A Western Christmas(3)

By: Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

The proverbial clock was ticking. Caleb wouldn’t rest until he was able to give the twins the kind of safe, calm atmosphere he’d experienced as a guest at the Wainwright home.

Nostalgia washed over him, increasing his previous resolve. After his mother died and his father disappeared into the nearest saloon, the reverend had reached out to Caleb and his four brothers. Perhaps his friendship with Everett Wainwright had played a role, but only Caleb had accepted the pastor’s kindness. His untamed, out-of-control brothers had preferred living life on the edge, free to do what they pleased with no adult supervision or guidance.

Those wild, rebellious boys had grown into even wilder, undisciplined men, not outlaws, precisely, but certainly not upright citizens either.

With his brothers scattered all over the West, Caleb didn’t keep in touch with them. He felt sad about that. His children had never met their uncles. They certainly didn’t know Lizzie’s family. They—

“Caleb?” A soft, feminine voice cut off the rest of his thoughts. “Do you have a moment?”

Warmth spread through him at the low, lush request.

Smiling fondly, he looked down at Everett’s little sister for a second time in a handful of minutes. “For you, Ellie, always.”

Big blue eyes fringed with long thick lashes blinked up at him. In the same manner as when he’d spoken to her only moments earlier, words backed up in his throat and an inexplicable jolt of awareness prickled down his spine.

When had little Ellie Wainwright grown up?

When had she become such a beauty?

Even with her doll-like features scrunched in an earnest expression she was unspeakably fetching. Slender and willowy, her head barely came up to his chin. Adding to the lovely image, several caramel-colored wisps of blond hair had slipped from a messy knot at the back of her neck and now flowed against her pinked cheeks.

As he stared down at her, surprisingly unable to speak, he realized she was staring right back at him, equally speechless.

The awkward moment stretched into two.

In the silence that hung between them like a heavy mist, Caleb wondered what had brought Ellie back to Thunder Ridge at this time of year. Schoolteachers usually worked from September to June, which led him to believe her return hadn’t been entirely her decision.

Had someone hurt her? Something dark moved through him and a protective instinct took hold. If someone had done Ellie harm, Caleb would find them and make sure they understood—

He cleared his throat. Not your place. “What can I do for you, Ellie?”

She startled at the question. “Oh, I...” She swallowed, saying, “I forgot to mention earlier, I mean, when we spoke I meant to ask if you and...”

Her words trailed off and she pressed her lips tightly together. A second later, as if gathering her fortitude, she lifted her chin and threw back her shoulders in a familiar show of female bravado. Caleb smiled at the gesture. He’d always liked Everett’s little sister.

Not so little anymore.

“I...” She forced a smile. “That is, my father wanted me to ask if you and the twins would like to come over for Sunday dinner after church this week.”

The earlier feeling of nostalgia dug deeper still.

Caleb had missed Sunday dinner with the Wainwrights. He’d stopped the tradition soon after his marriage to Lizzie. Now, her voice slid across his mind, reminding him why he’d avoided the Wainwright home. You’re nothing but a charity case to the pastor and his family.

Caleb frowned at the memory. “That’s a nice offer, Ellie, but tell your father that I—”

“Please, Caleb, don’t say no.” She touched his coat sleeve with her gloved fingers. “My father will be so disappointed.”

The remark sparked a wave of guilt. Reverend Wainwright had always been good to him, better than he deserved. Yet, Caleb had all but turned his back on the man in recent years.

At first, he’d kept his distance because Lizzie hadn’t liked his friendship with Everett or any of the man’s family. Then, after her death, Caleb hadn’t known how to make things right. His inability to help Everett in his friend’s greatest hour of need had added to his reticence.

Then, there was his guilt.

Also By Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

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