t do the crime, so he shouldn’t do the time. I want you to do whatever you have to do so that the shares in Seven Oaks are fifty-fifty. If Ethan gets married, I’m willing to sell him my half for a reasonable amount with the proviso that I can board my horse there until I can find a new home for her. I’m going to look for work in Calgary, so I expect to stay in the area for a while.”

“You’re giving up the controlling share?”

“I am. I think that one share has caused enough pain.”

“What about the legal proceedings against Caswell and Sawyer?”

“I’d like to say, throw the book at them, but I don’t really know what can be done.”

“Sawyer will definitely face blackmail charges and whatever the company has will be sold off to repay some of what was stolen from you. They’ve both been disbarred, Caswell posthumously, but it’s a damn shame the man who orchestrated all this got off scot free.”

She still didn’t understand why it had happened, and probably never would. Uncle Charles had been her guardian, chosen by her mother and stepfather in their wills long before they’d been killed in a freak avalanche while skiing in the Rockies. They’d trusted him, but greed changed people. The will had basically given her control of Seven Oaks, something Uncle Charles would’ve hated. Maybe he’d been afraid she’d run off and marry a stranger or sell her share of the ranch, leaving him at the mercy of strangers.

If he read her letters as Ethan implied, then he could’ve prevented that possibility by encouraging her relationship with Ethan, but he’d destroyed it instead, and he’d been so organized—first, he arranged for Ethan to take that course in farm management in Vancouver. Next, he’d gotten rid of the Internet, making communication difficult, especially when he’d refused to give her any phone numbers as well. After that, he’d threatened her, demeaned her, always when they were alone, so when Jonesy had gone on vacation, he had a clear field. Terrified, when he’d told her to get out, she had, running back to the city where she’d been born.

The lawyer cleared his throat.

“Draw up whatever you have to make sure the ranch and everything involved with it, is owned jointly,” she said. “The main house is mine, but the manager’s house I understand is his. I need you to draw up a will for me leaving everything I own to him or to Leah in the event Ethan dies before I do. I have to go back to Ottawa to attend to the sale of my condo, but I’ll sign everything when I get back in January.”

“What about the income you were denied these past ten years?”

“Just split this year’s income with me, and we can write off the other nine years. Mr. Slocum, what my uncle did was despicable, but I won’t perpetuate the hate and pettiness.”

“If you’re sure, I’ll have the papers ready for you after the holidays.” He stood and offered his hand. “Merry Christmas, Krista. May I say I’m impressed by how well you’re taking all this.”

“There’s nothing to be impressed about. Seven Oaks was home to both of us. It should stay that way. Merry Christmas, Mr. Slocum.”

Krista stepped out into the hall where Ethan waited. She smiled at him. “I know you and Mr. Slocum have stuff to discuss, and I have a few stops to make. What time is Leah’s rehearsal over?”

“Four.”

“I’ll meet you at the church.”

She hurried out of the lawyer’s office before Ethan could say anything. She didn’t want to be there when he heard her decision. He’d try to talk her out of it and that was the last thing she wanted. She had some Christmas shopping to do, and though her selection of stores were limited, she knew what she wanted and where she’d find it.

In Gordon’s handmade woolens, she purchased a saddle blanket for Leah’s pony. In Fraser’s jewelers, she bought fourteen karat gold earrings in the shape of tiny horseshoes for Leah, and a pocket watch and fob for Ethan—and while her bank account was almost empty, she hadn’t had to cut her hair to pay for them. Glancing at her watch, a parting gift from the Gladiators’ management, she saw she had enough time to get a rawhide chew toy for Rascal, wrapping paper, and an ornament for the top of the second tree. She slipped into the back of the church with three minutes to spare and sat down next to Ethan.

“Get what you wanted?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“You pulled a fast one on me, Krista. I can’t let you do that.”

“You can and you will. I don’t want to talk or argue about my decision, especially not here and now.”

“Agreed, but we will talk tonight.”

“No, we won’t,” she said with more backbone than she’d exhibited in years. “I’ve made up my mind. Please, let me do this.”

He stared at her, and she knew he wanted to argue, but he nodded.

“I’ll let it go … for now.”

Leah came running over to them, stopping her from commenting.

“Is it time to skate, Daddy?”

“Not yet, honey,” Ethan answered. “We’re going to the Rec Center where they’ve got games set up for you and Santa’s shop. Did you bring your money?”

She pulled two loonies out of her mitten. “I did.” Turning to her, Leah asked, “Did they have a Santa’s store when you were little? It’s a place the elves have so kids can buy presents for their parents.”

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