Sleigh Bells & Mistletoe: A Short Story (The Brides Series 1.5)

BOOK: Sleigh Bells & Mistletoe: A Short Story (The Brides Series 1.5)
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SLEIGH BELLS

&

MISTLETOE

A SHORT STORY

Lena Goldfinch

 

 

 

INDIGO ROAD PUBLISHING

SWEET HISTORICAL ROMANCE

 

 

 

DEDICATION

 

For Eliza, who has always loved horses, puppies, and the opening (and giving) of presents.

 

Merry Christmas!

 

 

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:12-13
(
NIV
)

 

To him who gives me strength...

ONE

 

             

Seattle, Washington Territory, December 24, 1870

 

B
ecky
bit her lip in consternation as Isaac waved a thick black cloud of smoke out the kitchen window, frowning at the sound of him choking and laughing at the same time. She didn’t know what was so funny. The biscuits were ruined and there wasn’t time to make another batch now. The turkey was already on the table, ready to be sliced, and she’d just set out the cornbread dressing. The green beans were ready, as were the chunky roasted potatoes, tossed with onions, melted butter, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. She had the dishes warming on the back of the cook stove, but if she left them too much longer they’d start getting mushy.

“What? No biscuits?” Pop asked from across the room. A quick glance at the mantel clock told Becky it was almost one o’clock now, so he’d been sitting there with his elbows propped on one end of their long wooden dining table for the past half hour. Pop loved their traditional Christmas Eve dinners together. As they had the past couple of years, he and Jem came over the day before Christmas, shared a feast, and stayed the night, so they could all be together—bright and early—when the boys got up to open their presents. Pop in particular loved Christmas. He made special gifts. He played music for them all and, afterward, enjoyed a nap by the fire. He loved his grandsons fiercely, and, almost as fiercely, he loved this special dinner—perhaps, she suspected, because he liked having a break from cooking for himself. He’d never been shy about telling her how much he looked forward to her biscuits. He’d even bragged about them to Brody at church this past Sunday. The man loved a good biscuit. When they weren’t burnt, that is. The boys and Jem loved them too. Isaac was known to put down half a dozen himself.

As Becky waved the acrid smell of smoke away from her nose, she thought about all her carefully laid plans. Nearby, on the kitchen worktable, sat the bread basket that she’d set aside to serve her fresh, hot-out-of-the-oven biscuits. She’d even lined it with a cheery red cloth, shot through with golden-yellow threads in a crisscross plaid pattern. Perfect for Christmas. She’d whipped a liberal amount of honey into the softened butter earlier. It had turned out so delightfully creamy and fragrant. But now there was nothing to put the honey butter on, unless she sliced up some of the oat bread from yesterday and set that out... But that wouldn’t be nearly as good as what she’d envisioned: the perfect dinner. It was supposed to be a gift, something she could give to everyone she loved all at once. And she’d been determined to get everything right—just this one time. But now...

“Everything was supposed to be so perfect,” she said under her breath, her eyes stinging with sudden tears.

“Nothing to cry over, Becky,” Isaac said, glancing back at her. He slammed the window shut as a wintry breeze blew in. Flakes of snow dotted his cuffs and quickly melted into the fabric. He was wearing the red shirt she’d made him years ago, like he did every Christmas. “We’ve got plenty,” he reminded her, indicating the green beans and potatoes on the back of the stove and the enormous roasted turkey and cornbread dressing sitting on the table.

The chill he’d let in circled the floor. Becky felt the icy air creeping under the skirts of her Christmas dress. She’d finished it just last week, a labor of love, fashioned in rich midnight-blue velvet. The weight of the fabric and the silky white ermine trim at her hem, neck, and wrists helped, but couldn’t quite keep the cold out. Despite the raging fire in the cook stove and the equally hearty fire snapping and cracking in the fireplace—which combined had been too warm before—she shivered and rubbed her hands up and down her sleeves, trying to warm herself.

“I know, I know.” Taking a deep breath, she pressed her fingertips to the corners of her eyes, gathering the moisture there, and then she briskly dried them on her skirt, impatient with herself. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. They’re just biscuits.”


Just
biscuits?” Becky heard Pop echo. He probably thought he was being quiet. Not quiet enough though. His hearing might not be as good as it used to be, but hers was just fine. Her three-year-old twins, Jakob and Levi, abruptly quit their game of tag and climbed onto their chairs, leaning across the table to peer at their grandfather. They leaned forward so far they almost had their whole bodies laid across her place settings. Pop made a face at them, blowing out his cheeks and scrunching his eyes shut. They immediately blew their own cheeks out and took turns poking each other in the cheek to “pop” the air out. Soon they were squealing so loudly she could barely hear herself think. It had been pretty much the same all morning.

“It’s the baby,” Isaac said, studiously ignoring his father and the boys. Not that Pop was the one being loud. The boys were making the racket all on their own.

“The baby’s not making me cry!” Becky protested. As if the sweet little one inside her could be blamed for burnt biscuits. Or her burnt apple pie.

Although...she had been a bit distracted lately, humming lullabies as she baked. Forgetting little things like adding the soda to the biscuit batter—the first batch. And the sugar to the apple pie—the first one. And taking the second batch of biscuits out of the oven in time. And checking on her second pie. Sigh.

Isaac stepped close and placed a hand on her shoulder in a rather hesitant fashion. “Of course he’s not,” he said soothingly. Becky noticed a decided twinkle in his eyes and couldn’t help smiling.

“He?” she asked, challenging him with a lift of her brows.

Isaac shrugged. “I’ve got a big logging operation to run, you know,” he teased. “I need as many strong hands as I can get.”

“You’ve got plenty of ‘strong hands’ already. And besides, a girl would be lovely. Maybe she’ll be good with numbers, like me. She could help with the books.”

“Sure she could.”

And now he was needling her. Deliberately and very obviously.

Infuriating man
, Becky thought with a rush of affection. He was trying to make her laugh, to help her forget the burnt biscuits—the second batch. And the burnt apple pie—the second one.

Then her gaze landed on Isaac's shirtfront, and—where she’d never seen it before—she now noticed one of his collar points was slightly longer than the other. “Isaac?”

“Right here. Haven’t moved.”

“Is your collar crooked?” She reached up to tweak the collar points, but no amount of tweaking made them the same length.

“Uh…”

“Well, is it?”

“Maybe just a little?”

“A little?” She stared at her handiwork, a prickly flush of heat rising up her neck. Had it always been that way? She knew her sewing skills weren’t perfect, but still, to not notice this defect in the collar?

“Now, Becky,” he said, obviously stalling.

“Isaac!”

“It’s just a shirt.”

“I made it crooked.” She pulled a face, disappointed.

“It’s my favorite shirt,” he insisted.

“It’s crooked.” How had she not noticed? Was there anything—
ever
—that she’d gotten right? It didn’t seem so.

“I like it that way.”

And now he was just trying to humor her.

“You
like
it that way?” Becky scowled at him playfully. She grabbed up a kitchen towel and snapped it in his direction, giggling as he leapt back, making a big show of stumbling as he tried to get away from her. The twins immediately crowed in approval and scrambled down from their seats, their eyes lit with mischief. They advanced on their father, planning some sort of attack. When he darted away, dodging this way and that to avoid them, they cried out, “Get him!”

Isaac led them on a chase that could be heard throughout the whole cabin, the sound of squeals, loud cries, and laughter bouncing off the wooden beams. Becky massaged her temple. The tightening there wasn’t so much a headache as a warning sign, and she hoped it wouldn’t grow into anything worse. She wanted to enjoy dinner and the singing afterward.

“Where’s Jem got himself to?” Pop asked her over the noise of it all. He’d asked a while ago, just as she realized the biscuits were in too long, and she’d had to rush over to the oven.

“I’m sorry, Pop,” she said. “He’s checking on the mare.”

“Again?”

Becky shrugged. “Doc’s put his trust in him. He wants to do a good job.”

“I suppose you can’t fault a man for that.” Pop rubbed his chin as if checking for stray whiskers.

No
, Becky thought,
you couldn’t blame him for that
. Jem had even led the mare over to their barn this morning, insisting she couldn’t be left alone overnight. He babied her so much she likely didn’t miss Doc much at all.

But she did wish Jem would come back inside. Everything was ready now and if they waited too long the turkey and dressing would get cold. No sooner had she thought it than she heard the familiar sound of boots clunking across the front porch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TWO

 

             

 

T
he front door flew open, pushed by a gust of wind, and a tiny white blizzard of snow swirled onto the wood floor. Jem stepped inside and shook himself, reminding Becky of a dog shaking water out of its coat. A shower of snow fell to his boots. Then, as he pulled off his snow-dotted black Stetson, another huge clump of snow plopped at his feet, scattering more of the white stuff everywhere.

“Jem!”

“Sorry, Becky.” Jem slammed the door behind him and surveyed the rapidly melting snow at his feet. Puddles the size of flapjacks were already forming there.

On her freshly scrubbed floor.

“I’ll clean that up,” he promised.

Becky pursed her lips and folded her arms over her chest, partly teasing him, partly ensuring he’d actually follow up on his promise this time. She’d already mopped up after him once this morning when he forgot.

“How’s she doing?” she asked, thinking of the sweet but temperamental mare Doc had left in Jem’s charge while he visited family in Colorado. That Doc trusted anyone else with his beloved mare was a testament to how far Jem had risen in his estimation. Becky still marveled at the changes in Jem: the discovery of his interest in animals, his following up on the opportunity to apprentice with a veterinarian in Seattle—known far and wide as “Doc”—and how her young friend had seemed to find his true purpose in helping Doc treat animals on the mountain. Although, these days Becky was also struck with how much older Jem seemed. He was twenty-one now, not a boy anymore.

Perhaps it was time he started thinking about a wife. Catherine’s oldest daughter would be eighteen soon... She and Jem had never particularly looked at each other with any romantic light in their eyes, but maybe that was because they’d practically grown up with each other the past few years. If they were to have a dance this spring, and if they were to dance together, like she and Isaac had... Throw them together, so to speak. Becky resolved to ask Catherine what she thought at the very next opportunity.

Meanwhile, Jem was still standing at the door, dripping melting snow onto her floor as he considered her question about the mare.

“Wishing she was at the end, I’d say,” he answered, scrubbing a hand through his flattened black hair. It settled into place as if he’d labored hours in front of a mirror. As a woman, Becky could only envy this skill. Isaac could do the same, although his hair often ended up in charming disarray, tempting her to run her fingers through it. Which she did. Often. The thought distracted her a bit, but Jem didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t have the heart to tell her she’s only halfway,” he said.

“Halfway...” Becky echoed. She was about halfway through her own pregnancy. Despite the absentmindedness and the occasional need for a nap in the afternoon, the halfway point seemed almost a golden time: she wasn’t sick every morning, and she wasn’t so big that she couldn’t move around easily. She actually felt...good. Better than good.

Isaac turned the corner from the hallway at a jog and, at the sight of them by the door, quickly slowed to a walk and stopped, his breathing seemingly unaffected by his romp around the house. The boys followed close behind, fairly flying as they plowed into the back of his knees, nearly taking him down in the process. He caught himself effortlessly. He must have heard her conversation with Jem, at least part of it, because he said, “Must be tough being pregnant in the winter.” Although Isaac directed the comment to Jem, his gaze settled thoughtfully on Becky. She could sense his worry.

“We’ll manage,” Becky told him softly, appreciating his concern.

“Sure we will. She’s as healthy as a mule,” Jem said, evidently oblivious to their interchange.

Isaac shared an ironic glance with her, and Becky forced back a giggle.

“Any problems?” Isaac asked Jem, with a certain meaningful air. “In the barn,” he added at a whisper, tilting his head in the direction of the stables out back.

Jem peeked first at Becky and then at the boys. He pulled Isaac aside, and they spoke in hushed tones for a moment.

What were they up to? Becky wondered. Possibly something to do with Christmas morning and delightful surprises. She could only hope.

“The floor...?” she reminded Jem when the men parted as if they hadn’t had any private conversation at all. Curious.

“I promise.” Jem reached up and plucked a needle from the fir garland that was strung above the door. He stuck it between his teeth and bobbed it up and down, at the same time waggling his eyebrows at her.

Becky hid a smile and pointed to the towel hanging on a peg by the front door just for that purpose. Before he could grab it, Levi and Jakob rushed up to him, jostling for his attention.

“Can I go see her?” Jakob asked, tugging on Jem’s pant leg.

“Is it going to be a puppy?” Levi asked, his words piling over the top of his brother’s question, before Jem even had a chance to remove his coat. Not for the first time, Becky saw how much they adored and looked up to their “Uncle Jem.”

Jem laid a hand on each of their heads and grinned at them. “Not right now, Jake,” he told Jakob patiently, then, peering down at Levi with an expression of suppressed mirth, said, “And, no, horses don’t have puppies.”

Levi’s face fell. “They don’t?”

“Nope.”

“What do they have?”

“Kittens,” Pop said from his spot at the table, dissolving into a rumble of laughter and coughing.

Levi spun toward his grandfather, round-eyed. “We’re having
kittens
?”

“Kittens!” Jake cried.

Uh-oh
. Becky could already see the clockworks turning in both her sons’ heads. They’d been pestering Isaac for months for a puppy. Now it would be a kitten. Or
kittens
. Heaven help them.

“No, my sweets,” she said to them gently but firmly, casting an amused glance at Pop, who was making no attempt now to hide his laughter. “She’s going to have a foal. A baby
horse
.”

“A horse?” Levi repeated, deflating slightly.

“Can I ride it, Uncle Jem?” Jake climbed onto the tops of Jem’s snowy boots—which he hadn’t removed yet, Becky noticed with a frown. Her son balanced with all the natural grace of a future logger, grabbing the waistband of Jem’s denims to steady himself. “Can I?”

“Me too. I want to ride it.”

“We’ll have to ask Doc about that,” Jem said, his expression solemn, taking them both seriously and giving them a measure of respect he’d never had himself as a child, Becky suspected. “But it will be quite some time before he’s ready to ride.”

“It’s a boy?” Jake jumped up and down on Jem’s insteps, causing him to wince slightly.

“We don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait and find out after it’s born.”

“Wait?” Luke pulled a sour expression that reminded Becky of Isaac whenever she told him his favorite pair of denims were still damp on the line.

“Yes, wait,” Jem said, wincing again as Jake continued to jump up and down on his boots. He lifted Jake off and, in one fluid movement, swung him to one side, setting him on his feet, well away from his boots.

“Now,” he said over the sound of Jake’s squeals, blocking Levi from climbing up onto his boots to try it himself, as if it were a game they’d just invented, “you get to the table and wait for dinner. I’ve got to mop up this snow before your momma turns me into a turkey and cooks me up.” He bobbed the pine needle in his teeth to punctuate the statement.

“We got turkey,” Jake whispered loudly.

“We do?” Jem asked in mock surprise.

“Yep,” Levi said, “Didn’t you see it? Grandpop brought it down this morning.”

“Thank goodness for that.” Jem bobbed the pine needle up and down in his teeth again, making Levi giggle uncontrollably.

“Did not!” Jake protested. “Momma brought it down. Grandpop said so.”

“Your mother has always been a good shot,” Jem said in an agreeable tone, perhaps sensing an argument brewing.

“Better than me,” Pop said cheerfully.

“You let me have the shot,” Becky said.

“Not at all.”

“Well, thanks for helping me truss him up.” Becky pointed her sons to the table, and they raced full speed across the floor, squealing with glee as they skidded over the spots where the snow had melted. “Walking!” she chided.

As if they hadn’t heard her, they made a circle around the room and slid on their knees through the slush. In their best church pants. Maybe they wouldn’t put holes through the knees, but they’d be soaked.

“Levi Jessup! Jakob Jessup!”

Around they went again.

“Boys!”

Perhaps the exasperation in her tone penetrated their flurry of excitement, for they skidded to a stop in front of her, just far enough out of range that they could slip away if she reached for them.

She eyed them with her sternest expression, resisting the urge to rub her temple, and they both looked at her with equal expressions of innocence and question:
What, Momma? What did we do?
She wavered a bit just looking at them. They were such tall, sturdy boys for their age, with dark brown hair and brown eyes—not identical, but close enough to get them confused at times. Levi had fuller cheeks and his eyes were set slightly farther apart than his brother’s. From the back though, or when they were in motion—as they were much of the time—it was difficult for even her or Isaac to tell them apart. Becky often envisioned Isaac looking just like them when he was their age: tall and strong, with an unfading zeal for life and an adventurous spirit. And she thought of him now especially, seeing their serious expressions, as if they were pondering life’s mysteries.

Or, more likely, what trouble they’d get into next.

They were her “little Isaacs.” Her heart melted immediately at the thought. It was nearly impossible to remain cross with them for very long.

“Oh, come here,” she said, letting out a sigh, her heart melting a little more as they crashed into her and gave her one of their bone-crushing hugs. They might come across as rough-and-tumble little boys, but they still asked her to check under the bed at night for spiders. Most creepy-crawling things were great fun, but neither one of them cared for spiders. Thankfully, she rarely found one, as she didn’t much care for them herself, especially not in her house. And, thankfully, if she did find any, Isaac wasn’t afraid of them at all, so he could be counted on to catch the critters and release them outside. Where they belonged.

Becky quickly kissed the top of each of her boys’ heads, ruffled their wavy, dark brown hair—so like their father’s—and pointed them toward their chairs. “Please sit.”

They quickly retreated to their seats and climbed up, waiting with identical expressions of obedience and patience.

How long will that last?
she wondered, filled with equal parts amusement and exhaustion.

Before he took his own seat, Isaac shot an admiring glance her way, causing her cheeks to grow warm in the most pleasant way.

Jem quickly grabbed the towel from its peg and began mopping up his mess, using the sole of his boot to push the towel around, swiping it side to side and front to back, then hanging it back on its peg to dry. He looked to Becky expectantly, and it occurred to her that he did that a lot: looked to her for approval. He hadn’t had much of that in his young life. If anything, he’d had too much disapproval and a hard life with an abusive father that she couldn’t begin to imagine. He likely hadn’t had much of anything good. Not like her boys who had everything: two loving parents, a father who was a fine example of a man, a grandfather who doted on them, and Jem, who doted on them too. Jem hadn’t had any of that growing up. Her eyes stung with sudden tears as she gave Jem a quick nod of approval and a smile.

“The turkey and potatoes are done,” she told him, “and we’ve got green beans and dressing with grilled sausage, but...I’m afraid I burned the biscuits.”

“No biscuits?” Jem repeated, freezing as he stripped off his heavy winter coat. He glanced at her, then at Pop, before hanging his coat on one of the pegs. He tugged off his boots and strode over to the kitchen basin to wash up. He wrinkled his nose as he drew close to the stove. “I thought I smelled something burnt.”

BOOK: Sleigh Bells & Mistletoe: A Short Story (The Brides Series 1.5)
6.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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