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.
“Momma,” 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 out 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 furrowed 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. “Daddy 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.”
Brandon pulled back on the reins.
He watched the cattle shift into the northern pasture. But his thoughts were not on the animals. Not truly.
They were on that letter.
His parents had never written him. He had not heard a word from them since he left Richmond. And he had never looked back. Not often.
Now. They chose now.
His life was good. Truly good.
He had a thriving ranch, a wonderful family, and an amazing marriage that he never would have anticipated being so good.
And it was only the beginning.
For they would be here in a week.
It had been many years since Brandon had reconciled himself to the fact that he quite possibly would never see his mother and father again. He had mourned that loss.
Having to revisit it was…uncomfortable at the very least.
But there was nothing for it. They were coming and he could do nothing to prevent it.
Had they arranged it this way?
He wagered so.
Their letter arrived one day too late to send a telegram to stop them from starting their journey.
Would he have stopped them?
He didn’t know.
Perhaps he should be thankful he didn’t have that decision to make.
Yet he wasn’t.
“Boss?” a loud voice called to him.
Brandon jerked his head in the direction of the sound.
Cutie rode toward him.
The ranch hand slowed his own horse as he approached. “Did you want us to move the second herd to the back pasture?”
Cutie shifted. Almost as if he were uncertain about his next move.
Brandon didn’t have time for this. “You need something?”
The ranch hand frowned.
Perhaps he was more harsh than he’d intended.
“Sorry, Cutie. I’m just…my thoughts are elsewhere today.”
“Was there something you wanted to ask?”
“It’s just that…well, me and the boys were kind of hoping that…the thing is…”
“Saints alive, spit it out!”
Cutie’s face colored and Brandon regretted snapping again.
“There’s a Christmas Dance in town next week. And we were hoping you might see fit to let us go.”
A dance? Was that all? Brandon let out a laugh. “That’s it? You fellas all want the evening off?”
Cutie shrugged, his color deepening. “Yeah.”
Brandon slapped his thigh. “Go ahead. Just don’t have too much fun.” He gave his ranch hand a wink.
“‘Course not.” One side of Cutie’s mouth quirked upward. With that, he turned his mount, steering the painted mare toward the far pasture.
A Christmas Dance. Brandon gazed toward the house.
Amanda was in the yard chasing Louise. They both laughed. Not only could he see it, Louise’s shrieks were audible even at this distance.
Should he take Amanda to that dance? It had been a while since he’d made such an overture.
Perhaps Cook and Uncle Owen could mind Louise and Samuel.
But then, his parents would be here.
How might that change things?
Oh, but how…
The sounds of Louise’s giggles entranced Amanda. She would never tire of that music. And to know that it was her big brother who brought out such delight…such joy to a momma’s heart.
Even though her children were in another room, separated by a wall, nothing could disguise their playful engagement.
“Children truly are a gift from the Lord.”
Amanda faced the older woman kneading dough. “Yes. They are.”
“When will we hear more little feet around here?”
Her face warmed. She reached toward her bowl of beans for the next one. Gripping it firmly, she snapped it.
Cook’s stifled laughter shook her frame.
Amanda threw a bean at her.
“You best not make a mess in my kitchen.” Cook’s face became stern.
Had she upset the woman? She looked more closely into the features she had come to know so well.
There was a glint in Cook’s eye that was impossible to miss.
Cook winked and focused on her work, and began humming.
There were so many things Amanda had come to enjoy about her life. These times with Cook, whether they were confiding in each other, in lively conversation, or companionable silence at work, were definitely one of them.
A few minutes passed as they continued on task, preparing foods for the evening meal.
Amanda snuck a peek at Cook. What did she know of Brandon’s past? Of his parents? Dare Amanda ask? How to broach the subject?
Cook smiled and looked at Amanda. “I think Louise is going to nap well today.”
“Hope so.” A yawn escaped.
Cook quirked an eyebrow. “Something keeping you up at night?”
Amanda furrowed her brows. “Not what you think.”
Tossing another bean in the pot, Amanda leaned forward and thrust out her response. “No.”
“Is Louise getting up at night again?” Cooks features rearranged into something akin to sympathy.
Amanda shook her head.
“Well, don’t keep me guessing, child!”
Looking at her for a moment, Amanda gauged the older woman’s reaction.
Cook paused and set her full attention on Amanda.
“Has Brandon not told you?” She narrowed her eyes.
“Told me what?”
Amanda quirked a brow. Brandon told Uncle Owen and Cook everything. How had they not heard about the letter?
“I don’t like that look,” the older woman warned, rising. “You best tell me now or I’ll march out to that field and drag that husband of yours in here.”
Amanda stuck an arm out. Was Cook not speaking in jest? Did she truly not know? “I’ll tell you.”
Cook sat, mumbling. Something about yanking teeth. She crossed her arms and leveled her gaze on Amanda. Would she not return to her work?
Amanda swallowed. She certainly did not intend to put so much pressure on the moment. Sucking in a breath, she pressed on. “Brandon received a letter.”
Cook’s expression did not change.
“From his parents.”
Still no visible reaction.
“And they are coming for Christmas. They’ll be here in four days.”
“Is that all?” Cook uncrossed her arms and set her hands back to forming the bread.
“All? You speak as though they correspond regularly.”
Cook’s hazel eyes were on hers again. She opened her mouth and then closed it. Did she have something to add?
Amanda wiped her hands on her apron. “What? Do you know something?”
“No.” Cook stood, taking the loaf pan to the oven.
Then Amanda was presented with the woman’s back as she opened and closed the small door.
Curious. Very curious.
When she didn’t turn again, Amanda pursed her lips. Something wasn’t right here.
“What do you know?”
Cook spun, wringing her hands in a cloth. “Nothing.”
“Cook…” Were they not better friends than this?
The woman scanned the kitchen, looking everywhere but at Amanda.
“All right, all right! I can’t do it.” She stepped back to where she and Amanda had been settled. Flopping into the chair, she pointed a finger in Amanda’s face. “But you best not breathe a word of this.”
“We got a letter about a month ago.”
Cook put her hands up. “Shhh!”
Amanda lowered her voice. “A month ago?”
“Do you know why now? After all this time?”
Cook shrugged, sitting back. “They didn’t say. Maybe it’s time. People change as they age. The things that once seemed so important aren’t so important anymore.”
Amanda nodded. This had occurred to her, too. And she prayed it would be so. That his father was prepared to reconcile.
“Lord knows, it’s about time those stubborn men put their wills to the side.”
“What do you mean?” Amanda rose and set the beans on the counter.
“Brandon’s father has his part in this, that’s for sure. But you didn’t think it was all him, did you?”
What was she saying? That there was more to Brandon’s role in the falling out than he had shared? “I suppose I didn’t think too much about it,” she lied.
Cook shot her a look.
“All I know is what Brandon has told me.”
“There are two sides to every story, you know.”
“I suppose.” What had Brandon left out? Dare she ask him? But she had promised Cook she wouldn’t share. How else would she bring it up?
Cook slapped her knees. “I’d best get started on the ham.”
Amanda nodded. “I need to check on Louise. No doubt it’s time for that nap.”
Sweeping past Amanda, Cook began her routine dance around the kitchen. That was Amanda’s cue to get out of her way. She slipped from the room and stepped into the great room to find both Samuel and Louise asleep on the floor.
She folded her arms in front of her. If only life could always be so simple.
Brandon scuffed the bottoms of his boots against the wooden planks that made up the walkway. And he continued to wait. He stared down the main stretch into town and watched.
The town was decked out in greenery, highlighted here and there by red ribbons. They had done their part to make everything festive. Still, the spirit of the season must have missed him as it made its way further west.
He had yet to come across anything special enough to give Amanda. And he needed to find something fantastic. There was little doubt she would. That must be her hidden talent—giving gifts.
Letting out a deep breath, he folded his arms in front of his chest and paced toward the telegraph office. There were a myriad of postings hung there.
His heart skipped a beat when he saw the wanted poster of Kid Antrim. What was he calling himself now? Billy something… Oh yes, Billy the Kid. Brandon frowned at the drawing of the man whose visage still visited his darkest dreams.
Tearing his eyes away, he scanned the other writings. The most recent copy of the town gazette had an article about the upcoming Christmas Dance, the event of the season. He had not spoken with Cook about minding Louise and Samuel that evening. What of his parents? Would they go to the Dance? Or would they be insulted that Brandon had planned an evening away for he and Amanda?
He grumbled. There was no easy answer. His parents were fairly unknown to him by now.
Moving back to the road, he glanced at the sun’s position in the sky. Why had he arrived with so much time to spare? Had he been concerned the stage would come early? It never was. Perhaps, had he not come, it would have been today.
That was nonsense.
Still, he was left waiting.
Wasn’t that all he had done these past five days since the letter arrived—wait?
None of the answers he sought would be forthcoming in the meantime. No, his parents, more likely, his father, was the key to all of it.
The tell-tale thundering peeked his senses. He turned his head down the strip of buildings, in the direction the coach would appear. How long would it be now? His heart beat wildly in his chest. Was he so nervous?
Moments later, the coach appeared, right on schedule, rounding the corner at the end of main street. The coachman pulled hard at the reins and the horses slowed.
Brandon closed his eyes. Lord, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. But here I am. May I be responsible with my words, with my actions. Give me strength.
The coach stopped, surrounded by a cloud of dust.
Still, Brandon did not move. Could he?
Jumping down, the coachman reached for the latch. “Wharton City!” he yelled into the small compartment before jerking the small door open.
A tall man with broad shoulders, a slender frame, and gray hair looked out. He was well-dressed in fine traveling clothes. Though he scanned the area, bushy brows furrowed, he soon descended the small step and reached in to assist the other passengers.
A young woman stepped out next. And the next to appear was a face Brandon would never forget as long as he lived. Though age had salted her dark hair and caused her frame to sag slightly, her features were as kind as ever, her eyes as bright as he remembered—Mother.
Brandon let out a breath.
Once she set her feet on the boards, she set her hand on the older man’s arm. Was that?
The years had not been good to Father. His hair had grayed, but so had his features. They were set and grim. But just as Brandon remembered, he appeared generally displeased with everything around him.
They spoke to one another and Father motioned to the driver as he pulled their things from the top of the coach.
Shouldn’t he help? To do that, he would need to step forward, make himself known. And his feet just wouldn’t work.
Mother scanned the area, her mouth moving. What was she saying?
At last, her eyes landed on him and she smiled. She reached for Father’s arm and pulled at him, pointing in Brandon’s direction.
Father’s gaze leveled on Brandon. He scowled, but something passed in his eyes. Something Brandon wasn’t sure he could identify.
Brandon wasn’t quite certain how he got there, but he soon found himself standing in front of his parents.
“Brandon,” Mother said, taking him in. “My, look at you.” She opened her arms.
It was both awkward and easy to embrace her.
As he pulled back, he did not miss the unsteady half-smile on her face.
“You have changed.” Father’s voice was deep. It did not sound like a compliment.
Brandon nodded. “We all have.” His voice came out tight. Amanda wouldn’t like that. It might very well be up to him to set the right tone.
Father’s mouth became a thin line.
Silence fell between them. A tense silence.
Mother looked from Brandon to Father, then back to Brandon. “Where shall we have them put our things?”
“I will pull my cart around.”
“I’ll not hear of it,” Father said. His features hard. “Did you not read the letter? We will stay at your town’s hotel.” His gaze drifted down the main stretch.
“Wharton City doesn’t have a hotel.”
Father’s brows met. “Surely you must have something.”
“There is a boarding house that serves as a sort of hotel.”
“Then we shall inquire after—”
“But I insist that you stay in my home.”
“Absolutely not. There cannot be enough room for—”
Heat flashed through Brandon. “Though I may not have a grand house, there is plenty of space for you both to stay there comfortably.”
Father lowered his brows. Was he preparing another argument? He opened his mouth to speak.
Mother laid a hand on Father’s arm and met Brandon’s gaze. “We would be happy to stay at your home if you are certain we won’t be a bother.”
Brandon swallowed the words he wanted to speak. And, instead, said, “No, it won’t be any trouble at all.”
“But—” Father started.
Mother turned toward him.
Brandon could not see her face as she now had her back to him. They spoke in hushed tones. He watched with wide eyes for a moment. Mother had never spoken against Father before. What was this new dynamic? Was he intruding?
He stepped to where the coachman had stacked everything. “Which of these belong to Mr. and Mrs. Miller?”
The man quirked a brow at him. “All of it.”
“All of it?” Brandon searched for the other two passengers. “But what of the young lady who…and the…”
The driver was shaking his head.
“All of it.”
A nod was his answer.
Brandon pushed out a breath. “All right.”
He looked back toward his parents.
They seemed to be having tense words. Father spoke less and less. Finally, he nodded.
Mother put a hand in the crook of Father’s elbow and he led her to where Brandon stood with their things.
“We would be…honored to stay at your home.” Father bit out.
Brandon attempted to disguise his surprise, but he was perhaps unable to. His eyes widened, but he kept his mouth clamped shut. “Very well. I’ll get my wagon.”
He turned and moved off.
What kind of visit was he in for?