Amanda Miller tied another red ribbon into a bow on the fireplace mantle. Hopefully she neared the end. As much as she loved decorating, it did become tedious.
Hands slid around her waist and she was pulled against a strong chest. Her husband’s masculine scent filled her nostrils and she leaned into him. How had she become so blessed?
He planted a kiss to the side of her face. “Any chance we can slip away?”
She turned her head to peer at him. Was he serious?
A playful gleam in his eye answered her unspoken question.
Her lips tugged upward. How she loved this man! Laying hands atop his on her stomach, she relished the feel of him. His strong arms and secure hands were well known to her. Worked by ranch life, they were capable and calloused. Yet gentle in their own time.
“Mom-ma,” a little voice called from across the room.
Pulled from her reverie, Amanda’s attention fixed on the small girl toddling toward them.
Reluctantly, she pulled free of Brandon’s embrace and, squatting, put arms out to receive the girl. “That’s it, come to Momma.”
It didn’t matter that Louise said the word a million times a day, it was glorious.
A grin broke across the child’s face, creating dimples in the chubby cheeks.
The wriggling bundle, teetering with every step, somehow made it to Amanda’s outstretched hands before falling.
She lifted her daughter, swinging her into the air and kissing the baby fine skin. When she stopped, she caught Brandon’s eye.
“I see you’ve forgiven her for saying ‘Daddy’ first.” He reached forth a hand for Louise to capture it.
She did, pulling at his fingers.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Amanda spoke to Brandon, but she looked at Louise and spoke in a sing-song voice. “Do we, Louise Ann? We don’t know what Daddy is saying.”
“Oh, Louise knows good and well.”
The child grinned and pulled two of Brandon’s fingers into her mouth.
He jerked them back with a catch in his breath.
“Oh no!” Amanda became serious. “Did she bite you?”
Brandon looked at his hand and nodded. “It’s not so bad.”
“I’m sorry. I think she has teeth coming in. She’s been biting everything.”
His brows gathered and he let out a concerned grunt.
“Yesterday, Samuel brought Daisy closer so Louise could pet her. And what we thought was going to be a kiss from Louise turned out to be an attempt to bite the poor dog’s ear.”
A chuckle escaped Brandon. Was it something to laugh about?
“It wasn’t funny.” She widened her eyes. “The dog could have been hurt.”
He cleared his throat and tightened his mouth. “No, of course.”
Amanda shifted Louise to her other hip. “I don’t want her to become a biter.”
Brandon furrowed his brows and let out a long breath.
Amanda fingered the curls in the child’s soft hair.
“Let’s not jump to that while she is still teething. But we can watch out and make sure she doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Was that truly all they could do? What more would she suggest? Perhaps Brandon was right.
“After all, she comes by that feistiness pretty honest. It’s one of her mother’s more…intriguing qualities.” His voice was husky as he put an arm around her, drawing her near.
Amanda’s head cleared of all but him. She was helpless when he spoke to her like this.
He pressed a kiss to her forehead, his breath lingering on her skin.
The door opened.
Louise wriggled for freedom.
“Aw, Ma, do ya have to?”
Amanda spun toward Samuel. Where had he been? Shouldn’t he be helping her with the decorations. She opened her mouth.
“Did you finish with the horses?” Brandon’s chest vibrated as he spoke.
The horses? What did Brandon have Samuel doing with the horses?
“Sure did.” Samuel grinned.
Amanda clamped her mouth shut. She would not disrespect Brandon in front of her son, but this was not over.
“Good. I think Cutie and Slim are going fishing.”
Samuel’s eyes lit up. His gaze shifted toward Amanda.
“Go on.” She pulled away from Brandon and set Louise on the floor. “You don’t want to miss them.”
A clapping of the door on its hinges was her only response.
Standing, she eyed Brandon, brow raised.
He tilted his head. “What?”
“You have him working with the horses?”
“It’s good for him.”
“That’s what you said about mucking stalls.”
“Was I wrong?”
Amanda crossed her arms. Dare she concede? Could she not? Why did she want to keep her boy close to her skirts? Why must Brandon constantly be pushing him further away?
Reaching out, he pulled her toward his chest. “You know I’m right.”
She looked away and bit at her lip. “Maybe.”
He hooked her chin with a finger. “Probably.”
Her lips twinged at the edges. She fought the smile. “Don’t push it.”
His mouth curved upward, but his brown eyes rested on her lips. “I might just take the risk.” Leaning forward, he pressed his lips to hers.
Would she ever become numb to this feeling? This excitement, this heat coursing through her? Or would his kisses thrill her for as long as they both should live?
She hoped so.
His arms wrapped around her back and he tilted his head to deepen the contact.
But after a few moments of bliss, she pulled back.
Brandon traced a finger down the side of her face. “Is it time for Louise’s nap?”
No, she couldn’t get distracted.
“I’m afraid not. And I need to talk to you.” She drew farther back.
“Oh?” He watched her every movement.
She glanced at Louise. Had she caught hold of something dangerous? There was no end to the child’s mischief.
The small girl sat where Amanda had put her, playing with her blocks. For once.
Amanda stepped toward the box of ornaments, picking it up and placing it on the table.
“Everything all right?” Brandon called from where he had remained, in the great room.
She pushed her hair back and sighed. How to broach the subject? Why was she so nervous? Couldn’t she tell Brandon anything?
Turning toward him, she leaned against the table.
“I know that look.” His brows furrowed.
What look? How did she look? Did her features display her worry? Her trepidation? It would be best to be out with it.
Drawing in a deep breath, she closed her eyes briefly and then met his gaze. “Cook and Uncle Owen won’t be coming for Christmas.”
“Oh.” He set his hands on his hips. “That’s not at all what I expected. But it is their first Christmas as man and wife.”
“But that can’t be what has you so worried.” He crossed the room, closing the distance between them.
She chewed on her lip.
“What is it?” His eyes were caring. Concerned.
Guilt filled her. She had to tell him.
“Are you nervous about making the big meal alone?”
Her eyes widened. That had not occurred to her.
“Oh no.” His hands were on her arms. “Forget I said that. I’ll help. Anyway I can.”
She waved a hand between them. It wouldn’t be easy, but she would manage. “It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?” He rubbed his larger hands along her upper arms.
“A letter came.”
She reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out the lightly crinkled envelope. “From your parents.”
Brandon’s jaw clamped shut. She watched as the muscles twitched.
How long had it been since he had heard from his parents? Years? Decades? And all of a sudden a letter comes? Why now?
“About two hours ago. While you were…”
He nodded. “Out with the cattle.”
She searched his face, holding the envelope between them, ready for him to take it.
But he just stared at it.
“Did you read it?” His eyes met hers, and there was a darkness to their depths she had not seen in a long time.
“No.” She pushed the word out.
His hands on her arms had grown limp.
Should she insist he take the letter? Or offer to read it for him? Was this something he needed to do?
Louise let out a cry.
Amanda looked in her direction. There was a block in her hand and it was well wet.
And Louise broke out in fierce tears.
Had she been chewing on the block and hurt her gums? Or bitten her finger by accident?
Amanda glanced at Brandon, pushing the letter toward him with an apologetic look. She could no longer give him time to think.
Brandon held out a hand for the envelope.
She rushed to Louise and picked her up. The child immediately snuggled into Amanda’s chest, her cries now muffled by Amanda’s shoulder.
Amanda rubbed her back. “It’s all right, sweet girl.”
As the crying let up, she shifted the child to her hip and examined her fingers.
“What happened? Did you bite your finger?”
Sure enough, there was a reddened place on the fore finger of her right hand.
“Oh, my baby!” Amanda put a light kiss on the tiny finger. “There. All better.”
Louise looked at her finger and then at Amanda. Her cries waned as if she wasn’t sure what to do. But they soon vanished as the small girl stuck her finger toward Amanda’s mouth again.
Amanda grabbed her little hand and pressed several kisses to the finger. “Yes, Momma kiss it. Make it all better.”
Then Louise stuck her hand in the direction of the dining room. “Dad-dy kiss!”
Amanda spun toward Brandon.
He stood just as she had left him, staring at the unopened letter.
She moved toward him. Drawing close, she put a hand on his shoulder. “Do you need some time alone?”
Shaking his head, he met her gaze. “No, I need you.”
What could she do? What could she offer him? She stopped herself. That was the old Amanda. He needed her support. Her love.
“And I am right here with you.”
She reached for a dining chair and pulled it out.
Brandon all but fell into it.
Grabbing for the chair next to him, she sat with Louise on her lap.
His eyes met hers.
He slid a finger under the flap and tore through the seal.
Freeing a hand, she squeezed his arm.
Pulling the papers free, he unfolded them. His eyes drifted over the writing.
He let out a long breath.
“It’s not possible.”