This is a Widow Morris story. It falls after ‘Breathing’ and its ‘Epilogue’ but before ‘Names’.
Inside the corral the horses stood bunched together, exhaling clouds into the morning air. Johnny turned from the fence when he heard Emily’s boots crunching through fog-frozen grass. He smiled at her but stayed shrugged deep inside his heavy jacket.
“This feels like winter in Ohio.” Emily hugged him from behind so she could shove her hands into his coat pockets. “The damp gets inside your bones.”
Johnny cupped his hands in front of his mouth, blowing warm breath on his fingers.
“Too cold for me.” He shivered dramatically as she let go to stand beside him. The horses twitched their ears in her direction but didn’t come closer. “Do you miss this? I mean, Ohio?”
“Hardly ever. Maybe sometimes…when it’s Christmas time.”
“Well, it’s Christmas time.”
His gentle teasing made her smile. Snow and candle-lit churches flickered in her mind.
“I hope you’ll come stay at Lancer for Christmas.” He flashed a look at her. “I mean, we all hope…me and Scott and Murdoch.” He grinned. “Me especially, though.”
That crooked grin made her heart beat a little faster. “Thanks. I’d love to.”
She hadn’t looked forward to Christmas for a long time, but it used to be her favorite time of year. The thought of spending Christmas with Johnny and his family delighted her. But her happiness at his invitation diminished a bit when she remembered what she’d come outside to tell him.
“Johnny, I just…I guess there isn’t going to be a baby after all.”
He didn’t even look at her, just circled his strong arms around her and pulled her close. They held each other for a while, swaying slightly, until Johnny said, “There’s gonna come a time when I’ll be disappointed to hear those words.”
Emily nestled her face into the chilly softness of his buckskin jacket. “But not now?”
“No, not now.”
He let her go and turned back to lean into the top rail of the fence, looking at the horses again. Emily stepped up on the bottom rail so she could see too. They watched in silence but their arms were touching and warm where they rested on the plank.
It was cozy in her kitchen with water on for tea and a chicken roasting in the oven. Funny, she thought about Christmas with a faint stirring of anticipation. She knew it was because of the man sitting at her table, the quiet man who asked her gently, “Are you sorry there’s no baby?”
Emily sighed. “I’m not sure. I know that first night when I thought there might be, I was horrified. But now…now that it’s not going to happen, I feel a little sad. Strange, isn’t it?”
He shook his head slowly. “No, not so strange. Since you lost Rachel, there’s an empty place in you. Nothing can replace her, but maybe another baby can fill you up a little.”
She felt her eyes burn. The water boiled, giving her an excuse to stand up and turn away from his sympathy. By the time she turned back she had blinked the tears away.
Johnny watched as she added honey to his tea the way he liked it. When she sat down again he reached out and covered her hands with his. “Emily, I know you’re afraid, after what happened with Rachel, and I don’t blame you. But I know what a good mother you’re going to be.”
She said nothing, just studied his hands – large hands, with long tapered fingers, so unlike her small square palms and stubby fingers. When her hands were hot his were cool, and when hers were cold his were warm. How did that happen? What kind of hands would their children have?
He pulled her from her reverie. “Besides, Murdoch told me he expects me and Scott to fill that big house with grandkids, you know.” He sat back and wrapped his hands around the tea cup.
She tried to smile. “How many grandchildren do you think he wants?”
Emily sputtered and laughed at the same time. “What?”
“You want more than thirty-seven?” He took a quick sip of his tea. “Okay, but we’ll have to move the wedding up.”
It was the reunited Lancer family’s second Christmas together. Teresa baked and decorated, humming Christmas carols; Scott and Johnny teased her and each other without mercy but also without malice. Emily was treated like part of the family, and Murdoch presided over the season with a gravitas that never completely masked his utter contentment. It was joyful and touching – and exhausting for Emily, used to living alone and rarely conversing with anyone but Johnny.
After exchanging small, handmade gifts with each member of the family on Christmas Eve, Emily begged off rising with them on Christmas morning. It wasn’t a lie when she told them she didn’t want to interfere with their celebration, but there was more than that. She needed some time to herself, away from people and their expectations.
An insistent tapping on her door woke her earlier on Christmas Day than she had planned. Rolling out of bed she managed to find her wrap, but she missed one arm as she pulled it on over her nightgown. When she managed to open the door there was Johnny, beaming at her with a cup of coffee in his hand.
“Merry Christmas, sunshine! You’re missing all the fun.” He thrust the steaming mug at her, grinning at her bleary confusion. “Now, get dressed and come downstairs. Santa Claus came last night, and there’s a present with your name on it down there.”
Johnny was already on his way out. “A present. For you. Get dressed. Drink your coffee. Come downstairs. We’ll be waiting.” He clapped his hands. “Hurry up!” And he was gone, pulling the door shut behind him.
She made herself presentable, then in her hurry tripped – twice – on the back stairs. Thanks to the sturdy handrails she avoided disaster, but Johnny must have heard the racket because he met her at the foot of the stairs looking worried.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m okay—just not used to such well-polished steps. And Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas. And I think eres un poco desmańada, mi carińo.” He folded her into his arms and they shared a kiss; then he grabbed her hand and pulled her into the great room before she could even ask what desmańada meant.
The aroma of cinnamon pastries mingled with the fresh smell of pine, and a coffee pot was warming on the sideboard. Before Emily could discreetly search for her present, she had to ooh and ahh over the gifts already exchanged. But Johnny caught her looking, of course. He inclined his head at a plainly woven basket beside the Christmas tree. There was no wrapping on it, no ribbon or card. As she wondered about it the basket wiggled.
“Oh!” The basket moved again, and a small whine emanated from it. Scott and Teresa could hardly contain themselves. With a look of exaggerated innocence Johnny scooped up the basket and set it at Emily’s feet. She smiled at him, lifted the lid, and peeked in.
The puppy inside wagged its tail furiously when it saw her looking down. It placed its front paws high on the inside of the basket, straining towards her. The end of the red ribbon tied around its neck was soggy and there was a well chewed card on the floor of the basket. She could almost make out the words “To Emily from Santa Claus” on it, but only because she knew they were there.
“Well, it did have your name on it.” Johnny retrieved the card and showed it to around to laughter from everyone—everyone except Murdoch, Emily saw when she chanced a look at her future father-in-law. As a rule, dogs were not allowed in the hacienda; it appeared Murdoch’s younger son’s charm had worked its magic yet again.
Johnny pushed out his lower lip. “If you’d woke up faster she wouldn’t’ve made a liar out of me.”
“Oh, she didn’t.” Emily lifted the puppy out of the basket. It licked her face and she smelled the sweet tang of puppy breath. The pup hiccoughed, then yawned, curling its pink tongue to a chorus of “awws”. Even Murdoch smiled.
Johnny crouched beside her. “Santa Claus said she needed to be cared for by someone who knew a lot about animals.”
“Santa said that, did he?” Emily held the little dog away from her, noting her short muzzle and folded ears. It was a little girl, golden in color with no white markings at all. “She’s just a baby. Where’s her mother?”
“Paddy Tobin told me his pa was going to drown the whole litter when they were born. Him and his sisters managed to talk him out of it, but now that the puppies are weaned they’ve got to go.”
“Dennis Tobin?” Murdoch’s chair creaked as he leaned forward. “He breeds that red setter of his to another red setter every year; sells the pups for a pretty penny. I doubt he was too happy with a litter of yellow puppies.”
“Yep, Molly was her momma. I guess her daddy was a travelin’ man.” They laughed, and the puppy squirmed in Emily’s arms. She knew what that meant. As soon as Emily got her outside the puppy squatted and piddled. Emily told her what a good dog she was, and the puppy bounded after her when she walked back into the hacienda.
Johnny smiled at their return and gestured at the puppy dogging Emily’s steps. “I think she likes you. You look good together.”
“Thanks, Johnny. I’ve missed having a dog.” And she had, more than she had even admitted to herself. She kissed Johnny’s cheek as she settled beside him on the couch; he leaned down to scoop up the puppy so it could lick his face. Instead, it chewed on his nose. When he pretended to yip with pain the pup stopped with a comical look of remorse.
Laughing, Johnny set the puppy on the floor. They watched her explore discarded wrappings and pounce on lengths of string that had been used to tie up packages. When Johnny teased her into a tug of war, the puppy stiffened her little legs, growled, and shook her head with such force she pulled the twine from his fingers and fell back on her rear. Undaunted, she picked up what was left of the string and pushed it back into Johnny’s hand.
“She’s a stubborn thing, ain’t she? She’ll fit right in around here. Looks like Santa knew what he was doing.”
Emily snuggled a little closer to him, hugging his arm. “And I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to fill up that empty place a little, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Johnny scooped up the puppy and cuddled her to his chest. “Emily, I know you’ve been sad off and on for a while. And I know I can’t make everything better for you. But you need a dog, and that’s something I can do.”
Her heart swelled in her chest. She wanted to tell him how much she loved him, how much she appreciated how good he was to her, how she didn’t deserve him…but words seemed trivial. All she could say was “Thanks, my love.”
But when she looked into his eyes she knew he understood everything she couldn’t say.
“Feliz Navidad, mi carińo,” he said, and he handed her back her new dog.