Part 5 of the Match Unsurpassed Series
Word count: 2,135
Murdoch smiled at the candlelight reflecting off the silvered glass ornaments placed carefully in the boughs of the Christmas tree. Each decoration had special meaning binding the family together with previous generations of loved ones. Taking in Johnny’s somber features all evening had been a stark reminder of how deeply some losses were felt. While Scott and Teresa filled the evening with laughter and good-natured bantering over who would be more surprised by the gifts under the tree, Johnny remained resolute in his grief declining to participate in any of the fun. Even the gingerbread cookie next to him remained intact.
He’d give anything to see the joy of Christmas’ past in Johnny’s eyes, but understood all too well that healing wasn’t dictated by seasons or holidays. God knows he’d spent many a Christmas Eve as Johnny had, brooding on fate. “The smell of pine always reminds me how Mam laughed at Angus and me bickering over which stocking went where.”
“Your brother and Teresa outdid themselves tonight, didn’t they? I thought they might come to blows over whether or not the treetop angel was straight.”
“It all looks…” Johnny’s voice trailed off as he pushed up from the chair making his way to the decanter of whiskey. His shoulders drooped and there was no spirit in the slow shuffle of his steps. After pouring a drink, he sank onto the sofa next to Murdoch. His voice cracked as he stared into his glass. “Murdoch?”
“When will it stop hurting?”
Murdoch choked up at the pain he saw on Johnny’s face. “I can’t tell you it’ll ever stop completely, but it changes over time.” He squeezed Johnny’s shoulder. “After Catherine died and your mother…” He closed his eyes. “The hole in me…”
“As all of Lancer.”
“Every day I lose another piece of her. First it was not seeing her every morning at breakfast. Then her shirt didn’t smell like her.” A single tear rolled down his cheek. “With Scott and Teresa joking around tonight…” More tears fell as he wiped at the wetness. “Murdoch, I can’t hear her laugh anymore.”
He folded Johnny in his arms and gently rocked back and forth. “I know, son.” As Johnny’s shoulders shook, his own eyes clouded until the candles on the tree looked like tiny halos. “That angel on top of the tree was a present from Teresa. She made it after I had an evening like you just did to remind me that the people we’ve loved and lost watch over us.”
“Do you believe that?” He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand.
In darker times, when the hacienda was bleak and lonely, he’d have answered that question differently. But his sons were home now and one of them needed to know things would get better. “I have hope. You should too.” He brushed Johnny’s hair back from his forehead. “It’s been a long day. Sleep will do us good before the busy Christmas morning.” He stretched his back before smiling down at Johnny. “Opening gifts takes a fair amount of energy.”
Johnny wrapped his arm around Murdoch’s waist. “Only present I want is a sign that Jesse is still here.”
Johnny pulled the covers tightly under his chin. Why the hell was it so cold? One eye opened a slit to see the drapes fluttering. Moonlight turned the room silver-blue. Damn, how’d the window get open? Yawning, he pushed up from the mattress to shut it and draw the curtains closed. A shiver crawled up his back.
“You have something against moonlight and a soft breeze?”
He spun toward his gun hanging on the bedpost then froze. His voice cracked. “No.”
“I didn’t think so.” Jesse smiled as she reopened the drapes. “You look like you just saw a ghost.” She winked at him before sitting cross-legged on his bed. “That’s a little heavenly humor.” She chuckled slightly.
Johnny slowly lowered himself down next to her. “You can’t…aren’t…”
“Oh, I’m real enough.” She stroked his cheek.
He sighed at her warm touch then raised his hand to cover hers. Tears welled in his eyes. “How?”
“You asked for a sign.” Her lips softly brushed his.
He didn’t care what had brought her back to him. Only that she was here. His hand snaked around the back of her neck pulling her in for a deeper kiss. “Dios, Jess, I miss you.”
Jesse’s fingers combed through his hair. “I’m right here.”
Johnny studied her face closely, taking in every detail he’d been afraid were gone forever. The blueness of her eyes and softness of her skin. How her dark hair shined. The cute dimples when she smiled. She took his breath away and always would. “You aren’t all the time.”
“You’re so wrong.” She scooted closer to him. “I’m with you every minute.” Her fingers traced a path from his chest up his neck to his lips. “Of every hour.” Settling in his lap, she smiled. “Of every day.”
His fingers entwined with hers. “Not the way I’d like.”
“And how would that be?”
A soft moan rumbled in his throat before he pushed her onto the bed. She felt so good in his arms. He’d forgotten so many things about her in the time she’d been gone, but not how well they fit together. If only they’d had more time.
“We don’t always get what we want, you know.” She wrapped her arms around his back, kneading his shoulders.
Had he said that out loud or was she reading his mind? It didn’t matter. She was here. “It wasn’t fair you leaving me.”
“You know life isn’t fair.”
“But why? When we finally had…” He held her face in his hands. “A life together ahead of us.”
She chewed her bottom lip. “It wasn’t ours to share.” Her brows knit together. “There are other plans. Things I can’t tell you. But, trust me, everything is just as it should be.”
“I don’t believe that.” His hands traced a familiar path down her body savoring each little catch of her breath as he hit sensitive spots. “You can’t either.” Slowly, he moved her under him kissing her eyes, the tip of her nose, down her throat. “Not when we have this.”
When he moved to unbutton her shirt, she grabbed his hands. “You do lead a girl astray in a hurry.”
A slow, crooked grin crossed his lips. “Complaining?”
“Never.” Her voice was a bare whisper. “But my time with you is short and you’re distracting me from why I’m here.” She pushed him off then sat up. “That’s better.”
He grinned. “Depends on how you look at it.” He pushed himself up the bed, settling back on his pillow. “Come here.” When she hesitated, he winked. “Trust me.”
She smiled broadly then snuggled into the crook of his arm. “There was never a safer place for me than in your arms. Our last night together was the happiest I ever had.”
“Then let’s finish what we started.”
“As much as I’d like to be with you again…” She took a deep breath. “It’s time for you to rejoin the living.”
Johnny groaned, covering his eyes with his forearm. “I don’t have a life without you.”
“You think that might have something to do with spending so much time sitting at my grave?” She picked up his arm to stare into his eyes. “Talking to a mound of dirt instead of family and friends? Or maybe meeting someone new?”
“Don’t talk about someone new. I can’t…it hurts too much to even think about.”
Jesse’s lips pursed before curling into a slight grin. She hopped off the bed holding her arms open. “Dance with me?”
“There isn’t any music.”
“Listen with your heart.”
The music they’d danced to in Dona Ana suddenly filled the room bringing a smile to his face. His arm went around her waist as he slid his hand into hers. Before he’d led her in their first step, her boot connected solidly with his shin. “Ouch! What the hell, Jess?”
She pulled him into the first turn of the dance. “That hurt?”
The throbbing in his leg had him limping through each move. “What do you think?”
“Yep. Probably leave a mark for a good long while too.” She leaned in to whisper in his ear. “But you know what? You’re still dancing.” Her laughter bubbled up filling the room as they made it through the intricate steps. “Life and love are like that too, Johnny. No matter the pain, keep going.” When the final move left them nose to nose, she kissed him. “Your eyes can stare right through a person…” She winked. “Or maybe it’s just me.”
“Not sure I like heaven humor.”
“It never gets old where I come from.” She took his hand and led him back to bed. “Almost Christmas morning. Time for sleep.” When he was under the covers again, she cupped his cheek. “Johnny, you have so many gifts yet to give. So much joy to experience. Don’t shut yourself off from any of it, especially love. You’ll find it in unexpected situations.”
She shook her head slowly. “Sorry, that’s not allowed. Keep your heart open. I promise you won’t miss the signs.”
“You really want me to find someone else?”
“I want you to be happy. I wish it was with me, but…” Her eyes glistened with tears. “It wasn’t possible.” She tucked the covers tighter around him. “Think of me, yes, but live your life to the fullest. Now, close your eyes.”
“Merry Christmas, Jesse.”
“Merry Christmas to you. And the happiest of the New Year.”
He ran his fingers along her jawline. “Will you stay?”
She touched the North Star medallion she’d given him laying upon his chest. “Constant and unwavering, remember?”
He drifted off to sleep with a smile on his face for the first time in weeks. When he woke, sunlight streamed into his room. It was as bright and cheery as he felt. Pulling Jesse’s favorite shirt from under his pillow, he hugged it close to his chest. Was that…? He breathed in the smell of her favorite soap mixed with leather.
A door opened quietly in the hall. Scott was headed downstairs already. Damn, he didn’t want to miss a minute of Christmas morning. He jumped from bed to wash his face. The water was colder than usual causing a gasp. Combing his hair reminded him of Jesse’s fingers running through it. Why had this dream seemed more real than other ones?
Smiling, he rubbed the blanket wishing she’d actually been there in his arms. When he pulled his hand away, a strand of Jesse’s hair hung from his fingers. He swallowed hard. Maybe it wasn’t a dream. No, that wasn’t possible. A shaking hand started toward his shin. He winced when it connected with a painful knot. Examining the blue-purple bruise where she’d kicked him before they danced, he couldn’t help but grin. She’d left her mark just like she said she would. Even as he shook his head in disbelief, he looked heavenward. “Thanks for the Christmas miracle. I promise to keep dancing.”
After dressing quickly, he headed for the stairs and slid down the bannister. At the bottom, he almost knocked Teresa over as she carried a tray with cups and a pot of coffee to the great room. “Sorry.” He kissed her cheek then took the heavy tray from her. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas.” She giggled. “You’re in a wonderful mood this morning.”
“It was a good night.” He winked then held out his arm to escort her into the room. Murdoch was adding a log to the fire, while Scott sat quietly on the sofa. His family on Christmas morning. A calmness the likes he’d never known came over him. Setting the tray behind Scott, he smiled broadly. “Merry Christmas, everybody. Time to open presents?”
Scott laughed then exchanged a quick look with Murdoch. “Merry Christmas, brother.”
“Maybe we could have coffee first?” Murdoch chuckled as he poured himself a cup.
“But I outdid myself shopping this year.” He clapped Scott on the back. “Especially for you.”
Scott raised a brow. “I was going to say the same thing about your gift from me.”
“Couldn’t be as good as mine for you.” Johnny grinned.
“We’ll just see about that.” Scott headed for a wrapped box.
“Oh, no.” Teresa pointed to the top of the tree. “The angel is crooked. Scott, can you straighten her please?”
“No, wait.” Johnny stopped him then looked at the treetop. “Leave her alone.” He smiled at Scott then Teresa and finally Murdoch. “I have it on good authority that everything is exactly as it should be.”
THE END (OR MAYBE NOT)
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