Millie’s face softened into an honest smile. "You didn’t know?"
He shook his head. "Huh-uh."
She patted him on the back and turned to leave. "Well, Mad Dog, Merry Christmas.
I’d best get back to work."
Mad Dog barely heard her good-bye. He stared into the mirror behind the bar, seeing his shaggy, unkempt appearance, and wondered what Jake and Mariah were doing right now. He could imagine the house, decorated with ornaments and evergreen, smelling of turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie. He could hear their laughter and the quiet rustling of paper as they opened their gifts.
He stared accusingly at his reflection. What the hell ore you doing here, alone, drinking, and dirty? You have a place to go. You have a home.. ..
He took a burning gulp of tequila, right from the bottle. "Holy shit." He backhanded the moisture from his mouth. What was he thinking?
He couldn’t go back.
Jake would want you to come back.
He tried not to be romanced by the notion. But once he’d thought about Jake, he felt himself being reeled in. He could be a father, for Christ’s sake. A father.
He’d missed so much of his son’s life already, but he didn’t have to miss it all. He could be there to watch Jake grow to manhood, be there to watch him fall in love and have children of his own.
"Jesus …" He sighed and shook his head, surprised at how compelling those words were, how goddamn appealing.
But there was Mariah to think about. He loved her, loved her as he’d never loved any other woman. He knew that; he’d known it when he left her. He thought he’d forget, thought those feelings would fade into the fabric of his footloose life and be forgotten, but that hadn’t happened. Instead, he remembered. Every moment of every day, he remembered. When he touched something soft, he thought of her skin; when he touched something rough, he thought of the overlaundered linsey-woolsey she always wore. When he smelled vanilla or lavender or plain old soap, he thought of her. When he looked into green eyes, he remembered brown.
He smiled at the memory and wondered how in the hell he’d been able to leave her.
How had he been so stupid, so incredibly blind?
But he knew the answer. It was the same one that kept him from turning away from the bar and heading back to Lonesome Creek right now. She loved him, he was sure of that, and she’d forgive him if he returned. But could he stay?
That was the killer, the question that kept his butt planted on the barstool. He’d never made an honest commitment in his life. Not one. And this one was for keeps.
If he went back, he could never leave again.
"Shit," he cursed, reaching for the bottle and drawing it toward him. He couldn’t imagine such a thing. Couldn’t imagine getting a job, living on the farm behind that idiotic picket fence, knowing every day where he’d go to bed and where he’d wake up.
He groaned at the thought and took another dribbling drink, then slammed the bottle down on the bar.
If he went back, he could never leave again.
Marian stared at the box in her lap. Tears stung her eyes and slipped down her cheeks, splashing on the pale ivory of her drawers. She eased the lid back from the box and set it beside her, then peeled back the protective layer of wrinkled white linen.
The gown lay just as she had left it exactly a year ago, folded in perfect lines, the high lace collar star-tlingly white against the rich burgundy velvet of the bodice. She reached out, brushed the delicate lace with her fingertip. It felt frothy and light and feminine; so unlike everything she’d worn for the past fifteen years. A row of round, mother-of-pearl buttons marched down from the throat to the waist and disappeared into a pleated white satin belt.
Sadness filled her, but it was bittersweet, with a tang of remembered happiness.
This had been the last Christmas gift she’d ever given her mother. She remembered choosing it with care, poring over dozens and dozens of catalog pages until she found exactly the right one. A gown with heart.
She pulled the dress gently from its box. The burgundy velvet caught the light and shimmered like a glass of rich wine, spilling in soft waves across her lap.
She shoved the box aside and stood up. Holding the gown up to her, she studied her reflection in the mirror and smiled. The rich burgundy hue contrasted with the milky paleness of her cheeks and set off her brown eyes.
The memory came at her unexpectedly. She stared at herself in the mirror, seeing the glitter of tears in her eyes, but, surprisingly, she didn’t feel a drenching wave of sadness.
She felt . . . loss, perhaps. Or a quiet sorrow at what might have been.
"Oh, Matt," she sighed, shaking her head.
He was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. For weeks she’d put off thinking about that, realizing the truth of it. But now, standing here in front of the mirror, staring into her own eyes, she couldn’t deny it any longer.
He was gone, and he wasn’t coming back.
It was strange, really, how the realization made her feel. She should have been crushed, desperate. Two years ago—hell, two months ago—she would have been.
But somehow, sometime, in the past weeks she’d grown up. It still hurt. She still missed him—she probably always would. But she could live with her past now, and go on. It wasn’t like before, with Stephen. Then she’d been sixteen and unable to face reality. Now she was older, wiser, and she was strong enough to survive. She didn’t need Mad Dog. She loved him, missed him sometimes so much she ached for him. But she didn’t need him.
He’d taught her to say good-bye. She turned away from the mirror and slipped out of her baggy brown dress. Tossing it aside, she put on the glorious Christmas dress and tied the wide white ribbon around her waist, cinching it tight. The velvet bodice fell in loose, blousy waves over her br**sts and tucked into her waist, then cascaded to the floor in undulating sheets of fabric.
She quickly brushed the curly hair away from her face and tied it at her neck with Jake’s frayed pink ribbon. She gave her cheeks a quick pinch for color, then hurried down the stairs.
The kitchen was filled with holiday scents—sugar-glazed ham, spiced apple cider, and pecan pie. She walked through the room, glancing quickly at the jams, jellies, pickles, potatoes, vegetables, and breads that sat crowded together in the center of the table.
Clasping her hands together, she strolled to the parlor to wait for Jake. The small room was wreathed in flickering light and draped in evergreen. In the corner, on a red-cloth covered table, sat the small Christmas tree, its boughs weighted down with spun-glass angels, gilded apples, glazed cherries, sugar plums, and twinkling with candlelight. Behind it, the window rippled with reflections.
She turned and saw Jake standing in the doorway. He was wearing a pair of Rass’s old dress trousers, altered to fit him, and a stark white button-up shirt with black suspenders. A poorly knotted necktie hung at an odd angle from his collar. His coppery hair was slicked back from his forehead, and lay curled in an uncontrollable flip beneath his ears.
Her heart squeezed at the sight of him. He looked so handsome and grown-up and uncertain, standing there, awaiting her approval, with the tiny razor nicks on his cheeks.
"You look handsome."
He beamed at her. "So do you."
He walked up to her, smiling. She looped her arm through his and drew him close.
Wordlessly they crossed the room and stared out the window, waiting. Always waiting.
Mariah felt him lean slightly toward her, and she understood. They were doing everything right this year, trying hard, but the ghosts of Christmases past were all around them, clustered in every room, lingering in every activity. This was the first Christmas without parents for both of them, and everything they did hurt.
Mariah stared through the glass, seeing but not seeing the glowing circlets of light cast against the pane by the tree’s candles. Outside, the farm was a series of shadowy shapes, without form or substance. Moonlight streamed through the leafless limbs of a hundred skeletal apple trees, turning the snowy landscape into a powdery lake of crushed diamonds. The world was cold and still.
"He isn’t coming back." Mariah said the words softly, wishing she could take away the hurt they’d cause.
Jake sighed. "Yeah, I know that."
"I’m glad you’re here, Jake," she said quietly, feeling a tiny catch in her heart.
He cleared his throat. "Yeah, me, too."
The moment started to spiral into a familiar, quiet sadness, but Mariah refused to let it. She forced a smile and cleared her throat. "Well, how about we eat some f of that fabulous Christmas supper?"
He turned to her, slowly pulling his arm away from her. "I have a present for you first."
She glanced at the tree. "You do?"
"It’s not there. Come on." He led her through the well-lit house and onto the darkened porch. Beyond, the world was a midnight blue smear of shapes and forms, all of it limned by the golden-white light of a full winter moon.
He took her arm and led her down the creaking steps. She stepped carefully into the crusty, ankle-deep snow. The cold air stung her lungs and brought tears to her eyes.
Her breath clouded the frosty air for a magical moment, then disappeared.
"Do you notice anything different?"
Mariah heard the hesitant pride in his voice and she smiled, glancing around the farm. "Well, the barn is still standing, the bunkhouse looks the same, the woodpile’s just as high, the—" She gasped. "Oh, my God, Jake . . ."
"I took it down."
She took a cautious step forward, her gaze riveted to the end of the walkway. The picket fence was gone. That whole corner of the property was wide open. An unbroken, pristine layer of snow rolled from the house, over the road, and into forever. There was nothing to stop it.
She stared at the empty space where the fence had been and felt a dizzying mix of emotions. Fear, exhilaration, relief.
Jake looked up at her, his cheeks pink from the cold. "I didn’t want you to look at it every day."
At his simple words, so caring and understanding, Mariah felt an emotion unlike any she’d ever known. Deep and drenching, it consumed her, filled her with an impossible, light-headed warmth. "I never even thought about taking it down," she said quietly, wondering why she hadn’t.
"I thought maybe if it wasn’t there …"
She gazed down at him, seeing hope and fear in his green eyes. For a split second, she saw herself as he must see her. A thirty-four-year-old spinster who ached for a man who didn’t love her and couldn’t leave her own farm. And she was ashamed.
Tears filled her eyes. She brushed a wayward lock of hair from his forehead; her fingers lingered lovingly at his temple. "What did you think?" she asked in a halting, throaty voice.
He swallowed nervously. "I thought maybe … if it wasn’t there, you could someday walk past it."
Walk past it. The unexpected words lodged in her heart. She lifted her chin and stared at the snowy emptiness that stretched beyond her farm and melted into the foothills in the distance. There was no fence there anymore; no fence to stop her, no latch to lift, no gate to push open. Nothing to remind her every day of her irrational, stupid fear.
She tried to imagine leaving the farm. Fear spilled through her, icy cold and threatening. Sweat broke out on her forehead, itched against her scalp. But it was a different kind of fear, softer, without the suffocating, debilitating sense of panic.