Emily wasn’t spoiled. While it was true she came from a wealthy family and wore vibrant gowns sewn from the best cloth, behind the closed doors of her grand home, she felt her pa’s hand strike her backside nightly. The same was true for her ma. Emily’s fancy-pants attorney pa enjoyed terrorizing his family. Emily had often said a wicked smile of euphoria shone in his eyes each time his fingers curled around her waist.
Eventually, the time had come for Emily to marry. Her pa had chosen a man for her; someone of the same nature as him. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life in torture, or allow the same to happen to any children she might have, she fled under the cover of darkness, guilt-stricken for leaving her mother behind to suffer even more because of Emily’s defiance. On the outskirts of Boston, she’d happened upon Leon and Earl Jansen; a man who had once been Leon’s friend.
“I couldn’t take you back to Boston. The detective I hired said your pa was more crazed than you remembered, and would’ve killed you soon as he saw you. Me, too, for helping you escape to Colorado Territory.” He swallowed hard. “You shoulda let me tell our children the truth. I know,” he held up a hand to silence her outburst echoing between his ears, “you’d rather they hate you than show you pity. That’s why you put up a brave pretense of disowning them for their mistakes, so they wouldn’t succumb to heartache should my claim about your pa killing you prove true.”
Helplessly, he kicked at the snow before lowering his hand and shoving it back into his pocket. “You were a good woman, Emily. I couldn’t have asked for a better wife, even when you browbeat me to take you back to Boston to find your ma. The detective said she’d passed, but you didn’t believe him.”
A tear laden with regrets slid from the corner of his eye to freeze on his cheek. He ignored the droplet, focused on the anxiety shooting up from his gut to bubble in his throat. Either he got to the point or forever held his peace.
“I’ve come to ask a favor,” he rasped, curling his fingers into his palms. “I’ve kept your secrets, including how you fancied Earl Jansen until you and I were forced to spend the night together to keep warm and Lucas was born nine months later…” He sighed heavily at the memory of what had started a forty-year feud between him and his best friend. “I told you about Emma. She’s done right by me all these years. It’s time I do right by her.”
Another gust of wind pelted his back, knocking his Stetson forward. He caught it and fixed the hat firmly back in place. “Please, allow me this, Emily, and I’ll continue to keep your secrets.” He pressed his lips together, thought a moment and smiled fondly. “Our secrets.”
Squaring his shoulders, he turned and retraced his steps. Listened to the wrought iron squeak again as he pushed the gate shut, his gaze falling on the headstone. “Merry Christmas, my sweet, sweet Emily. You’ll always be my first love, but Emma…” a lump of emotion lodged in the center of his chest. “I love her, too.”
Trudging through the snow, his bones again protesting the cold and his innards shivering, he ducked inside the barn and instructed his foreman to saddle his horse.
Jack eyed him uneasily. “Royce ain’t gonna like this, you going off alone. More snow’s a coming. I feel it clear down to my toes.”
“Something I gotta do, Jack.” Leon narrowed his eyes. “No tattling to Royce. Or Lucas. Or Creel. Understood?”
Against his will, and better judgment, Jack agreed and saddled the mare.
Leon made it to town without incident. His first stop was Jasmine’s eatery where he drank down a steaming cup of coffee to thaw his insides. Next he paid a visit to the preacher, then to the seamstress to collect a Christmas gift. One last cup of coffee at Jasmine’s and Leon made the long trek home, where he encountered Royce’s temper and Paige, Royce’s wife, ushering him inside to sit before the fire. She tucked a blanket around him, brought him hot tea, and as the afternoon gave way to evening, his children and grandchildren arrived, filling the house with sounds of laughter and merriment. Leon rose to greet Emma and tug her aside.
“You old coot.” She swatted his arm, perturbed. “I heard you went to town by yourself.” She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him. “As if your high-strung mare doesn’t cause me enough heartburn. Were you hoping to catch your death in the cold?”
Admiring her gray hair pulled into a loose bun and the fire burning in her eyes, warmth stole through him at her concern. “Had something important to take care of.” He winked at her before looking over his shoulder to ensure they were alone. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a ring and slipped it on her finger. “Marry me, Emma,” he pleaded sincerely. “Tonight. The preacher’s on his way.”
A small gasp escaped her. Dumbfounded, she stared at the diamond and then at him for a long moment. “Put that away,” she fussed, swatting his arm again. “We’re too old for such nonsense.”
“Bah! We’re never too old,” he smiled warmly, threaded his fingers with hers. “I love you, Emma. I have for a long time.” He glanced at the festive pine in the far corner. “Cade and Tess each married on Christmas Eve. Why not us?” He inched closer to her. “Say yes. Please.”
Tears welled in her eyes, which was most uncharacteristic of her where he was concerned. She bowed her head and touched her forehead to his chest. “Yes,” she whispered.
And just like his grandchildren, Leon stood before the preacher on Christmas Eve, with the woman he loved beside him, and recited his vows. When he finished, a familiar voice echoed between his ears.
“Merry Christmas, Leon,” Emily said. “You have my blessing.”
Creel continues with
No Luck At All.
Rachael concludes in Bring Me Luck
Available at: www.amazon.com/author/julielence