Van hunched inside his coat on the wagon seat, trying to hide from the bitter cold wind as he drove to the ranch. He wanted to bring Tessa with him, to take his mind off his reception, but she’d kept her distance since he told her he’d wait for her. And wait he would until she came around to his way of thinking. They belonged together. He felt it in the way her body fit his and her passionate kisses.
He’d left her in charge of the shop. She’d proven a quick learner the day before, determining feet size and making transactions. She was good for him emotionally, physically, and financially. He just had to make her see he was good for her.
The leafless cottonwood trees appeared stark and ominous hovering around the farm house. The two-story structure held pleasant memories. His mother’s cooking and laughter. Would she welcome him back or follow her husband’s lead? His stomach knotted, and he once again wished Tessa were by his side.
A multi-colored mutt ran out of the barn barking. Half-way to the wagon he stopped and looked back toward the barn. A girl of about eight strolled out of the building wrapped in a heavy coat, scarf, and mittens.
“Button. Stop barking,” she said when he stopped the wagon in front of the house. His mother’s eyes stared at him from the child’s face. This was his sister Grace.
“Is your ma or pa home?” he asked uncertain what to do. He wanted to pick her up and hug her, but reasoned she wouldn’t care for a stranger grabbing her.
“Ma’s in the kitchen. Christmas is coming.” She put a hand on the dog’s head.
“It sure is. How about you take me to the house then rustle your ma out of the kitchen so I can talk with her?” He started walking to the familiar front door.
Grace grabbed his hand. “We can’t go in that door. Ma doesn’t like snow on her wool rug.” She tugged him to the back of the house.
Van smiled and allowed his sister to haul him around to the back of the house. The garden patch looked larger. And the cellar which he’d help dig was grown over sprouting pale weeds through the six inches of snow.
Grace pulled the screen door open, then shoved the door into the kitchen. Familiar aromas wafted around Van’s head. He sniffed and savored each spicy nuance.
His ma turned. “Grace, shut the door, I have bread ris—”
Ma was the same other than gray wisps in her dark brown hair. She blinked, and her hands clasped in front of her chest.
“Van?” She took a step toward him. He smiled and nodded, and she lunged into his arms, crying.
He hugged her tight as tears burned his eye sockets. His heart, that had been torn in two when he never heard from her, slowly melded back together. “I’ve missed you,” he said, holding on, wishing he had all those years back.
She drew out of his arms and studied him. “My, you turned into one handsome man.” She wiped at the tears on her face with her apron. Then motioned to Grace. “Come say hello to your big brother.” His mother’s smile warmed him like a toasty fire on a cold day.
“My brother? I thought pa said—” Grace stared up at him quizzically.
“Your pa doesn’t know everything.” Ma motioned to the table. “Sit and tell me why you didn’t write and what you’re up to.”
Anger raced through him. He’d been right about his pa not giving his letters to her. He took the seat and watched her move to the stove. “Actually, I wrote to you every year on your birthday.”
She spun around and faced him. “You did?”
“Yes. At first I wondered why you didn’t write back. Then I figured Pa wasn’t giving you the letters, but I wrote them anyway. I didn’t want him to think I’d given up.”
She placed the coffee in front of him and ran her hand through his hair like she’d done when he was small. Leaning down she kissed his forehead. “I’m so glad you got your pa’s stubborn streak.” She hurried across to the stove and pulled a tray of cookies out of the oven. “And you’re here for Christmas.”
“Where’s Pa?” He wanted to have it out with the man.