A Western Christmas(7)

By: Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

It was good advice that Ellie intended to act upon from this point forward. No more feeling sorry for herself. No more wondering what might have been. “I have some initial ideas for the costumes.”

“As do I.”

A jolt of fear moved through her. With just over three weeks until Christmas, Ellie wasn’t sure she could pull off the production to her father’s satisfaction. Or her own.

Lowering her head, she exhaled a small, soulful sigh of remorse. “Last night’s rehearsal was a complete disaster.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit dramatic?” A pair of smart-looking, female, lace-up boots moved directly into her line of vision. “It’s a children’s play, Ellie, one you’ve directed many times in the past.”

Well, yes.

But that had been years ago, before she’d left for the teaching job in Colorado Springs.

Releasing another sigh, Ellie lifted her head. “Oh, Kate, I have exactly twenty-three days to put together a Christmas production that will make Thunder Ridge proud and I’m already off to a miserable start.”

“I was there last night. It wasn’t that horrible.”

Were they talking about the same event? “The children ignored me completely.”

One well-defined black eyebrow shot up in obvious skepticism.

Point taken. “All right, they didn’t ignore me completely.”

It had only felt that way.

Her inability to command a room full of rambunctious boys and girls was disturbingly new. Ellie used to be good with children, a requirement of any schoolteacher. But her confidence had vanished ever since she’d lost her job, which had been right after Monroe had withdrawn his marriage proposal because Ellie had told him about her brother’s incarceration.

“What if I lose control again tonight?” There. She’d voiced her fear aloud.

Instead of gaining sympathy, the comment seemed to make her friend’s smile widen. “Weren’t you the one who once told me first rehearsals are always disasters?”

“I’m pretty sure I never said any such thing.” This year.

Kate laughed. “Well, no matter what happens Christmas Eve, at least you can comfort yourself in the knowledge that the costumes will be spectacular.”

Her friend punctuated the remark with a wink.

Finally, Ellie smiled, as well. Kate was her assistant, her costume designer and the reason for this early morning visit to the dress shop her friend had inherited from her grandmother.

“Ellie.” Kate took her hands. “You aren’t alone in this. I’m right in the middle of the muddled fray with you.”

It was exactly what she needed to hear.

“You and me,” Kate said, winking again, “working side by side on the play, why, it’ll be just like old times.”

Just like old times.

Nearly the same words she’d spoken to Caleb moments earlier. They’d seemed appropriate at the time, but now Ellie felt foolish having uttered them.

Things could never be as they once were; too much time had passed. But maybe, just maybe, that wasn’t such a bad thing.

Chapter Three

Later that afternoon, just as Ellie feared, play practice turned into an unruly mess. She willed back the tears that would have formed in her eyes had she given them a chance.

Not that any of the children would notice if she gave into her silent despair. At the moment, they were engaged in a rousing game of tag, weaving in and out of the pews, laughing and chattering so loudly Ellie could hardly think over the ruckus.

The only children paying her any attention were Caleb’s beautiful five-year-old twins. Hannah and Grace Voss were fast capturing Ellie’s heart as they followed her around the interior of the church like two little miniature shadows. They’d stuck close to her ever since their housekeeper had dropped them off fifteen minutes ago.

Ellie smiled down at the girls, taking in their identical sweet, tiny features, light brown hair and big green eyes the same color as their father’s. They each looked up at her expectantly, clearly waiting for her to tell them what to do.

Two down, she told herself firmly, only thirteen to go.

“When are we going to get started?” Hannah asked.

“Soon,” Ellie replied. “So stay close to me.”

Also By Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

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