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Authors: Earlene Fowler

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BOOK: Tumbling Blocks
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She was silent for a moment. “That was cruel, I know. I was just . . . afraid.”
“Afraid of me? Mom, I’m your son. I’d never hurt you.”
“Not physically,” she whispered.
My heart ached for both of them. My husband didn’t understand that the intimidating presence that made him such a trusted commander in an emergency was often more than a little scary to those who loved him. And my mother-in-law didn’t understand that the distance she kept was like a slap to her son.
“I don’t mean to . . .” Gabe’s voice cracked.
“I know,” she said, her words so low I almost couldn’t hear them. “I know that, son. I made an error in judgment. Surely you understand that?”
What he said next completely floored me. Only in retrospect did it occur to me that he’d been wanting to say this for so many years.
“You sent me away.” His voice was raspy, agonized.
Kathryn gave a small gasp. “Gabe, I didn’t—”
“Yes, you did! Dad was only dead for three months, and you sent me to Uncle Tony.”
“You were almost a man,” she said, her voice sounding desperate. “I didn’t want to, but you were out of control. I didn’t know what to do. Your sisters were so young, and I was alone and had to work.”
“You never called me.”
“That’s not true! I called Tony every week to see how you were doing, but I was afraid to speak to you. Don’t you remember the horrible things we said to each other? I didn’t want that to happen again. We needed time to cool down. I never stopped thinking about you for a minute. I missed you every day. I’m so, so sorry. If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t send you away. I wouldn’t. Please forgive me.”
Before she finished I heard something else, something I never thought I would hear in my lifetime. A sound that flooded me with sadness and relief.
I stood up without thinking, making my way to the living room doorway. My husband sat next to his mother on the sofa, his head bent down to his knees, his back heaving with the tears he should have shed years ago. His mother’s arms surrounded him, her cheek against his black, tousled hair.
“Lo siento, Mamá,”
he said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Papa . . . Luis . . .”
“It’s okay, son. It wasn’t your fault. Luis is in God’s hands now.”
“You can’t die, Mom. You can’t.”
“Oh, sweetie,” she said. “I’m not going to die.”
Her words turned into comforting murmurs, the sounds that mothers make, soothing nonwords that somehow a child, no matter what age, found comforting.
Before they noticed me, I moved quietly away. There would be many times in our future when I would hold Gabe to comfort him, not the least when the day would come when he would lose the woman who now held him, the first woman he loved. Right now, it was her place to care for him, this woman who’d cradled him for nine months inside her body, who taught him to walk, to talk, to read, who kissed his skinned knees and hemmed his jeans, who’d sent him away in fear and guilt and love when he was sixteen, who, no doubt, prayed for him every day he was in Vietnam and every day afterward, this woman, who, no doubt, if asked, would die for him. Right now, it was her arms he needed.
I went back to bed. Soon it would be morning. I would rise before everyone else and take muffins out of the freezer. Lemon muffins I’d made a week ago. I would serve hot tea and lemon muffins with warm, rich ginger butter. Gabe’s favorite. This was what I could do for him, for her, for us. When all the crying was done, I would be ready with hot tea and warm lemon muffins.
CHAPTER 16
T
HREE DAYS LATER, CHRISTMAS EVE, I WAS FEELING much better, though I was still taking pain pills at night. We were driving to the Aragon house for their annual tamale feed when Hud called my cell phone.
“Hey, ranch girl,” Hud said. I could hear “White Christmas” playing in the background. “How are you?”
How was I? That was a good question. Right at that moment, I was grateful that my family was well and safe, grateful that Gabe and his mother were finally at peace with each other. He’d even managed a couple of laughs with Ray. I had a feeling that my husband was actually relieved that his mother had someone who cared for her. Most important, I was grateful to be alive.
“I’m thankful,” I said, sparing him the details. We’d have time to talk when he picked up Boo.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. How’s Boudin?”
“He’s doing great. We’re all headed over to Elvia’s parents’ house for tamales and presents. Sam is bringing both dogs in his car.”
“Did you get Boo’s photo with Santa?”
I hesitated. The only picture of Boo that Sam had managed to get showed the puppy screaming in terror while attempting to escape from the red and white scary monster he was certain was trying to puppy nap him. Nevertheless, it
was
a photo with Santa.
“Sure did.” No use ruining his or Maisie’s Christmas.
“Good,” he said, his voice relieved. “I have no idea why Maisie was so obsessed with that picture, but with what she went through this year, it seemed a small thing to give her. You have my undying gratitude,
catin
.”
“No problem,” I said, my stomach sinking into my feet. Somehow, I’d have to figure something out before they returned from Texas. “See you soon.”
“We’re flying home the day after Christmas. I’ll be by to pick up Boo about six p.m. or so, depending on whether the planes are on time.”
“No hurry,” I said. “I’m actually kinda getting used to the little pumpkin head.”
“Yeah, they do have a way of stealing your heart, don’t they?”
“Merry Christmas, Clouseau.”

Joyeux Noel,
ranch girl.”
At the Aragon house, Gabe, Kathryn, Ray and I were the last to arrive. Sam had been there for about an hour, and Boo was in puppy heaven as he was passed from arms to arms of cooing girls and women. All of Elvia’s family was there and even Uncle Boone, Emory’s father, had flown in.
“What a wonderful surprise,” Dove exclaimed, hugging her Arkansas cousin.
So many conversations were going on at once, some Spanish, some English and even more a mixture of both. I glanced over at Kathryn and Ray. I was happy to see a flushed expression of joy on Kathryn’s face. Was she remembering times with Rogelio and his family? It occurred to me for the first time how much in common she and I had, being widowed at a young age. But we’d both found love again with two extraordinary men.
At that moment, standing there watching all these families become one big family for this evening, a mixture of races, ages, backgrounds, histories, sorrows and joys, I felt the real presence of God flowing through the room, like a cool, refreshing breeze, a reminder of what this holiday was really about.
We ate tamales and chicken verde and Dove’s twice-baked potatoes and Christmas butterscotch cookies and Mrs. Aragon’s Mexican chocolate cake until we were stuffed. Then we sat in the Aragons’ huge family room, squeezed in like sardines, and watched the kids open presents. The rest of us would wait until Christmas Day. This night was always for the children. I watched my best friends open the present I bought for the newest little Aragon-Littleton. It was a stuffed pony, of course. When you turned it upside down, it gave a spirited neigh.
“It also comes with one thousand and one horseback riding lessons,” I said, laughing. “My wrist should be healed by the time your little
niña
or
niño
is ready to sit a horse.”
Elvia touched her stomach, her face flushed with joy. “Thank you. It’s our baby’s first present.”
Sam came over to me with a wrapped gift. “Here, stepmom. I got you something.”
“The adults aren’t supposed to open their presents until tomorrow,” I said, protesting.
“Well, it’s not exactly for you.”
I took the shirt box-size package and tried to tear away the wrapping with one hand. When I finally got it open, Sam laughed, making me instantly suspicious.
Nestled inside thick white tissue paper was a framed photo. It was a photo of Boo sitting on Santa’s lap. And the dog was smiling.
“Oh, my stars, Sam! Thank you, thank you, thank you. How in the world
did
you get him up there? And smiling?”
Sam grinned. “A gifted animal trainer never gives away trade secrets.”
I stared at the photo, amazed. “You’re in the wrong profession.”
“I agree,” Gabe said, winking at his son. “Computer graphics might be a good career avenue to explore.”
“This picture is fake?” I exclaimed. I peered closer at the photograph. It was incredible. You really couldn’t tell that Boo wasn’t actually sitting on Santa’s lap. “This’ll do just fine. Thank you, stepson. I owe you big time.”
“You know it,
madrastra
.”
We ended the night gathered around the old upright piano in the corner of the family room. People took turns singing Christmas carols, harmonizing on old Beach Boys songs. Sam and Ramon, Elvia’s youngest brother, made us all laugh singing some silly verses they’d written to “Jingle Bells.” They’d replaced a one-horse open sleigh with a low-ride Chevrolet.
I looked around the room at all these people I loved, each with their own story, their own beginning, middle and end. I thought about what I’d read somewhere about how each ending was only the beginning of a story we hadn’t read yet.
For a moment, I thought of Pinky Edmondson and Nola Maxwell and felt a pang, wishing that things had turned out better for both of them. I wondered where Constance was spending Christmas, knowing she was probably missing her friend. I was sad for them and thankful for where I was right now, at this particular moment in time.
I could not have guessed in a million years when I was a little girl how my life would be at this age, how many twists and turns it would take, how much sorrow I would endure, how much fear I would encounter, how much joy awaited me. It did feel like another beginning. I looked over at my husband, his face relaxed and happy. I sent up a quick prayer thanking God for the time we have had and for whatever time was still ahead. Then I rested my good hand on his knee and turned my attention back to our families, waiting for the next song to begin.
Earlene Fowler
was raised in La Puente, California, by a Southern mother and a Western father. She lives in Southern California with her husband, Allen, and a semi-obedient Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Boudin. You can visit her website at
www.earlenefowler.com
.
THE SADDLEMAKER’S WIFE
By National Bestselling Author
Earlene Fowler
 
After the death of her husband, Cole, Ruby McGavin arrives in Cardinal, California, where she has inherited part of a cattle ranch. But she is shocked to discover that Cole’s family, despite what he told her, is still very much alive.
 
Though intent on selling out to the McGavins and starting a new life, she cannot help but be drawn to them—particularly handsome saddlemaker Lucas McGavin. And the more she learns about them, the more she wonders if she ever really knew Cole...
 
“[A] sweetly told narrative.”
-The New York Times
 
 
“Emotionally powerful.”

Publishers Weekly
(starred review)
 
 
 
EARLENE FOWLER
Don’t miss any of the Agatha Award—winning series featuring Benni Harper, curator of San Celina’s folk art museum and amateur sleuth.
 
 
Fool’s Puzzle
Irish Chain
Kansas Troubles
Goose in the Pond
Dove in the Window
Mariner’s Compass
Seven Sisters
Arkansas Traveler
Steps to the Altar
Sunshine and Shadow
Broken Dishes
Delectable Mountains
 
 
 
 
BERKLEY PRIME CRIME
BOOK: Tumbling Blocks
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