Johnny Lancer perched on the top rail of the paddock fence and gazed into the distance. Behind him, welcoming lights blazed from the windows of the hacienda, but out here, dark shadows blanketed the landscape. Only the mountains beyond were illuminated by the rich tapestry of stars overhead.
It was Christmas Day, his first Christmas at Lancer. Actually, he corrected himself ruefully, it wasn't his first Christmas at Lancer, but he had no memory of the first two years he'd spent on the ranch.
The tornado of a day had left him emotionally drained and a little dazed. Claiming a headache and the need for air, he’d escaped to the stable and Barranca – an easy companion who didn’t expect him to smile and laugh and contribute to the conversation.
He was reluctant to return to the hacienda where spiced wine, apple tart and games were next on the menu.
He’d been outside for well over an hour and was expecting the footsteps he heard approaching; his money had been on Scott, so he was surprised to recognize a lighter footfall as Teresa appeared beside him.
She stood on tiptoe to rest her elbows on the top rail of the fence. “It’s a lovely night.”
“Sure is. Stars are real pretty, aren't they?”
Teresa gazed up at the sky. “Like thousands of little diamonds. They look so close, like you could reach out and touch them.”
He grinned. “Reckon we’d be set up for life if we could!”
She smiled, then after a few moments of companionable silence, she said suddenly, “I’m sorry.”
Puzzled, he turned his head to look down at her. “What do you have to be sorry for?”
She looked up at him, liquid brown eyes troubled. “It was all too much, wasn’t it? All the presents, the food, that big tree… everything. I got carried away. It’s just that I wanted our first Christmas as a family to be perfect.”
It was true that Teresa had worked for weeks on the preparations for the celebration. By the time Christmas Eve arrived everything was ready – the tree decorated, enough food for a siege prepared, stockings for everyone hung on the mantelpiece, gifts picked out and wrapped.
Johnny frowned. “No, Honey, it wasn’t too much. You’ve done a wonderful job. Everything was perfect.”
Teresa shook her head. “I know you tried hard to make us think you were having a good time, but I can tell that deep down you’re sad.”
Johnny lowered his gaze, a protest dying on his lips. He’d thought he’d succeeded in hiding his feelings, but he should have known. She knew him too well. Right from the beginning, this slip of a girl had been able to see right through whatever mask he put on when he needed to hide his real thoughts and emotions.
He hated to think that he'd upset her. “Teresa, I’m sorry. You worked so hard and I didn’t want to spoil it for you,” he said finally, raising his eyes to meet hers. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your hard work, it's just that… well, Christmas isn't my favorite time of year.”
Teresa cocked her head. “Is that because you’ve had no family to celebrate with?”
She was nothing if not direct; usually, he liked that about her. “Partly, I guess,” he said evasively.
“There’s something else, isn’t there? Tell me.”
He shook his head. Memories of those years had haunted him all day and he'd been unable to free himself from the sadness they brought with them. The last thing he wanted to do was talk about it. “Not now, Teresa.”
“Please, Johnny,” she said softly and reached up to cover his hand with her own. “I want to understand.”
She was looking at him expectantly and he looked away, swallowing against a sudden lump in his throat. He hadn’t spoken of this for a very long time. But for some reason he often found it easier to share his feelings with Teresa than with his father or brother and suddenly it didn’t seem so hard to say the words. “My Mama was killed just a few days before Christmas.”
Warm fingers tightened around his hand. “Oh, Johnny, I’m so sorry. That must have been terrible. When… how long ago?
He hesitated. Seven years.
There was a pause as she worked it out, and then her eyes widened.
“Don't feel sorry for me,” he said quickly. “I did all right.”
He could tell she wanted to know more – how did Mama die? What happened to him after her death? But she seemed to sense that this wasn't the right moment to ask. Instead, she said, “Johnny, does…” she hesitated. “Does Murdoch know?”
He shook his head. “I told him she's dead, but not how, or when. He’s never asked and I never have found the words to tell him.”
“You should. I think he deserves to know the truth. And it might help you both to talk about her.”
Teresa was a firm believer in talking things out. He knew she was often exasperated by the way he and the Old Man danced around subjects that were painful to them both.
“Maybe. I’ll think on it.”
“My father died a month before Christmas,” she said suddenly, a catch in her voice.
Johnny cursed his lack of sensitivity. He’d been so wrapped up in his own bitter memories that he’d forgotten Teresa had lost her own father just last year, the same time Murdoch was shot in the back by Day Pardee.
Tears shone in her eyes. He hopped down off the fence and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in close. “I’m so sorry Honey; I wasn’t thinking. This is your first real Christmas without him.”
His shirt muffled her voice as she whispered, “I miss him so much. He always tried to make Christmas special for me, and I wanted to do the same for us. I thought it was a way to honor his memory; I know it would make him happy to see us having a good time.”
Johnny thought back to all those Christmas days since Mama’s death. He’d shunned the bright lights of the festively decorated towns for his own company and a bottle of whiskey to drown his sorrows. Those had been dark times of remembered pain and bleak thoughts of an empty future.
“Mama loved Christmas too,” he said, struck by a sudden memory. “We never had much, but she always cooked something special and got me some kind of gift.”
Teresa pulled back a little and looked up at him. “I think it would grieve her,” she said softly, “to think that you were sad when you could be happy.”
Johnny had never thought about it that way. “I always felt like it would be a kind of betrayal of her memory, to be happy on the anniversary of her death.”
“Oh, Johnny, she wouldn't want you to feel like that.”
Maria had been a far from perfect mother. She’d failed him in any number of ways, yet he knew she’d loved him and did the best for him that she could. Teresa was right. It would grieve her to see him unhappy. He felt a long-harbored burden lift and smiled at Teresa.
“I guess you're right. I had it all the wrong way round.”
“Then from now on, I think we should make Christmas a kind of memorial to my father and your mama, and only think about the good times we had with them.”
“That sounds good.” He put his hands on her shoulders and dropped a quick kiss on her forehead. “You are a very wise woman, Teresa O’Brien.”
Teresa flushed. “I don’t think I’m very wise, Johnny. But I’ll be a woman in a lot of trouble if I don't get you back to the house right now.”
Johnny crooked his arm. “In that case, let’s go and show the Old Man and Boston how to really have a good time.”
Teresa beamed and hooked her arm around his. As they set off, she giggled. “You may regret this. Murdoch plans to recite some Scottish Christmas poems he found in an old book in the attic.”
Johnny groaned theatrically. “Is he going to do it in the accent?”
“Och, of course.”
“Then I may need more than a couple of glasses of that spiced wine.”