A Western Christmas(8)

By: Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

“Okay,” the girls said in unison.

Smiling, Ellie put a hand on each of their shoulders and pulled them near.

High-pitched squeals rent the air. The game had heated up, boys against girls. Someone was going to end up hurt.

Enough. “Everyone, please, settle down.”

Her request was promptly ignored.

For a woman who’d spent almost two years in a schoolroom of twenty-five boys and girls—ages six to fifteen—Ellie was supposed to be an expert at maintaining control in the midst of chaos. Well, of course she was an expert.

With the Voss twins following hard on her heels, she moved to the front of the church and did what she was trained to do.

She took control.

“Boys and girls.” She clapped her hands once, twice, three times. “Everyone gather around. It’s time to get started.”

When they continued to ignore her, she whistled, loudly, a technique she’d mastered in her first months in the classroom.

Half of the unruly children abruptly froze. Ellie repeated her request. They obeyed, probably because they’d grown bored with chasing one another.

With quick, concise words, she directed the group to sit on the floor at her feet then repeated her previous order, raising her voice to be heard over the boisterous laughter.

Another five children joined the others at the front of the church. Three mutineers remained, two boys and a girl, all of similar ages, somewhere between nine and eleven. They continued chasing one another around the perimeter of the room. Ellie bodily inserted herself in the middle of their game, forcing them to either stop or ram straight into her.

They stopped.

Wide-eyed and shifting from foot to foot, they seemed unsure what to expect from her. She took advantage of their uncertainty. “Now that I have your attention, please join the rest of us.”

Her tone brooked no argument.

The three dutifully complied. “Yes, Miss Ellie.”

The moment she returned to her spot at the front of the church, the various whispered conversations drew to a halt.

Ellie quickly organized the children into two groups, the older ones with speaking parts and the younger ones who would sing three separate songs during the play.

Kate chose that moment to rush into the building. “What did I miss?”

Ellie smiled at her friend’s flushed face and somewhat wild hair. “Nothing much, we’re only just getting started.”

“Wonderful.” With a pointed, I-told-you-so grin, her friend swept her gaze over the children. “I see you have everything under control.”

Ignoring Kate’s smug tone, Ellie put her to work. “If you could run through the play with the older children, I’ll teach the little ones the first song they’ll be singing.”

“Sounds good to me.” Script in hand, Kate collected her charges and escorted them to the back of the church.

Ellie settled on the floor between Hannah and Grace Voss. The twins sat on either side of her, so close they practically crawled into her lap.

As a teacher, Ellie wasn’t supposed to pick favorites; she knew this, knew the dangers of getting too close to any one child—or in this case two children. Yet she was already falling for the twins. She wondered if her fondness for them had something to do with her connection to their father.

Ellie shook her head at herself. Had she not learned her lesson in Colorado? Her affection for Monroe’s daughters had only led to heartache. Saying goodbye to them had been the hardest thing she’d ever done, maybe even harder than hearing Monroe retract his offer of marriage.

Yet, here she was, already growing attached to another widower’s young daughters. Not a wise move, considering their father was actively seeking a woman to marry solely to take on the role as their mother. Caleb wasn’t looking for love. And Ellie wasn’t looking to act solely as a mother to his or any man’s children. She wanted a real marriage and a family of her own.

Don’t get too close, she ordered, even as her arms wrapped around the girls’ shoulders.

Realizing what she’d done, Ellie quickly returned her hands to her lap and focused on the entire group of children. “Who wants to learn the first song we’ll be singing Christmas Eve?”

Seven tiny hands shot in the air.

Also By Renee Ryan and Louise M. Gouge

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