A Western Christmas(4)

By: Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge



Though he knew Reverend Wainwright didn’t hold him responsible for Everett’s incarceration, Caleb felt as if he’d let the man down by not trying harder to keep his son from falling in with a bad crowd. It had been a sad day when Everett ended up killing a man in order to a save a woman’s life.

He’d done the right thing but in the wrong way.

Unfortunately, the judge had taken a hard stance and sentenced Everett to seven years in the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary.

As if sensing his hesitation, Ellie tightened her hold on his arm. “Say yes. It’ll be like old times.”

They both knew that wasn’t true. The easy days when he’d shared Sunday dinner with the Wainwrights were long gone. A lot had changed since then.

Everything had changed.

Caleb thought of Hannah and Grace, of the steady, stable life he wanted to provide for them. Until he was able to do just that, the Wainwright home was the next best thing.

“Tell your father that the girls and I would be happy to dine with you on Sunday.”





Chapter Two

Caleb studied Ellie’s face, trying to read her reaction to his acceptance of her father’s invitation. Her expression was wide-eyed, slightly flustered and utterly adorable.

An uncomfortable sensation moved through him, the kind reserved for a boy conversing with a girl for the first time.

This is Ellie, he reminded himself. He wasn’t supposed to feel uncomfortable around her. Nor was he supposed to be this aware of her.

Yet the sensation persisted, digging deeper, causing his breath to hitch and his mind to empty of all coherent thought.

What were they discussing again?

Mildly amused at himself, he felt a laugh bubble inside his chest. When was the last time he’d laughed?

He couldn’t remember. A sad commentary on the current condition of his life. Even with help, raising twin daughters was hard work. But also the best part of his day. When he wasn’t at the jail, he put all his focus on caring for his daughters. That left little time for much else. He hoped that would change once he got married again.

“Anyway, that’s all I came to say.” The tentative smile that accompanied Ellie’s words reached inside Caleb’s chest, grabbed hold of his heart and squeezed hard. “I guess I’ll see you at church on Sunday.”

Staring into those big, expressive eyes, everything in him softened. “Yes, Ellie, you will see me there. Perhaps even before then.”

“Sounds lovely.” Her smile wavered ever-so-slightly. “Well, um, bye.”

“Bye, now.”

He watched her walk back the way she came. She looked left, then right, then hurried across the street. Twice, she slowed her pace and glanced at him over her shoulder, her lower lip caught between her teeth. Both times, when their gazes met and melded, Caleb felt an unexpected ping in the pit of his stomach.

There were logical reasons for his physical reaction to the girl—no, scratch that, not a girl. A woman. Ellie Wainwright was a full-grown, beautiful woman. She was also his friend’s treasured little sister and the daughter of the man Caleb considered a second father. That made her family, the sister he never had.

Except...

After their unusual, albeit brief interchanges this morning, Caleb wasn’t feeling very brotherly toward her.

He lifted his hand in a responding wave to match the one Ellie tossed at him.

His lips curved in a genuine smile.

Ellie was a reminder of everything good in his past, the quintessential example of the stability he craved for his girls.

Stopping yet again, this time at the door leading into the dress shop, she gave him one last glance over her shoulder before disappearing into the building.

Ping.

Caleb swallowed. He swallowed again. And one more time for good measure.

Taking advantage of his inattention, Gideon rooted around for more treats, searching Caleb’s coat pockets with a warm, nuzzling nose.

Giving in to the none-too-subtle demand, he fed the horse another carrot. “What,” he asked in a strained voice to the tune of the animal’s munching, “just happened?”

Gideon had no answer.

Neither did Caleb.

At the moment, he didn’t know much of anything, except that he was wasting valuable time staring at a closed door.

Banishing Ellie Wainwright from his mind, he gave Gideon one last pat then entered the jailhouse. With efficient movements, he divested himself of hat, gloves and long coat before turning his gaze onto his deputy.

Also By Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

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