2013 – A Christmas Carriage Ride or… Something

by Sandra Orchard  © 2013

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 ***

“That’s going to be you and Zach one day,” Jill said to Tara, as a dad with four adorable blond children sat at the table next to theirs in the restaurant. The father’s hair was a shade darker than the children’s, but the family resemblance was strong.

The dreamy look in Tara’s eyes sparked a pang of longing in Jill’s heart despite having accepted long ago that a family wasn’t in her future.

“Okay, okay,” Jill said, yanking her friend’s mind down from the clouds. “Wedding first. You want two horse-drawn carriages?” Jill pushed aside her dessert plate and opened her datebook to the Saturday before Christmas.

“If you can manage it.”

“No problem. My dad will drive the second carriage.” Jill glanced at the young family now heading to the buffet line. “I wonder where the mom is.”

“Huh?” Tara turned in her chair.

The dad scooped his youngest—a girl who couldn’t be more than four—into his arms. She had a stuffed toy horse crunched under her arm and pointed to the food she liked. When her dad tried to spoon something onto her plate she hadn’t pointed to, she shook her head vigorously, bouncing her blond pigtails. The dad’s good-humored chuckle revealed a soft spot for his little girl.

“Perhaps he’s giving the mom a break for the afternoon,” Tara suggested, returning her attention to her own dessert plate.

Jill watched the family a moment longer. Somewhere along the line, the dad had loosened his tie. From the dresses on the girls and formal shirts and pants on the boys, they’d probably just come from church, too. The older girl looked to be about eleven, minus the exuberance of the horse-crazy preteens who eagerly volunteered to be footman for her carriage rides any chance they got. More surprising, the girl didn’t treat her little brothers with disdain, as many of Jill’s young employees tended to do. Instead she helped them fill their plates like a little mother.

“Will we be able to use your two white horses for the bridal carriage?” Tara asked.

Jill pulled her attention back to her datebook. “Absolutely. Would you like me to pick you up at home and drive you into town, too?”

“No, it’s too far for the horses. We’ll stick to just riding from the church to the reception hall past the Christmas light displays through town.”

Jill noted the preferences and closed her book. “Sounds good.”

The father returned with the little girl and set her at the table opposite her sister, his deep timbre soothing the child’s reluctance to leave his arms. Jill had the fleeting thought that she couldn’t blame the girl. Especially when he gave the older girl a lopsided smile, asking her to keep an eye on them all so he could fill his own plate. Jill’s heart went out to the guy. The dark circles beneath his eyes betrayed a bone-tired weariness.

Chastising herself for staring, Jill tore her gaze away and took a sip of coffee.

“I really appreciate you offering to do this for us,” Tara continued, giddily. “Suzie’s as thrilled about getting to ride in the carriage as being my flower girl!”

Jill smiled. “It’s my pleasure.” There were few things she enjoyed more than bringing a touch of fairytale magic to a bride’s day.

“So I assume this means you decided against accepting that generous offer on your place.”

Jill snorted. “I’m not sure how much say I’ll have. I can’t afford to buy out my cousin’s share of the carriage company and farm, and she’s really putting the pressure on me to accept the offer if I can’t buy her out.”

“I know she wants to sell for a pretty noble reason with her husband getting the opportunity to head up that orphanage in Africa. But we’re talking about your future, too. What happens if you just refuse to sell?”

“I’m not sure, but—”

A glass dropped to the carpet, spraying its contents across the bottom of Jill’s skirt. The older girl sitting at the next table scolded her little sister, and the poor child looked ready to burst into tears.

Jill jumped to her feet, grabbed the extra napkins from their table and sopped up the spill. “It’s okay, honey. No harm done.” She handed the glass to the waitress and asked for a clean one.

The child hugged her little stuffed horse to her chest and watched Jill with wide, watery eyes.

“What’s your horsey’s name?” she asked, hoping to coax a smile from the girl.

The child hugged the toy tighter and continued to stare at Jill.

“She doesn’t talk,” the older sister explained.

Jill’s heart squeezed. Was some horrible tragedy the cause?

“The horse’s name is Bella,” the big sister added.

“Oh, I have a horse named Bella.” Jill beamed at the littlest girl.

“A real horse?” the brother beside her piped up. His pure blue eyes bubbled with excitement.

“Yes, I have a stable full of horses.” Hoping to excite the little girl into saying something, Jill added, “Perhaps some time your father could bring you out to see them.”

The light went out of the little boy’s eyes.

Jill’s throat constricted. Surely their father—

“Hello?” A deep baritone rumbled behind her. “Hey, guys. What’s going on?”

Straightening, Jill smoothed down her damp skirt. “We had a little trouble with a glass of water, but no harm done.”

The man’s pure blue eyes—so like his son’s—turned apologetic. “I’m sorry. I—”

Jill held up her hand. “No apologies necessary, Mr. …?”

He set his plate on the table and reached for her hand, his grip warm and sure, the half-foot he had on her height no longer so intimidating. “Call me, Max.”

“I’m Jillian. My friends call me Jill.”

“Pleased to meet you, Jill.” Max momentarily covered their joined hands with his other hand, sending her pulse to skittering. “I appreciate your understanding.”

Jill couldn’t help but notice that his ring finger was bare. Then immediately berated herself for being so… so…

“Uncle Max,” the bigger of the two boys called out. “Miss Jill said we could go see her horses.”

Uncle? Her heart kicked. She glanced at Tara whose bouncing eyebrows and half smirk brought a rush of heat to her cheeks.

“You have horses?” Max asked, sounding as eager as his nephews.

“Um.” She cleared her suddenly hoarse throat. “Yes, I run one of the carriage companies in town. My stables are out on Meadowlark Road.”

“I’d love to bring the children to see them if that’s alright.”

A whoop went up around the table, even little Sarah’s eyes brightened.

“Sarah adores horses. Maybe…” Max’s voice trailed off.

Did he hope, as she had, that the horses might draw the little girl out of her silence?

Tara reached across the table, snagged one of Jill’s business cards from her datebook, and passed it to Max. “Hi, I’m Jill’s friend, Tara. This is the address of her stable.”

“Yes,” Jill said. “If you like, you could stop by after you finish lunch. Although I’d recommend the kids change into play clothes first.”

“Can we, Uncle Max?” the older girl pleaded, sounding more like the eleven year old she was than the mother she seemed to think she needed to be.

Max looked from one eager face to the next before settling his gaze back on Jill with an appreciation that made her gulp. “It’s a date.”

*

Max glanced in the van’s rearview mirror and smiled. He hadn’t seen his nieces and nephews this animated in months. And he could thank Jillian Richards, owner of Miller’s Bay Horse-Drawn Carriage Tours, according to her business card. Although at the moment, Max suspected she might be an angel.

Never in his thirty-two years had he ever imagined himself giving up his sports car for a family van, let alone feeling downright giddy about transporting a vanload of munchkins to a horse farm. But a lot of things had changed in the past few months. Twelve years ago when his brother and pregnant wife asked him to be the legal guardian if anything happened to them, little did he know what he’d been agreeing to, especially since neither had any other living relatives.

He turned onto Meadowlark Road and slowed at the sight of a horse barn with a carriage painted on the wall, but the house number on the small bungalow in front didn’t match. He drove slowly past, and spotted the number at the end of a second driveway that wound around to the barn, past a warm inviting little house with Christmas garland twined around the porch rails and bright red bows on each post.

He supposed he should dig through his brother’s attic for their Christmas decorations and enlist the kids’ help in sprucing up their house for the holidays. Perhaps the prospect of Christmas gifts under the tree would finally draw Sarah from the silence she’d sunken into since her parents’ death.

Jill strode out of the horse barn as they parked, her blond ponytail swinging playfully, her radiant smile making his heart feel lighter than it had in a long time.

“This is the place, kids,” he whooped, unclicking his seatbelt. “Be on your best behavior, okay?”

The older kids scrambled out of the van in a flurry of yeses as Max unbuckled four-year-old Sarah from her booster seat.

Her eyes were wide, but from the stranglehold she had on her stuffed horse he couldn’t tell if it was from anticipation or dread. He coaxed her to join the rest of the children gathered around Jill.

“Welcome to my farm.” Jill spread her arms, motioning to the pastures and neat little house. The tire swing hanging from an old oak in the backyard reminded him of the one he’d loved as a kid. “This is a third generation farm. My father and uncle turned it into a horse carriage business in the 1970s and my cousin and I are continuing the tradition.”

“Is that your cousin’s house next door?” Max asked.

Jill’s smile faltered. “At the moment.”

“She’s moving?”

“Her husband has a ministry opportunity that they hate to let pass, but—” Jill shook her head. “It’s complicated.”

If they owned the business jointly, he imagined it was very complicated. With fewer tourists these days dampening business, potential buyers wouldn’t likely be lining up at their door to make an offer.

Jill led the children into the barn, but the first four stalls stood empty save for a handful of scampering kittens.

“Where are your horses?” his oldest nephew, Caleb, asked.

“Some are working. I trailer them to Main Street, here in Miller’s Bay, and to Niagara Falls, where I have carriages stored. My carriage drivers give tours throughout the day and then transport the horses back. Different horses go out in the evenings so that no horse has to work too long.”

At the far end of the stable, she stopped in front of a beautiful bay mare she’d cross-tied and hunkered down in front of Sarah. “This is my Bella. Would you like to feed her a carrot?”

Sarah’s eyes ballooned as she gave Jill a giant head-bobbed “yes.” Jill beamed over her head at Max and his heart somersaulted at her obvious joy in sharing this mission she’d so selflessly latched onto.

“Me, too,” the other children chimed in unison.

Jill laughed. “You’ll all get a turn.” Her warm gaze returned to Max’s and he found himself mesmerized. “You want to pick her up, Uncle Max.”

“Oh.” He gave his head a mental shake. “Yes, absolutely.” He scooped Sarah into his arms and Jill handed her a piece of carrot.

“Hold it flat on your hand like this.” She demonstrated. “That way the horse won’t accidentally bite a finger, okay?”

The horse’s head tilted, it’s beautiful brown eyes meeting Sarah’s, as if to say, “I wouldn’t bite you.”

Sarah held out the carrot on a flattened palm and the horse’s lips tickled over her fingers in pursuit of the prize.

Sarah giggled.

Her brothers and sisters froze, their mouths dropping open.

Max’s heart swelled, suddenly feeling like the Grinch’s at Christmas—two sizes too big for his chest.

“What’s wrong?” Jill asked, looking concerned by their odd reaction.

“She laughed!” Sarah’s big sister exclaimed.

Tears pricked Max’s eyes. “It’s the first sound she’s made since her parents were killed in a car accident four months ago.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Compassion filled Jill’s gaze. “And you’re their guardian?”

“Yes,” he said softly. It hit him that she didn’t know his relationship to the kids. Of course, there was no way she could have known. Yet her eyes communicated her understanding without a word being uttered between them, and he found himself tumbling into their watery depths.

Little Johnny tugged on Jill’s sleeve, and she turned her attention from their unspoken conversation back to the children. “Okay, who’s next?” she asked and handed out hunks of carrot. After they each had a turn feeding the horse, she demonstrated how to groom the mare, starting with the currycomb then let them each have a go.

As the children lavished the horse with attention, Max caught himself watching Jill as much as the children. The joy in her face as she helped them was captivating. She was so good with them, patient, yet firm. “You’re going to make a wonderful mother.”

Her face went ashen and the soft brush she’d been holding fumbled through her fingers.

Until that moment, he’d only been half cognizant of speaking his thoughts aloud. But as she busied herself rummaging through her tote, trading the brush for a hoof pick, he didn’t miss the way her hands trembled or the sudden pain in her eyes.

He caught her hand and drew her away from the children. “Hey, you okay? I didn’t mean to upset—”

“No, you didn’t.” Color bloomed in her cheeks. “I’m fine. Thank you.” She ducked her head and, slipping from his hold, returned to the horse, leaving him more curious than ever about her odd reaction. 

More than an hour passed, yet the children seemed oblivious to the growing chill in the air or the deepening shadows as Jill enthralled them with stories about people she’d given rides to on her carriages, including a couple of famous movie stars.

More intrigued by how wistful her voice grew as she shared some of the romantic ways her clients had proposed on her carriage, Max wondered if she had a special someone of her own. He’d never met anyone so open and giving and down-to-earth attractive. She was nothing like the women he used to date in the city.

Oh boy, he needed to get out of here, before he let his mind get any further down that path. No woman was going to look twice at a guy saddled with four youngsters.

“Saddled” being his ex-girlfriend’s word choice.

He didn’t regret for a second adopting his brother’s orphaned children. After hearing Sarah giggle at the horse’s nuzzling, he decided he’d never heard a more beautiful sound. And he’d happily spend the rest of his days trying to coax it from his little girl, again and again.

Jill’s cell phone rang and she checked the screen. “Excuse me, I need to take this.” Her gazed skittered over the horse and kids.

“No problem. I’ll keep an eye on them.” He needed to convince the kids it was time to leave anyway, but he didn’t relish the protests he’d face.

Jill moved down the aisle, turning her back to them. “You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s the second tire you’ve blown on the trailer in less than a month!” Silence. “But I don’t want to sell!” She clicked off and when her gaze met his, she blushed. She nodded to the phone and made a face. “My cousin.”

“She hoped a blown tire would convince you to sell?”

Jill snorted. “Yeah, I guess she kind of did. I’m sorry, she’ll be back soon with the horses, so I need to get the ones for the night shift ready.” She turned to the children and clapped her hands. “Hey guys, I’m afraid Bella needs to go back in her stall now.” She sounded as sorry about ending their time together as the children clearly were.

Sarah tugged on her pant leg and Jill knelt to look her in the eye. “Did you enjoy yourself?”

Sarah bobbed her head up and down and then threw herself into Jill’s arms, hugging her neck.

Jill’s gaze touched his, her smile wide, as she wrapped Sarah in a bear hug. “You can come and visit me and Bella anytime.”

“Can we come back next Saturday, Uncle Max?” the boys blurted, the girls adding eager “pretty pleases,” Sarah’s in the form of praying hands and a how-can-anyone-say-no-to-this-face expression.

Max looked helplessly to Jill.

Her sweet laughter reminded him of the jingle of sleigh bells on a winter’s night. “Come at three. If the weather cooperates, maybe we can saddle Bella up and give everyone a riding lesson.”

*

Sitting on her carriage Wednesday evening, hoping to pick up a few tourist customers, Jill lifted the collar of her oilskin jacket against the cold wind. By early December, there were usually a lot more people strolling around downtown in the evenings, enjoying the ambience of the cobbled street, old-fashioned lampposts decorated with garland, twinkling Christmas lights in shop windows, and the nostalgic strains of Christmas tunes playing from the bell tower.

But instead of fluffy snowflakes lazily drifting down on the picturesque scene, icy rain pricked Jill’s face.

Tara parked and hurried across the street, holding out a steaming cup. “I was on the way home from dropping Suzie at Kids Club at church and figured you could probably use something to warm you up.”

Jill secured her reins to the carriage, then wrapping her chilled fingers around the cup, inhaled. “Mmm, chocolate. My favorite. Thank you.”

The wind caught the flap of Tara’s coat, exposing the thin nurse’s uniform she wore.

“You just get off work?”

“No, I haven’t been home yet. Suzie and I met Zach for a quick bite on his supper break. So…” Tara braced one foot on the carriage and leaned toward Jill conspiratorially. “Anything new happen with Max and his kids?”

Jill took a fortifying swig of hot chocolate, wishing she hadn’t mentioned their visit the last time Tara called. Never mind that little else had been on her mind since Sunday. She scrunched her shoulders, remembering the delightful feel of Sarah’s tiny arms hugging her neck, or Max’s soft gaze smiling down at them from that handsomely chiseled face. “Oh, Tara, I don’t know what I was thinking. One minute he’s thanking me for showing his kids the horses, the next I’m inviting them to come again. To come any time.”

“You were thinking that your horses might help bring that little girl out of her silence.”

“Sure,”—mostly—“but talk about rubbing salt in my wounds.” She nodded to a tourist who stopped to pet the horse and waited until she moved on before continuing. “I mean, for three years I’ve been happily running this carriage business with scarcely a regret about being single. Even with the gazillion marriage proposals I’ve witnessed! Then I spend two hours with Max and his adorable nieces and nephews, and I can’t get them out of my head.”

“So I don’t see what the problem is.”

Jill gulped down the last of her hot chocolate and took up the reins again. “I don’t want to be thinking about guys. Remember?”

“Just because you can’t have children of your own, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get married, let alone date.”

Her fingers tightened around the reins. “I’m just helping him with his kids. It’s not a date.”

“Exactly. So what’s the problem?”

How about she’d loved every second of their time together, and thinking about that for the past three days had been pure torture?

A soul-deep sigh seeped from her chest. “Being around them makes me yearn for things I can never have.”

Tara reached up and squeezed Jill’s hand. “You can have them.”

“No. Guys want a child that’s their own flesh and blood. You know it and I know it. The last thing I want to do is fall in love with a guy who’s going to break my heart after he finds out I can’t give him a child.”

“Jill Richards. Have you forgotten who you’re talking to? Zach loves my Suzie more than her own dad ever did. You don’t give guys enough credit.”

“Yeah, well, Zach’s one of a kind.”

Tara donned a lopsided smile. “Max seems to have a big heart. He’s pretty attached to his nieces and nephews.”

Jill shook her head. “I didn’t mean that I was falling for Max and his kids.”

“Of course not,” Tara said waaaay too exaggeratedly.

“I didn’t! I’m just saying it’s…” Every time she looked at Bella, she’d wished she’d gotten Max’s number so she could call to see if Sarah had started talking. Yeah, okay, and to talk to him. She couldn’t shake the memory of the concern in his eyes after she’d blanched at his you’d-make-a-good-mother compliment. She inhaled and let the breath out slowly, willing her suddenly racing heart to slow. “It’s just easier to not go there.”

Tara lowered her foot and tightened the belt around her coat. “I’m afraid that one day you’re going to realize that this”—she motioned to the carriage and horse—“isn’t going to be enough to numb your disappointment.”

“That’s not—”

Tara held up her hand stop-sign fashion. “Just think about what I said.” She rubbed her hands together then buried them under her armpits. “How long are you planning on sitting out here? The street’s pretty much dead.”

The same dark-haired man she’d noticed watching her earlier paused at the corner and glanced their way.

Jill smiled, hoping Tara’s standing by the carriage wouldn’t discourage him from splurging for a ride. He moved on down the street and Jill let out a sigh. “Not much longer, I guess. My cousin headed in a couple of hours ago, so I figured I might have a better chance of getting at least one tour tonight. But it’s not looking hopeful.”

“She still harping on you to buy her out or agree to sell?”

“Oh yeah.”

Tara looked around. “Well, if you get a lot of nights like this, maybe taking the money while it’s on the table would be smart.” Tara winced at Jill’s scowl. “Sorry. I am on your side. Honest. But be open to where the Lord might be leading you, okay? And do yourself a favor. Go home, before you catch your death out here tonight.”

*

Max drove slowly through town, trying to spot Jill’s carriage. It had just been sitting at the corner twenty minutes ago when he drove the kids to the Wednesday night children’s club their neighbor friends had invited them to. He spotted her pickup and horse trailer in an empty lot, beside a dilapidated looking shed, but no one seemed to be around. It was only seven o’clock, yet black, thanks to the moonless night and complete absence of streetlights at this end of town. He turned into the lot so his headlights could afford him a better look. For a split second, he thought he saw two figures struggling. He jumped out of his vehicle, leaving the headlights blazing. “Jill?” He raced to where he’d seen movement.

A hulking figure in a ski mask slammed Jill’s tiny frame against the side of the trailer and she crumpled to the ground.

“Jill!” Max lunged for the guy, catching the back of his coat. Only, it slipped through his fingers. Letting him go, Max turned his attention to Jill. Kneeling at her side, he swept the hair from her face, his heart crushing at the sight of the red marks around her neck. “Jill, talk to me.”

Her eyes fluttered open. “Max?”

“Yes. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.” He pulled out his phone and punched in 9-1-1, explained the situation. “Just lie still a minute, Jill. Catch your breath.” Her breathing was labored but steady, not surprising for someone who’d been slammed so hard. He slid his fingers to the pulse point on her wrist.

Inside the trailer, the horse whinnied, kicked at the wall.

“My horse. I need to check on her.” Jill tried to push herself up, but Max held her down, rattled by how violently she was trembling.

“First we take care of you.” He cupped her cheek, searched her eyes. “Okay?”

She nodded and her trembling eased.

He shoved from his mind the thought of what might have happened if he hadn’t come looking for her tonight and examined the thumb-sized red mark at the base of her throat. “Does it hurt to breathe? To swallow?”

“Are you a doctor or something?”

“Or something,” he hedged, pretty certain the fact he was an animal doctor wouldn’t win her confidence. He leaned over her and held her gaze. The haunted look in her eyes tore at him. “Does it hurt to swallow?”

She gulped. “A little. What do you mean or something?”

“Did he punch you?” The sudden realization that she could be suffering internal bleeding caught him in the gut.

“No, he…” Her hand splayed over her throat. “He grabbed me by the throat, said if I knew what was good for me, I’d…” Her trembling returned with a vengeance. “He said I’d better get out of town.”

Max gently folded her in his arms. “It’s okay. You’re safe.” He resisted the urge to ask if she knew who it was. Soon enough the police would grill her with those questions. Right now, she just needed to feel safe.

She melted against him and he tightened his hold. “What are you doing here?” she mumbled against his chest.

“I think God must’ve sent me.”

She pressed her palm to his chest and tilted her face upwards. “God?” Her breath whispered across her cheek, smelling faintly of chocolate.

He smiled. “I noticed you out on your carriage when I dropped the kids off at church and thought I’d stop by to chat. Make sure it was really okay to bring them back to your place this weekend. I didn’t want you to feel pressured.” He held his breath, not sure what he’d do if she changed her mind now. He slid his fingers through her silky hair, clutching her against the sudden ache in the vicinity of his heart. At the moment, the thought of even letting her out of his sight seemed indefensible.

*

Even with the sound of approaching sirens and the need to soothe her frightened horse still tied in the trailer, Jill couldn’t bring herself to lift her head from the comforting sound of Max’s steady heartbeat. He couldn’t imagine how deeply his insistence on taking care of her first had touched her. It was second nature in her business to grab the horse first, so he wouldn’t break a leg getting tangled in the reins. Not that she’d been riding. But aside from a couple of heartbreaks she’d rather forget, tumbles from her horse were the only other times she’d ever been hurt…and in all those times, no one had ever treated her as if she were the most important person in the world. It made her long for something more, for something she would never have.

He urged her up, still cradling her in his arms.

Inhaling, she forced herself to stand on her own two feet. “Thank you for being here, Max. I—” Tears filled her eyes.

“Hey.” He cupped her face and whisked his thumb across her damp cheek. “Any time. I mean that.” Their gazes tangled as his thumb drifted to her lips. For a breathless moment, his head dipped toward hers and she thought he might kiss her, then sirens split the air and he suddenly drew back, a muscle flicking in his chiseled jaw.

A reaction she didn’t want to begin to try to interpret.

When the police took their statements, she bucked at Max’s suggestion that her cousin might have instigated the attack to scare her into selling.

Max clasped her hand. “I know you don’t want to believe it, Jill. I don’t even know her. But it seems to me that she’s the only one with a vested interest in you giving up the business. And all those other costly incidents—the blown tires, the axle I overheard you mention—did they all happen on her watch?”

Jill gulped. “Yes, but—”

“We’ll talk to her,” the officer cut in and noted what little description of the attacker they could offer. By the time the paramedic had checked her over, and her dad had come to drive the horse trailer home, leaving her mom to bring Jill in the car, Max needed to head back to the church to pick up his kids. Although, even with her parents there for her, he seemed reluctant to leave. And she kind of liked it.

He walked her to her mom’s car and hovered at the door after she settled in. “Can I have your cell phone for a second?”

She reached into her pocket and handed it to him, thinking maybe his battery had died.

He thumbed in a number. “I’ve saved my number on here. And I meant what I said before, if you need anything, call me.”

*

The next morning after dropping the kids off at school, Max didn’t want to make the fifty-minute drive to his veterinarian clinic in Hamilton like he’d planned, in case Jill called and needed him. He hadn’t been able to sleep last night for worrying about that creep showing up at her house. He hoped her father talked her into spending the night with them as he’d suggested.

Max glanced at his watch, wondering if it would be too early to call her. He’d gone on her website last night to look up her hours of operation, so he could ask a buddy of his on the police force to check up on her. He hated the idea of her going back to such a secluded location alone, even in daylight. Except, he should’ve already left for work an hour ago to get to the clinic in time for opening. His partner had been more than understanding these past few months, with all the days off he’d needed to settle in with the kids, but even she was starting to suggest that maybe he should let her buy him out. “Hang it.” He pulled off the road and dialed Jill’s number.

The husky, early-morning sound of her “hello” did funny things to his insides. “Hey, how’s my patient?”

“Max?”

“You have more than one personal EMT?”

Her laughter chased away the anxieties that had been gnawing at his chest since he’d had to leave her last night. “Nope, you’re my one and only.”

The sound of that found a soft spot in his heart and nestled in.

“What’s up?”

“I just wanted to make sure you were feeling okay.”

“I am, thanks to you. I think I should owe you a dinner or something.”

He laughed. “Have you forgotten my brood you’ve invited to see your horses again on Saturday? I’m sure I owe you a week of dinners for that. In fact”—he hesitated only a moment before grabbing the reins with both hands—“if you don’t have plans for Saturday evening, I was wondering if you’d like to share a pizza dinner with us.”

“Oh, I…um…”

“We could bring it to your house if that’s easier with your schedule. If you need to slip out to trailer the horses, I mean.”

“That would be wonderful. Thank you.” The breathless note to her voice gave his heart a pleasant kick.

“So did the police talk to your cousin about the attack?”

“Yes. And of course, she denied any connection.”

“Do you believe her?”

Jill’s soft sigh whispered over the line. “I want to, but you’re right. She’s the only one with motive.”

“Well, until the police catch this guy, I’d feel a lot better if you didn’t do those trailer runs alone in the dark.”

“I know. I just hate to let this guy succeed at intimidating me.”

He stopped himself from warning that it was better than the alternative. “Call me if you don’t have anyone to go with you. I may not be able to ride along with the kids to take care of, but at the very least, I can stay on the line with you until you’re safely on your way.”

“I’ll see you Saturday,” she responded, without commenting on his offer, although he hoped the crack in her voice meant she was touched by the offer, not put out by his protective streak.

“Looking forward to it.” He reluctantly clicked off and pulled back onto the road. He’d never thought of himself as a protective kind of guy, at least not until he took over parenting his nieces and nephews. But last night—his heart ricocheted off his ribcage—last night had skyrocketed those emotions to a whole other level. Lord, I don’t know what’s come over me. I know she was just being nice to me, because of the kids, because of Sarah especially. And last night she was vulnerable and probably just grateful I’d been there, but I can’t stop thinking about her.

By the time he arrived at the clinic, he’d come to a decision. He asked his partner into his office and closed the door. “I’d like to let you buy me out. If your offer still stands.”

Her mouth gaped. “Sure. What changed your mind? Have you found a place closer to Miller’s Bay?”

“Actually”—he pulled a textbook on equine treatment from his shelf—“I’m thinking of getting back into large animal practice. Or maybe opening a mixed practice in Miller’s Bay.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “You really have changed. Four months ago I couldn’t have pictured a confirmed bachelor like yourself spending his days slugging through cow and horse barns without a pretty girl in sight.”

He chuckled. “Oh, there are plenty of pretty girls.” One, at least. “But yeah, I guess I’d never given much thought to what qualities make for a good wife and mother. Now I can’t imagine life without these kids, and I honestly can’t remember what I thought was so great about playing the field.”

His partner tilted her head. “You’re in love.”

He rolled his eyes. “I just meant that I want to give the children a more wholesome upbringing than my never-date-a-woman-longer-than-a-month way of doing things.”

Her lips curled. She was clearly not buying his story.

“It’s true. I’ve been going to church with the kids. Rediscovering my core values. I don’t even miss my red Mustang.” He wagged his head non-committedly. “Well, maybe I miss the car just a little.” He would’ve loved to take Jill cruising on the Niagara Parkway in it, with the top down, although…something told him he’d enjoy a sedate carriage ride even more. Being with Jill, sharing with her his elation at Sarah’s giggle, feeling her trembling subside as he held her in his arms after last night’s attack had filled him with a yearning to share a lot more moments with her.

“Oh, yeah, you have it bad.” His partner thumbed a number into her cell phone. “I’ll have my lawyer draft up the papers right away so you can sign on the dotted line before you change your mind.” She grinned as she let herself out of his office.

As the door clicked closed behind her, panic set in. Was he being rash? He couldn’t imagine himself ever being happy settling back into his city practice. He didn’t want to uproot the children and the commute was too long. And, okay, he couldn’t deny that his desire to practice in Miller’s Bay had a lot to do with Jillian. But…his heart chilled at the thought of showing up to tend her horses, and finding her falling in love with another guy, one who wasn’t a “package” deal.

*

Saturday afternoon, Jill sauntered out of the barn at the sound of Max’s van. His gaze traveled up her well-worn jeans with an intrigued gleam, his head tilting as he took in her ponytail. His slow smile spurred her pulse into a full gallop. A pace that didn’t have a prayer of slowing as his gaze caressed her face.

She quickly turned her attention to the kids. Any face would look good to someone who spent most of his waking hours with four young children, she reminded herself.

The children dashed to the corral, where she’d turned out Bella, and clung to the rail, holding out grass.

Jill flashed Max a grin. “Guess it’s clear who the main attraction is!”

Chuckling, he settled his palm at the small of her back, sending delicious sensations swirling through her tummy and sizzling down her arms. Sensations that didn’t help her racing pulse one iota. He urged her toward his children. “Current appearances aside, I’d have to say you’d be wrong.”

“Oh?” She turned her head to read his expression, only to find herself eye level with his curving lips. She sucked in a short breath, and with it, his distinctive scent—leather and soap and a hint of oriental spice. Her pulse suddenly sounded like hooves thundering in her ears. Not good.

His eyes twinkled. “You’re all they talked about the whole week.”

She hid a smile. Considering how many times Max had called since the attack, his children weren’t the only ones thinking about her. “Okay, who wants to ride first?” she said to the children.

Everyone’s hand shot up at once.

“How about we go from oldest to youngest?” Max suggested, his hand slipping from her back, leaving her feeling bereft.

“No fair,” the boys groused as little Sarah frowned.

Max bent toward her ear and whispered, “The last one on always gets the longest ride,” causing her lips to spread into a wide smile.

As Jill reached for the saddle she’d slung over the fence rail, she whispered a prayer that today would be the day Sarah found her voice again. Jill demonstrated to the children how to groom Bella in preparation for the saddle, then cinched it in place and hooked a lead line to her halter.

“Aren’t you going to put in a bit?” Max asked.

“Not today, I’ll just lead her and you can walk beside to ensure the children keep their seat.”

The older children were able to hoist themselves into the saddle from the mounting block, by bracing a foot in the stirrup, but when Sarah’s turn came, Max scooped her into the air and settled her into the saddle. Her legs were too short for the stirrups, even hiked up to the shortest hole.

“Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall.” Max curled his fingers into the back of Sarah’s jacket and kept up a non-stop commentary as Jill circled horse and rider around the corral, and her siblings shouted their encouragement and snapped photos.

But the little girl didn’t say a word. Didn’t even crack a smile; she was so intent on keeping her seat. Although when Jill drew Bella to a stop, Sarah leaned forward and hugged Bella’s neck.

Disappointment edged the smile Max held in place and Jill’s heart went out to him.

“Let’s see you ride,” Sarah’s older sister called to Jill.

“Yeah, around the barrels,” her brothers added.

“Oh, no, maybe some other time.”

The twinkle returned to Max’s eyes as he hoisted Sarah from the saddle. “Ah c’mon, I’d like to see you barrel race.”

Tempted to oblige, Jill lowered the stirrups. A good brisk run might be exactly what she needed to shake loose the unwelcome emotions piling up in her chest. She reached for the bit and bridle she’d left on the fence rail earlier. “Okay, I’ll do a few turns.”

Grinning, Max took over his niece’s pocket camera and snapped a picture.

Jill stuck out her tongue as she fit on her helmet and he snapped another.

“Hey, you better delete that.”

“Not on your life.” He jogged ahead of her and snapped another.

“Fine.” She clucked Bella into a full gallop, leaving Max to eat her dust. The barrels were set out in the large pasture beside the corral, and the oldest boy opened the gate for her. Jill took off across the field and pulled a tight turn around the barrel, scarcely slowing. “Good girl,” she whispered to Bella, giving her ribs an encouraging squeeze. Bella picked up speed and they rounded the second barrel even faster, to the whoops of the children. Except as Jill pulled out of the corner, Bella abruptly stopped, sending Jill flying. She landed on her back with a breath-stealing thump.

Her vision blackened, but she could hear footfalls pounding toward her, her name being shouted. Not wanting to frighten the children, she struggled to pull herself out of her daze.

When she opened her eyes, Max was hovering over her looking way too concerned.

She tried to push herself up. “I’m fine. I need to check Bel—”

He pressed his palms to her shoulders, pinning her down. “Don’t move. Take a deep breath. Can you tell me what day it is?”

She laughed. “Apparently Wednesday all over again, but being thrown by a horse doesn’t scare me nearly as much.”

He frowned and studied her eyes far too intently.

Her gaze skittered to his children’s frightened faces. “I’m fine. Really. You’re scaring the children.” She lowered her voice for his ears only. “Trust me, if you don’t want the kids to be afraid to ride, they need to see me get back on that horse.”

He didn’t seem to care. He palpated her limbs, tested her reflexes, asked a gazillion questions to which she kept answering, “I’m fine.”

When his fingers curled around her wrist, seeking her pulse point, she winked at the children. “You know if my pulse is racing, it probably has more to do with the handsome man holding my wrist.”

Sarah giggled, and a smile finally undid Max’s serious expression.

He clasped her hand and tugged her to her feet. “Let me check Bella over before you get back on.”

She laughed and tousled Sarah’s hair. “What are you, now? An animal EMT or something, too?”

His eyes twinkled. “Or something,” he said as teasingly as he had Wednesday night. His gaze met hers with a warmth that stole her breath more completely than any tumble from a horse.

*

As Jill closed Bella back in her stall, Max inhaled his first full breath since seeing her sail off the horse’s back. He’d never run as fast in his life, and he was pretty sure his heart had stopped beating for the painfully long seconds it had taken her to open her eyes. Then when those gorgeous blue-as-the-ocean eyes locked onto him, his heart had never raced so fast.

She was one amazing woman. He could tell by how gingerly she climbed back on the horse that she was sore, but her overriding concern had been that the children see that falling wasn’t the end of the world. That you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get right back on. A good motto for any tumble life brought your way, and one she clearly lived by.

“God doesn’t promise us we won’t fall,” she said to the children as they helped her toss hay into each stall. “But he promises to be there to pick us up and hold us when we’re hurting and give us courage to carry on, like you and your daddy did for me.”

His heart crammed into his throat. Daddy. His nieces and nephews had never called him that.

Yet, they didn’t correct her.

Warmth spread through his chest. He liked being thought of as Daddy, and…the thought of being there for Jill anytime she was hurting.

He swallowed. Oh, boy. His partner was right. He did have it bad.

“Are you okay?” Jill’s concerned voice filtered through his thoughts.

Sprigs of hay poked from her hair. He tugged them free and could feel her breath whisper over his whiskers. “Never better,” he said, his voice husky with the emotions she stirred in him.

He combed his fingers through her ponytail, remembering how the tip had danced beneath her helmet as she rode. He was glad his niece had thought to bring her camera. He couldn’t wait to get the pictures printed, especially that one of Jill poking out her tongue. He might just have to frame that one.

Gravel crunched outside.

Jill blushed and ducked her head as if only just realizing how close they stood. “Who could that be?” She strode to the stable’s main door. “Great,” she said, not sounding happy at the sight of her cousin’s truck backing the horse trailer up to the barn an hour earlier than it was due. “What’s happened now?”

He couldn’t blame her for fearing the worst. From what she’d shared and from what he’d picked up from her dad the night of the attack, she’d been facing a streak of bad luck lately. Not that he believed in luck—good or bad. He was more inclined to think her cousin had instigated the setbacks to convince her that she’d be better off selling the farm and business.

Jill unhooked the latch on the trailer’s rear door as her cousin hopped from the truck, looking haggard. Jill’s hand froze on the door handle. “What’s wrong?”

Her cousin blinked back tears. “I don’t know. Princess just started acting really weird. It was all I could do to get her back to the carriage barn and load her on the trailer.”

Max pried Jill’s hand off the door handle. “Let me look at her.”

Looking dazed, Jill stepped back, allowing him to open the door.

A gray mare of about sixteen hands stood inside, with a gleaming coat that belied the tremors wracking her body. He untied her to lead her off the trailer, noting her unsteadiness and difficulty breathing.

Jill gasped. “We need to call the vet. Now!”

Her cousin’s brow furrowed as she jerked her hand in his direction. “He’s a vet. Why do you think I brought her straight here?”

Jill’s eyebrows jumped into her bangs. “What?” She whirled on him. “You’re a vet? Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged. “I was having too much fun keeping you guessing.” Although this wasn’t the way he’d wanted her to find out. He led the horse down the trailer ramp and into the barn. “I have an equipment bag in the back of my van. Could you grab it?” As Jill raced to the van, Max led Princess into her stall. The mare pressed her head against the wall, triggering his memory. He turned to Jill’s cousin. “Do you still have another driver in town?”

“Yes, and a footman.”

“Ask them to look around for anything toxic that Princess might have ingested or come in contact with.”

Jill raced back into the stall, lugging his heavy bag. “You think she’s been poisoned?”

“It could be a number of things.” He pulled out his thermometer. “But I’ve seen this kind of head pressing before, when I was in training.” He glanced at the thermometer. “Her temp’s high.” He listened to her breathing, then checked her mouth, noting an acrid odor. “I’m going to need you to call your vet, because I don’t have the equipment to treat her. Tell him I suspect poisoning and he’ll know what to bring.”

Apparently not carrying her cell phone, Jill hurried out again. The children wandered toward the stall, holding the squirming kittens.

“I need you guys to keep playing back there for a while, okay?” he said as he palpated the horse’s stomach.

“What’s wrong?” Caleb asked.

Jill’s cousin pocketed her phone and herded the children back to where they’d been playing. “Your daddy’s taking care of a sick horse.” 

“He’s our Uncle Max,” Caleb said matter-of-factly.

“He’s our daddy now, too,” his big sister corrected him.

Sarah whirled away from the others and dashed back to the stall where he was feeling Princess’s already cold extremities, a sick feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. Sarah climbed onto the bottom rung of the rail door and looked over the top. “Don’t let her die, Daddy!”

Max choked on the emotion that swelled in his throat at the sweet sound of her voice, of calling him daddy. He lifted her over the rail and hugged her. Tears blurred his eyes as his gaze met Jill’s. “I’ll do my best, Sweetheart,” he said, stroking his little girl’s hair. “I’ll do my best. And you can help me, too, by playing quietly while I work, okay?”

She hugged his neck. “Okay.”

Max handed her back over the rail to Jill, her own eyes bright with tears as they shared a bittersweet smile. Sarah scurried back to the rest of the children who eagerly urged her to talk more.

“Vet’s on his way,” Jill said, and pivoted toward her cousin. “I think we should cancel tonight’s reservations and cut short the other driver’s shift, bring Dancer home, too, until we figure out what’s caused this.”

“Okay, I’ll go do that now and take a look around. See what Princess might have ingested.”

Max pulled out his wallet and handed Beth a couple of twenties. “Could you pick up the pizza I ordered from the pizzeria while you’re in town? The kids will be getting hungry soon.”

“Sure,” she said, accepting the money. “No problem.” Her cell phone buzzed. “It’s the other driver.” Her face paled as she listened to what he had to say and a hard knot formed in Max’s gut.

Up until now he’d been convinced that she was somehow behind the bad stuff that had been happening to Jill. That she didn’t really care as much as she claimed about keeping the farm and business in the family, so much as getting the most money out of the deal as she could. But this…poisoning their horse. He couldn’t imagine anyone with an ounce of humanity stooping that low.

“What is it?” Jill exclaimed the instant her cousin clicked off the phone.

“Jim found an empty bottle of herbicide in the garbage pail near the horse stand, and from the film in the water bucket, it looks like someone dumped its contents into the horse’s water.”

Jill gasped. “We need to call the police.”

“Jim already has. He’s hoping they’ll be able to get fingerprints off the bottle. I’ll head out there now and answer any questions they have and—” she lifted the money in her hand “—grab that pizza.” 

Max’s mind was already racing, trying to recall what they’d done for the poisoned horse during his training. They’d saved him, that much he remembered. And for Sarah and Jillian’s sake, he prayed he could do it again. “We’ll need to give her a saline intravenous, and intramuscular injections of…”

“Pheneramine maleate,” a man said from the door. He extended his hand to Max. “Dr. Kent Fry. I take it this is our patient.”

Max gave him the rundown of Princess’s symptoms and suggested they also give her liver tonics and anti-bloat. The doctor agreed and they immediately set to work.

Jillian trembled as she held the horse’s halter for them, whispering words of encouragement.

Max squeezed her shoulders. “We caught it early. She has a good chance.”

Jillian swallowed loudly and nodded, clearly unable to voice her thoughts.

Dr. Fry pulled out a notepad. “Looks like Princess is in good hands here, Jillian. I’ll leave another bag of saline, one more dose of each injection and the anti-bloat pills, and Max should be able to handle tending her from here.” He pressed a bottle into Max’s hand. “Repeat those every four hours.”

“Will do. Thanks, Kent.”

“No, thank you. You did great. I only wish I had another large-animal vet so capable that I could call on all the time.”

Max fished a business card from his wallet and circled his cell phone number. “I’d be happy to help.”

Jillian let out a weary sigh as the vet left. “You don’t need to stay, Max. I can handle the injections. The children will be getting restless.”

“Sorry, I’m not the kind of guy who bails on a sick animal or a friend.” Never mind his fear that whoever did this to her horse could come after her next. He took out his thermometer to recheck the horse’s temperature. “The kids will understand.”

“Thank you.” She cupped her hand over her mouth, muffling a sob. “Who would do this?”

“I don’t know, but you can be sure that the police will find him. Several shops on Main Street have security cameras. One of them is bound to have caught this guy in action.”

“Maybe I should just sell like Beth wants. Between the broken carriage axle and the slashed tire and now Kent’s vet bill, my budget is sunk. The bank will take one look at my books and there’ll be no way it will loan me any amount close to what I’d need to buy Beth out. And her husband needs to know by next Friday if he can accept the position.” Jillian rested her head against the horse’s neck. “I feel so selfish clinging to the family business when it would keep them from heading up the orphanage in Africa.”

“It’s not selfish. Family is important. Even your cousin is reluctant to let the carriage business go out of the family.” If her pressure on Jill to buy her share could be believed.

Jill made an odd face. “Yeah, she wants me to keep it going for the next generation.”

“Have you thought of severing the property so she can sell her house and continue to be a silent partner in the company, earning a percentage of the profits?”

“The town refuses to let us sever. When our fathers got permission to build a second house on the property, it was on condition that the company, which has legal title, would never be allowed to sever.” She shifted so he could listen to Princess’s lungs again. “Since Beth and I took over the ‘company’, the agreement is binding on us, too. Ironically, if we sell to this B&B guy, he’d probably be able to split the property.”

Pleased with how much easier the mare’s breathing sounded, Max hooked his stethoscope around his neck and faced Jillian. “Well, maybe that’s an option you should consider. Ask if he’d be willing to sell you back your half of the property after arranging a severance.”

Jillian shook her head. “That definitely wouldn’t suit his plans.”

Max tucked the hair that had slipped from her ponytail behind her ear, trailing his fingertips through the silky strands. He rested his palm against her neck, tracing her jaw with his thumb. “Don’t give up. God has a plan. Keep praying.”

Her expression shuttered as if she’d given up hope that it would make a difference, then Princess nuzzled Jill’s back and her laughter filled the stall. “I guess you’re feeling better, hey, girl?”

Princess nudged Jill again, this time straight into Max’s arms. And the joy in her eyes so filled his heart that before he had time to think he dipped his head and pressed a kiss to her lips.

She stilled, her eyes as large as Princess’s. Eyes he could have happily swam in for hours. Unfortunately, the kids must’ve heard her laughter, because the next thing he knew, they were surrounded by gleeful children. Sarah’s sweet voice rang out above them all. He and Jillian shared a joyous smile over the children’s heads at Princess’s recovery and Sarah’s, but Lord help him, all he could think about was how much he wanted to kiss Jill again.

*

Beth returned with the pizza and Dancer and good news, she said, although Jill would never have guessed from her cousin’s crestfallen expression. Not even learning that Princess had already taken a turn for the better coaxed more than a momentary smile. Just like Max had predicted, she told them that the police caught their poisoner on security footage, but before going into detail, she busied herself settling Dancer back into his stall.

Jill followed her. “Were they able to ID the guy?”

Beth whirled around, tears streaking her face. “I’m so sorry, Jill. It’s all my fault. I had no idea he’d stoop to sabotaging the business, threatening you, poisoning our horses to coerce you into selling.”

Jillian froze, her breath stalled in her throat. Beth talked as if she knew the guy. As if…she’d asked him to convince her to sell.

Max’s warm hands cupped her shoulders, melting a little of the ice jamming her veins. “What do you mean your fault?”

Jillian had never heard his voice so stern.

Beth glanced at the children who’d followed Max, swiped her face dry. “It was the B&B guy. I never should’ve entertained his offer before talking to you. I told him I’d have to ask you first. That if you weren’t able to buy me out, he’d probably have a deal. I can only assume that he took it upon himself to ensure you’d have no choice.”

Jillian pulled Beth into a hug. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t know that he’d be that ruthless. You saw an opportunity to fulfill yours and Jim’s dream for ministry. I don’t blame you for being eager to accept his offer.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about it now. I wouldn’t sell to that creep if he offered me ten times what he originally offered.” She let out a weary sigh. “It looks like we’ll be sticking around after all. You guys go in and enjoy your dinner. I’ll keep watch over Princess. Jim won’t be home for another couple of hours. It’ll give me plenty of time to figure out how to break the news to him.”

Jillian’s heart twisted. “Beth, if there’s any other way we can work this out…I’m willing to try. You need to know that. I don’t want to be the one who stands in the way of you and Jim going.”

“Thanks, Jillian, but I don’t feel right putting it up for sale now. Not after all we’ve put you through. I was being selfish trying to force you into buying me out when I knew you couldn’t.”

Jillian hugged her tighter. “Everything will work out the way God wants it to. You’ll see.” Max squeezed her shoulder, no doubt thinking he’d said the same thing to her earlier. Somehow it was easier to believe it with the threat of losing the farm and business suddenly no longer overshadowing her. 

Once settled in the kitchen, Jillian shoved aside thoughts of her cousin and looked around the table at Max’s kids enthusiastically wolfing down pizza. Until Princess got sick, Jill couldn’t remember when she’d enjoyed a day more. She’d loved every second of giving the kids rides and working with them in the barn, and she couldn’t deny that her heart had done more than a few twirls every time she glanced Max’s way and found him watching her, smiling.

Like now.

Her mind flashed to the all-too-brief kiss he’d pressed to her lips and she couldn’t help but grin back.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked, a mischievous glint in his eye.

She tugged her bottom lip between her teeth, not about to admit. “I was thinking…that if you bribe me with pizza, I might let you bring the children riding every Saturday.” 

“Can we Uncle Max?” they hollered, turning pleading eyes his way.

Oops. She hadn’t meant to put him on the spot. Although…he didn’t look the least bit annoyed. More like, downright eager to oblige.

“Can we?” the kids repeated.

Max’s smoldering gaze never left her face as he said, “Saturday can’t come soon enough for me.” His mouth quirked sideways. “In fact, I should stop by every day to check on my patients,” he said, with an emphasis on the s.

Her heart hopscotched through her chest.

Oh, no. What was she doing? She rose and cleared the plates, put on coffee. “Do you want—?” She turned to ask Max if he wanted coffee and plowed into his chest as he set a couple of glasses on the counter.

He clasped her arms. “Yes.”

“Yes?” She tipped back her head, which brought her mouth within inches of his. “Oh,” she gasped as his gaze drifted to her lips.

“Yes, he wants coffee,” Max’s eldest niece piped up, although Jill was pretty sure Max muttered that that wasn’t all he wanted.

He dipped his head and whispered close to her ear. “Know any good babysitters?”

She drew back, and hurriedly tried to smother her rampant emotions. “I, um, don’t mind babysitting the kids if—” She should have realized that’s all he saw in her. A bachelor suddenly caring for four children fulltime would be desperate for a break. Thank goodness he didn’t know she couldn’t have kids or he would’ve pegged her as an even easier mark.

Not that she minded babysitting for him. It was the least she could do after all he’d done to save Princess.

He held her fast, amusement bubbling in his gaze. “Not what I had in mind?” 

Her cheeks warmed. “Oh.” He wanted to spend time with her? Without the children? Her heart twirled into dizzying pirouettes. Tara’s declaration echoed in her mind—you can have them. Dare she take the risk?

Max turned to the kids. “Why don’t you guys try out that crokinole board I saw in the family room, while I help Jill wash these dishes?”

The children ran off, and Max fixed his gaze on her, his head tilting. “What’s wrong?”

“Um…” She squirted dish soap into the sink, loaded in the dishes. What was she supposed to say? He’d asked her on a date, not to get married. He’d think she was being way too presumptuous to admit she couldn’t have kids. Or had watched How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days way too many times.

She gritted her teeth. She didn’t care. She needed to tell him before she let herself care for him and his children any more than she already did. Drawing in a deep breath, she said, “Before we go on a date, there’s something you should know about me.”

He trailed his fingers through her hair. “Please don’t tell me you’re seeing someone.” Pain shadowed his gaze.

“No, nothing like that.”

“Then I think I’m going to enjoy the chance to get to know you better. You are caring and kind-hearted, gutsy and brave, the most beautiful woman I have ever met, inside and out.”

“I can’t have children,” she blurted, tears springing to her eyes.

His head jerked back a fraction.

She pictured the thoughts flicking through his mind and waited for him to say something. Anything. He’d let her down easy, she was certain, because he was that kind of guy, but she couldn’t help tensing when he cupped her face.

His gaze gently caressed her. “I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how hard that must be for you. You have so much love to give.”

Unable to bear the compassion in his gaze, she squeezed her eyes shut, felt a hot tear spill down her cheek.

He folded her in his arms, remembering what she’d told the kids about God picking us up when we’re hurting, giving us the courage to go on. “It doesn’t change how I feel about you, Jill. I want to spend time with you. I have never felt this way about anyone.”

She shook her head against his chest. “It will only make it harder later. One day you’re going to want a child of your own and…”

He drew back just enough to see her face, his heart breaking at the anguish in her eyes. “I have four beautiful children. Another child is not the yearning God has put in my heart. You are.” He whisked a tear from her cheek with his thumb. “Please don’t shut me out, Jill.”

“What’s wrong?” Johnny said from the kitchen doorway, sounding really concerned.

Jill stepped out of his grasp, swiped at her damp cheeks with her sleeve.

“Jill has a booboo. I was comforting her,” Max explained, as Jill struggled to compose herself.

“Like God does,” he said.

“That’s right.” Max met Jill’s gaze, a smile tugging at his lips at the reminder of Jill’s own words. “To give her courage.”

Seemingly satisfied that all was well, Johnny scampered off.

Max nudged Jill’s chin. “What do you say Miss Climb-right-back-on-the-horse-when-you-fall-off? Feeling courageous?”

Her lips quivered into a smile that unleashed an explosion of fireworks in his chest. She tilted her head, her gaze gleaming mischievously. “I’m not sure. It occurs to me that I really don’t know much about you. I only just found out what you do for a living. What other secrets are you planning to spring on me? That you’re a…a…bank robber or something?”

He folded her in his arms and smothered her objection with a kiss. A thorough, melt-his-heart kiss. He smiled against her lips. “Or something.” 

*

 The next Wednesday evening Max came over to check on Princess while his kids were at kids’ club. Watching him scratch Princess’s mane as he listened to the horse’s breathing, Jillian couldn’t help but think about how much his touch soothed her, too. He’d come over every day to check on his “patients” just like he’d promised. Even gave her a bone-melting back massage when she mentioned that her shoulder was still sore from her fall.   

Some days he dropped by while the kids were at school. Other days he brought them along. Jillian’s heart soared every time she heard Little Sarah tell Bella about her day and soberly assured Princess that her daddy would take could care of her. But it scarcely compared to how she felt when her gaze met Max’s.

She’d never felt anything like this before…as if they were connected by an invisible thread.

Max tugged the stethoscope from his ears and turning his head, he gave her one of those dizzying smiles as if he’d been thinking the same. Facing her, he slung his arms loosely around her waist and brushed a soft kiss across her lips. “Miss me?”

The husky timbre of his voice vibrated through her, emboldening her. She circled her arms around his neck and tugged his mouth back to hers. He surrendered willingly, wrapping her arms around her and deepening the kiss. He tasted of peppermint candy canes and sweet celebrations.

“Huh, hmm,” Beth, standing just outside Princess’s stall, cleared her throat. 

Jill jerked back, but the unyielding circle of Max’s arms kept her from getting too far away. He scowled at her cousin. “You’re timing needs work.”

Beth giggled. “Hey, you should be thanking me. I’m the one that put the mistletoe above the stall.”

Jill and Max glanced at the rafters. “We hadn’t noticed,” he said, tugging her against his side.

Beth rubbed her hands together. “Well, never mind that. I have fantastic news, Jillian. We’ve received an offer we can’t refuse.”

Jillian’s heart slammed into her ribs. “What?” The blood drained from her face at Beth’s elated expression, and her next words left her cold.

“You said you’d help me if I found another way. You said you didn’t want to be the one who kept us from going to Africa.”

“Yeah, but–” she looked helplessly at Max.

His expression was compassionate. “I think you should hear her out.”

Everything in her resisted as Beth eagerly explained about how this buyer had heard about their dilemma and presented an offer they couldn’t possibly refuse.

“Who? What is it?” Jillian pressed. Beth was talking in such giddy circles that she wasn’t really saying anything at all.

“He wants us to meet him at his place. He told us to come in the carriage. I’ve got one hooked up and ready.”

“Here? Now?” Jillian felt lightheaded. This couldn’t be happening. “I have a date with Max.”

Beth waved off the objection as if it wasn’t the rest of Jillian’s life she was scoffing off so casually. “He can come to. You want to come, Max?”

“Absolutely.” He gave Jillian a jostling side hug. “I’ve been looking forward to sharing a carriage ride with you. Beth can drive.”

“Fun?” she hissed under her breath as he steered her outside. “She’s talking about selling the farm. My business!”

His warm hand swallowed hers as he helped her onto the back of their fanciest carriage, decorated with Christmas garland and a warm fleece blanket on the seat. “Hear her out. You can always say ‘no’ if you don’t like the offer.”

Beth glanced over her shoulder from her seat at the front of the carriage. “All set?”

“Home, James,” Max said in a goofy British accent that she knew was an attempt to coax her out of her suddenly sour mood, but… didn’t he understand what this would mean?

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and bundled her against him. “It’s going to be okay. You’ll see,” his breath whispered over her cheek.

Beth turned the carriage further out into the country rather than toward town. The trees along the quiet rural road were decorated in hundreds of tealights.

“Oh, wow!” For a moment she forgot her concerns, awed by the breathtaking view and warm comfort of Max’s arm secured around her like he’d never let her go. “I wonder who did all this. It’s beautiful.”

Max pressed a kiss to her hair. “Not half as beautiful as you.”

“We’re almost there,” Beth called from the front of the carriage, sending Jillian’s heart tumbling all over again. They left the lit trees behind and the darkness closed in on them. “The guy who made the offer,” she went on, “doesn’t want you to have to give up your business or move out of your house. He says that my house would suit his needs and maybe a couple of stalls in the barn.”

Hope rose in Jill’s chest. “Really?”

“Yeah, there’s just one condition. He doesn’t want you to feel pressured, but he’s really hoping you’ll feel the same way as he does about his proposal.”

“O-kay,” Jill said, suddenly uneasy about this too-good-to-be-true offer. “What’s he proposing?”

Beth pulled the carriage to a stop along the edge of the dark country road.

Max clasped her by the shoulders and turned her toward the hillside, her back resting against his chest. “Look up there,” he whispered in her ear.

The hill was filled with dozens of glowing candle bags.

She gasped as she took in the sight, gasped again as she realized they spelled a question–Will you marry us? Max’s children stood with Jillian’s parents beside the question mark, waving down at them.

“See.” Beth chuckled. “No pressure, but I thought it might be an offer you couldn’t refuse.” 

Max’s heart jackhammered his ribs as Jillian gazed at the hillside, mute, tears running down her cheeks. Suddenly not so certain he should have sprung the question on her this way, he dropped to one knee in the carriage and folded her hand in his. “I know we’ve only known each other a few weeks. But Jillian, I love you more than I would have ever believed it possible to love another person. I can’t imagine my life without you. I know taking on a man with four children is a lot to ask, but—”

She lunged into his arms. “Yes!”

He cradled her face, brushing her hair from her eyes. “Yes, you’ll marry me? The children? Let me run a vet practice out of Beth’s house?”

Happiness glistened in her eyes. “Yes, Max. I love you so much. Nothing would make me happier.”

“She said ‘yes’!” Beth whooped, and the children scrambled down the hill shouting “yeahs” as Max sealed his proposal with a tender kiss. Breaking the kiss with a satisfied sigh, he trailed his fingertips over her cheeks as he gazed into her eyes. “You have made me the happiest man in the world. The Lord couldn’t have given me a more precious Christmas gift.”

As the children, clambered onto the carriage to join the celebration, Jillian couldn’t have agreed more.

 

I hope you enjoyed Jillian and Max’s story. If you’d like to share it with a friend, please invite them to subscribe to my newsletter at: http://bit.ly/OrchardNews

Jillian’s friend Tara is the heroine of my October, 2012 release Critical Condition. Click here to learn more about her story: http://sandraorchard.com/books/critical-condition/

You can view all my books here: http://sandraorchard.com/my-books/

Did you miss the 2011 Christmas Story for newsletter subscribers? Read it here

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