Authors: Susanne Matthews
“I’m not sure I remember something like that. We had games, candy canes, sang songs and skated, but I don’t remember shopping. I did drink hot chocolate though.”
Ethan chuckled. “I used to take Krista shopping for her Christmas presents,” he said. “She was a very fussy shopper—even worse than you can be.”
“Are you going to skate with us?”
“Not this year, sweetie. I don’t have any skates.”
“Yes, you do,” Ethan said, picking up a bag off the floor. “I brought them into Mr. Cooper last week. They’re all clean and sharpened and ready to go.”
He held up a pair of skates, the bells she’d put on the laces at the toe as shiny as they’d been the last Christmas she’d lived here.
“Thank you,” she choked out, overwhelmed by his gesture.
“They may not be the latest style, but you wore them the last time we skated around that tree together. I figured you could wear them now. You mentioned your broken ankle, so as soon as it hurts, let me know, and we’ll take a break.”
Tears brimmed her eyes. Unable to stop herself, she kissed his cheek. “This Christmas has been the best one in a long time. First Princess, then the nutcrackers and Mom’s rings, and now this. Ethan Terrance, you’re my hero.” She turned to Leah who was looking at them strangely, and grinned from ear to ear. “Thanks to your daddy, it looks like I’ll be able to skate after all.”
Several hours later, her cheeks pink from the exhilaration of the moment and the cold, Krista followed Ethan into the house. The chili supper, another Appleton tradition, had been delicious, and a great way to allow everyone to visit before the tree lighting and skating party began. All of the houses and stores around the park had been decorated with lights as had the trees and fences, making the area look like a magical winter village, and when Papa Schneider turned on the tree, a collective gasp went up at its beauty.
Seeing her old friends, feeling the warmth of the welcome, tinged with more than a touch of curiosity, had been wonderful. No one had asked her why she’d left and not returned until now. Many had expressed their joy at having her back in Appleton, and hoping she was planning to stay. If she’d realized the welcome waiting for her here, she might’ve come back earlier despite her uncle.
The best part of the evening had been gliding hand in hand with Ethan the way they’d done so many years ago. Leah had been just in front of them, skating with friends from school. All in all, it had been a magical time, one she’d cherish for the rest of her days. Maybe she’d get to come back for it again next Christmas.
Removing her coat, she carried Leah’s most recent Christmas creations into the family room and placed the pine cone trees on the end tables. The new handmade ornaments would go in the tree tomorrow.
She carried her presents up to her room to put them away and heard Ethan talking to Leah. The voices were muffled, but she knew enough to give them their privacy. Going back downstairs, she settled on the sofa and waited for Ethan. She hoped he wouldn’t bring up her refusal to accept the restitution he’d offered. The last thing she wanted to do tonight was fight.
Ethan entered the room, walked over to the bar, and poured them each a glass of wine from the bottle they’d opened last night. “I wish it was this easy to get her to bed every night,” he said. “Once school starts, she’ll be back to bartering for extra half hours. She can be quite the little con artist when she sets her mind to it.”
Krista chuckled. “I remember doing that. It never worked if I asked Mom, but Dad was a pushover. I spoke to Aggie in town. She’s coming over in the morning to make pies and get things started for Christmas dinner. Maybe I should cook a ham, too. I’m sure the bird will be big enough, but how many will we be?”
“Twelve, plus the twins, but they don’t eat. Chris is dating Reverend Clark’s daughter and having dinner with them.”
“But I love turkey sandwiches and turkey soup.” He sat on the couch beside her and reached for her hand. The skin was warm and soft, unlike the callous hands he remembered from her youth when she preferred to ride without gloves. “You read the letters this morning, didn’t you? That’s why you gave me a ‘get out of jail free’ card.”
“No, I didn’t read them, Ethan. I’m not sure I ever will.”
“I read yours; it’s only fair you should read mine,” he said dismayed with her comment. She had to read the letters. Their future depended on it.
She shook her head. “We wrote those letters a lifetime ago when we were both young and carefree. I won’t hold you to the promises you made ten years ago,” she said softly. “We aren’t the same people.” She reached for her wine and sipped.
“Are you that sure of yourself?” he asked, wishing he could turn back time.
“Sure of myself—no, never—but I couldn’t let you do what you wanted to do. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t necessary. I don’t begrudge you anything you’ve had these last few years. What I do regret is not having faith in the people who loved me, like Luke. I’ve had time to think, and I believe fear motivated your dad to do what he did. He wanted the ranch to stay in one piece and in the family, and I’ll make sure it does. Despite what he did, we found one another again. We can be friends once more, and I can come home. Ever since the day I left here, I’ve felt incomplete, as if some part of me was missing. My heart is here. Tomorrow before we go to church, I want to stop at the cemetery and visit Mom and Dad’s graves, something I haven’t been able to do until now. I hope they haven’t been neglected.”
“They haven’t. Leah and I visit all eight graves at least once a month.”
“Her parents, your parents, my grandparents, and my parents.”
“Of course. Your whole family is there. I don’t even know where my biological dad is buried. He died before I was born. There’s something sad about not knowing where you come from.”
“I can help you find out after Christmas. All you need is his name and place and date of birth.”
“I’ve got those documents in Ottawa. I’ll bring them back with me. I’ll want to visit your dad’s grave. I’ll need to make peace with him, too. I can’t forget how deeply he hurt me, but I can forgive his humanity. If I’d owned part of Seven Oaks officially before my divorce, Theo could’ve taken it away. Everything happens for a reason.”
“I suppose it does. So, friends and business partners it is,” he said, fighting to keep his disappointment hidden. “Do you want to watch another movie? I’d like to watch the hockey game—the Flames are playing.”
“Go ahead. I’ll head up now. I have gifts to wrap, and I want to be up bright and early tomorrow. It’s Christmas Eve. There’ll be a lot to do, and Aggie will be here at seven. What time will we leave for the church?”
“If we want to stop at the cemetery then we need to be out of here by five. The service is at seven, but Leah needs to be there before that.”
“Then, we’ll eat at four. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Krista. Sleep well.”
He watched her leave the room. Could they ever be more than just friends? He understood her reasons for not accepting his offer of restitution, but he wanted to make amends. Unless she read the letter, he wouldn’t be able to make his second offer, because she’d never believe he loved her now without that proof. After reading hers, he’d been convinced they had a chance, but she’d loved Theo—she’d married him and stayed through the abuse. Maybe the love she’d had ten years ago was gone even though his burned brightly.
After leaving the lawyer’s office, he’d gone to Mama Schneider’s and had made his wish, not the one Leah had asked him to make but the one on his heart. He asked for the words to convince Krista to stay not as his business partner, but as his wife and Leah’s new mommy. From what she’d said, he doubted that would ever happen now. It should be easy to tell her he loved her, but he was afraid she’d reject him, just as she’d rejected his offer to repay what his father had stolen from her.
* * *
“Leah, what’s wrong?” Krista asked as she hung another of the beautiful glass balls up high in the tree. “You’ve been so quiet since Aggie left.”
“I’m worried,” the child answered.
Krista bit the inside of her cheek so as not to laugh. “What are you worried about? If it’s how Santa will get a pony into his sleigh, he uses special magic.”
“It’s not about the pony. It’s about my wish. I don’t think Daddy made the wish, and I know I can’t get a new mommy unless he wants one, too.” She came over and stood beside Krista. “I know what God says, but I really want a new mommy.”
“Why is it so important?” Your dad and Mrs. Jones take good care of you and love you.”
“Because new mommies bring babies, and I want a baby sister, like Amy and Abby. I don’t want to be an ‘only’ anymore.”
Tears slid down her cheeks, and Krista pulled her onto her lap. So that was it. Leah was crazy about Aggie’s three month old twins. The child had entertained the little ones while she and Aggie had worked in the kitchen. It had been a productive morning. Four fruit pies, one mincemeat, and a tourtière were baked, sitting out in the mudroom where they’d stay cool. Four loaves of bread were rising in the kitchen and a pumpkin and cream cheese loaf was rolled and wrapped in the fridge.
“You know, getting a new mommy and a baby is something your dad has to do. He needs to meet a nice girl and fall in love, like your mommy and daddy did.”
“I like you. You make good cookies, and you make him smile. Why can’t he fall in love with you?”
Wouldn’t that be nice, but we had our chance and blew it.
“Honey, I can’t answer that question,” she said. “Falling in love is complicated.”
“Don’t you like him? You kissed his cheek last night.”
“I like your daddy very much. He used to be my best friend,” she said, her heart aching that she couldn’t admit the love she still had for Ethan. “As much as you may want a mommy and a baby, you’re just going to have to wait. I’m sorry. If I could fix this for you, I would, but it isn’t up to me. Now, let’s finish decorating the trees, so you can have a bath before dinner, and we won’t be late getting to the church.”
Ten minutes later, Ethan came into the room. He smiled at her, sadness in his eyes, and Krista wondered where he’d been and whether or not he’d heard any of her conversation with his daughter.
“Wow, the trees look gorgeous. I saw the one in the window. You ladies have done a terrific job.”
“Daddy,” Leah ran over to him and threw herself into his arms. “Krista said we needed to wait for you to do the tops. Can you do it now before I have my bath?”
“Of course, I can. Which one do you want to do first?”
“Let’s put the star on the tree in the living room,” Krista said, realizing since her conversation with Leah that her choice of topper for the second tree might not have been a good one. “There are a few balls to go up there too. Even on the step ladder I didn’t want to go up too high.”
He smirked. “Still afraid of heights?”
“It isn’t the heights that bother me,” she said. “It’s the distance to the ground.”
Chuckling, he picked up Leah and led the way to the living room. “That’s the same thing. Let’s go put the star on that tree. It’s almost three, and we need to get it in gear.”
Twenty minutes later, after arranging and rearranging a few balls and making sure the star was straight, they returned to the family room.
“Where’s the star for this tree?” he asked.
“I didn’t get a star.” She opened the bag and removed the fiber optic angel, the one she’d chosen because she looked so much like the one in Schneider’s store.
“It’s the wishing angel,” Leah whispered, her eyes wide. She smiled. “Thank you, Krista. Now Daddy can make his wish right here, and it can come true.”
Ethan’s emotion-filled gaze met Krista’s, and she looked away, knowing her cheeks were bright red under his scrutiny.
“It plugs into the lights,” she said, pulling the cord down from under the ivory lace skirt.
Reaching for it, his hand brushed hers, sending heat coursing through her body. Theo’s touch had never affected her like this.
He plugged in the cord, hid it in the tree branches, and solidified the angel on top. “Plug the tree in so we can see how it looks,” he said.
“Look at her wings,” Leah said softly. “She’s like a for real angel. They move.”
“I didn’t know they did that,” she answered as surprised as the child. She hadn’t realized there were electronic as well as fiber optic lights in the tree topper.
“She’s gorgeous. Well done, ladies,” Ethan said, kissing first Leah, and then Krista on the cheek where she’d kissed him last night. “Now. Someone needs a bath. We’ll turn the lights out and turn them on when we get back.”
The hustle and bustle of getting supper on the table and getting ready for church didn’t give Krista time to think. They’d stopped at the cemetery and visited each grave. She’d spoken silently to her parents and her uncle, apologizing to her stepdad for doubting him, telling her mom how much she missed her right now, and informing her uncle she’d forgiven him even if she didn’t understand why he’d tried to ruin her life.
The pageant had been beautiful, and when it came time for Lulu the cow to speak, Leah had recited her lines nice and loud so everyone could hear. Two of the shepherds had fallen asleep in the hay and Joseph had accidentally hit Mary on the head with his staff, forcing her to drop Baby Jesus into the manger more forcefully than she’d intended, but it was a Christmas Eve Krista would remember for the rest of her days.
As soon as they got home, Leah went up and put on her new pajamas, a Christmas tradition in the Terrance house. Once she was downstairs again, they had cocoa and cookies before Ethan hung up three stockings on their special hooks on the mantel. Then, just as Luke had done years ago, Ethan settled in the large chair, and Leah climbed onto his lap, the way she herself had climbed in her stepfather’s. The angel’s wings flapped gently on the tree aglow with more than a hundred twinkling lights, as if she were anxiously awaiting the story herself.
Ethan began reading. “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”
Krista was transported back to the years when Luke had read the story to her from the very same book Ethan held in his hands.
“…And to all a goodnight.”
“I love that story, Daddy.”
“Let’s get Santa his milk and cookies. The reindeer can’t miss the food we spread for them earlier. Then, my lady, you need to get to bed. You don’t want him to skip Seven Oaks because you aren’t asleep.”
“I need to do something first,” she said, jumping off his lap and running into the hall.
Two minutes later, she joined them in the kitchen where she poured half a cup of milk into the Santa cup and placed three cookies—one oatmeal raisin, one chocolate, and one peanut butter—on the special Santa plate. Ethan carried the milk and cookies into the living room and placed them near the tree under which were presents for the staff and Aggie’s twins. Krista noted two small packages had been added to the front and was doubly grateful she’d bought presents of her own to give.
Once the task was accomplished, Ethan put the child on his shoulders to piggy back her upstairs.
“Can Krista tuck me in, too?”
“Of course I can,” she answered. I’d like that.
Krista stepped into the room first, turned on the nightlight, and pulled down the blankets.
“So, since this is new to me,” she said, “how do you get tucked in?”
“First, I have to say my prayers, then I need a drink of water, and Rascal takes his place on my bed. Daddy checks for monsters in the closet and under the bed, and reads a story, but we already did that tonight. Then, I get kissed.”
“I see,” she said and nodded. “That’s a lot to remember.”
Leah got down on her knees at her bedside and began. “Now I lay me down to sleep…”
The sight of the small child kneeling beside her bed brought back other memories long forgotten. It had been a long time since she’d believed in the power of prayer.
“…and bless Daddy, and Krista, and Santa,” she said finishing her prayers.
Ethan picked her up and put her in bed. On cue, Rascal jumped onto the bed, made three circles, before settling at her feet. Krista smothered a giggle of her own as Ethan ordered the monsters out of Princess Leah’s room. Then he kissed his daughter goodnight.