The holiday season was Shannon Hayes favorite time of the year, and had been since her fairytale wedding to David six years before. From the moment he brought her home to meet his family, they’d welcomed her into their fold with open arms. Showing her what being part of a real family was all about and erasing years of loneliness for a young girl who’d grown up in an orphanage. But this year would be different. It would be her first Thanksgiving without David, the first Christmas and the first New Years. Shannon knew she would be facing many firsts without David.
Because David had been killed in Iraq.
Shannon picked up the antique gold picture frame that held their wedding picture. Not the traditional pose of a newly married couple standing hand in hand beneath a rose covered trellis, but of one showing a couple playfully feeding each other their first piece of wedding cake. Every time she looked at the picture, a smile spread across her face. Recalling how David had kissed her afterwards, licking the sweet frosting off her lips until they’d collapsed against each other with joyful laughter. Now it made her heart ache with the knowledge of what had been, and what was lost. She carefully set the frame down on the bookshelf and released a small sigh of sadness. God how she missed him.
How was she going to get through the next month and a half without him?
The answer came to Shannon the moment she glanced down at their two-year-old daughter. Alivia had fallen asleep curled up on the sofa, hugging her baby blanket and favorite stuffed teddy bear. Shannon reached down to fluff the soft curls resting against her little forehead, her heart swelling with love to near bursting. She didn’t think it was possible to love someone so much. She thanked God every day for giving her a piece of David.
At least he’d been able to meet his daughter once before his death. Shannon didn’t know how she would have been able to face a future if he hadn’t had that one small gift. Alivia would only know her father through her and his family and Shannon was going to see to it that she did. She thanked God that David’s family was loving and nurturing people.
The phone began to ring and Shannon reached for it quickly, keeping an eye on Alivia, praying the noise didn’t disturb her. “Hello?” she said softly into the receiver, turning her back on the sleeping toddler.
“Hi dear, what are you up to?” A familiar voice asked in a clear-cut voice, causing Shannon’s mouth to curve upward into a welcoming grin.
Marsha was David’s mother. “Hi Mom, I’m okay. What about you?”
She released a heavy sigh. “Thinking it’s time to start making plans for the holidays. How’s that little granddaughter of mine? Still teething?”
“Among other things,” Shannon admitted without hesitation. “She’s trouble with a capital T.”
She made a sound of disbelief. “Oh come on, dear. How much trouble can one little girl get into?”
Shannon could hear the smile in her voice. “You tell me, you’ve had a few of your own.”
Five to be exact. David had been the youngest at twenty-five when he was killed. Next in line came thirty-year-old Sheila, thirty-one-year-old Richard, thirty-three-year-old Ryan and thirty-four-year-old Amber. Since all of them except David were only a year apart Shannon suspected that David might have been a surprise. All but Ryan had spouses and children of their own.
Shannon had only met Ryan twice. Once when he’d come home for his father’s funeral and then again for David’s. He didn’t come home on holidays, didn’t join in on the family reunions or vacations. He’d chosen a life in the Marines, much to Marsha’s dismay. It had taken her ten years to finally accept that she couldn’t change him.
“You know why I’m calling.”
A knowing chuckle escaped Shannon. As Marsha had already said, it was that time of year, when family made plans to get together for the holidays. Marsha had a huge farmhouse in the back woods of Vermont where she’d raised her children. Big enough to accommodate the ever-growing family, which thanks to Alivia, now included ten grandchildren. Two more were on the way.
“I hope you can get away, dear,” she breathed into the receiver when Shannon remained silent. “Thanksgiving and Christmas wouldn’t be the same without you and Alivia. Everyone is expecting to see you.”
“I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be during the holidays, Mom. You know I want Alivia to grow up knowing her aunts, uncles and cousins. To tell you the truth, I’ve been anxiously waiting for your call.”
It was the truth. Shannon loved being around David’s siblings and their families. The walls of her townhouse, where she lived and worked, were beginning to close in around her.
“I wasn’t sure...” Marsha hesitated. “I wasn’t sure you’d feel like celebrating much this year.”
Neither one mentioned what was really on their mind. “I have a rambunctious two-year-old preventing me from getting any work done, Mom, and a publisher yanking her hair out because I’m behind. We’ve been cooped up in this house too long. Time away will do us good.”
“I’m so glad to hear you say that. I’ve called everyone else but was afraid to phone you because I didn’t want to hear you say no. If you’d like I can arrange for you to have the guesthouse in the back.”
“Oh no you don’t! It’s always been a rule whoever has the most kids gets use of the guesthouse. Amber and her bunch would have my head on a platter.” Shannon laughed, before remembering about Alivia. “You want that on your conscience?” she whispered into the phone.
Marsha returned her laughter. “I think Amber had Laura just so she could have the guesthouse every year. I don’t know what we’ll do once Sandi gives birth, they’ll each have four. I guess we’ll have to draw straws.”
Alivia began to stir. Shannon reached down and rubbed her back, hoping that would comfort her into remaining asleep. “Either that or you could have Richard and Tom duke it out,” she joked.
“That’s not funny, dear. Can you see it? Two ministers fighting over who gets the guesthouse?” Marsha chuckled. “We’d have a better chance of seeing some action between Sandi and Amber. Now tell me, when can you get here?”
Thanksgiving was two weeks away. Shannon knew Marsha liked a full house from that holiday until the New Year rolled in. Most years she got what she wanted. She was lucky enough to have successful children who could arrange their time any way they wanted, even if their spouses couldn’t always. Amber owned an antique business in New York. Richard was a minister in Maine, and Sheila didn’t work. She’d married a doctor in California.
“When is everyone else arriving?” Shannon questioned, covering a yawn behind her hand. It wasn’t all that late but she’d gotten up early that morning to get some work done before Alivia rose.
“Sheila and the kids are flying in a few days before Thanksgiving to help me with all the cooking and baking that I need to do. And you know Mark. He’ll fly in for Thanksgiving, fly back to California for a month and then fly in for Christmas. Amber, Richard and their brood won’t arrive until the night before and stay until the New Year.”
“Ryan’s not going to make it again this year?”
“Oh, you know Ryan.” There was a clear tone of sadness in Marsha’s voice. “He just can’t seem to get away for the holidays. He used to make an effort, if only for a few days, but all that seemed to stop about five years ago.”
About the time his father had passed away. Roger Hayes had succumbed to cancer shortly after Shannon and David’s wedding. She’d never forget the first time she saw Ryan. He’d just flown in for the funeral, the flight delayed because of bad weather, and had arrived at the cemetery just as they were laying Roger in the ground. As they were all standing around the gravesite she remembered hearing the squeal of tires and glancing up to see a jeep pulling to the side of the road. Then a mountain of a man, dressed in the full uniform of a Marine, jumped from the vehicle and made his way toward them.
His gaze seemed to zero right in on Shannon as he joined the family. She remembered feeling trapped for a moment, unable to look away from the piercing directness of his electric blue eyes until a small movement from David reminded her where they were. After that, she rarely saw Ryan during the two days he was home.
Their second encounter had been even briefer. Ryan had come home for David’s funeral. But other than his initial greeting and condolences he’d remained in the background. Shannon had been in a daze during the days surrounding David’s death, nothing had seemed to matter. “Shannon?”
She blinked, pulled back to the present. “I’m sorry, Mom. I guess I wandered off. Have you called Ryan?”
“No. I stopped calling him years ago. It hurts too much, always getting the same response. He knows we all gather for the holidays. Maybe one year he’ll surprise us, huh? So, when can you get here?”
It sounded as though Marsha wanted her there yesterday. Shannon smiled. “I’ll fly in on the Tuesday before and help you and Sheila with the cooking and decorating.”
Spending a month or so with Marsha and the rest of the family would be a welcome break from the normal mundane life she lived. Shannon realized she would need to make some changes, and soon. It wasn’t fair to Alivia living in seclusion, like a hermit.
The beginning of the New Year, things were going to be different...
Shannon felt bone tired and grubby by the time she flew into the Mount Snow Airport, two days before Thanksgiving. The small airport was busy, probably more so than usual, and the plane was jam packed without a spare seat anywhere. It seemed everyone on the face of the earth had the same brainy idea she had...trying to reach their holiday destinations in time. Shannon should have remembered the years before when she and David had left earlier to avoid the hassle.
Traveling with a toddler, one who’d clearly reached the terrible two stage was no picnic either. By the time Shannon stepped off the plane, she had a huge grape stain on her white blouse, which she knew wouldn’t come out in a hundred years. She couldn’t blame the stewardess, who had only been trying to help when Alivia had turned her nose up to everything Shannon had brought on board. Clearly, the stewardess didn’t have children if she thought handing a two year old an open cup of juice was the smartest thing to do. Alivia’s little chubby hands had reached for it before Shannon had a chance to blink, much less speak.
On top of the juice stain, Shannon had dried drool on her left shoulder where Alivia had fallen asleep, and now smelled sour from the milk and oatmeal she’d consumed for breakfast. Her red hair, which she’d pulled up in a haphazard bun, was hanging about her face and neck like she’d just finished ten hours of strenuous housework. Every time Alivia got anywhere near it she'd bury her little fingers into the bun, pulling more and more hair loose. Shannon sighed, smiling in spite of everything.
It’s not like she was trying to win a beauty pageant.
She thanked God Sheila had arrived on time to pick them up. The long drive to the farmhouse had been done with them catching up on what they’d been doing most of the year, while Sheila’s kids, Dawn and Kelly, had kept Alivia amused in the back seat. Every once in a while Shannon glanced back to make sure her daughter hadn’t worked her way out of the car seat. She hated being confined. Apparently, the attention of her cousins had kept her from getting bored.
Now, some four hours later, Shannon glanced down at Alivia, and released a deep sigh of tiredness after the long day. Her daughter had eaten, been bathed, powdered down, read a story and was fast asleep in the playpen next to her bed. Hopefully until the next morning. Shannon glanced at the clock, almost nine. Her time now, to eat, bathe, powder down and replace the story for a glass of wine and a little peace and quiet. Marsha left a dinner plate in the oven for her when she was ready for it.
On her way to the door, she caught a glance of herself in the huge mirror over the antique mahogany dresser. Lord, she looked a wreck! Her green eyes looked dull with exhaustion, her mascara smeared beneath them. Her full lips were void of lipstick, and she knew the blush in her cheeks was natural because Alivia’s hands had smoothed away her makeup long ago when they’d been playing. She was still wearing her stained and wrinkled traveling clothes, only now her white blouse was missing two buttons where Alivia had tugged on it.
She glanced at her daughter once more before opening the bedroom door to head for the kitchen downstairs, thankful Marsha had installed a baby monitor in the room. If Alivia woke, they’d be able to hear her. Of course, she’d probably let out a loud squeal when she realized she wasn’t sleeping in her own bed. Leaving the door open, Shannon tiptoed out until she was a safe distance away.
The first thing Shannon noticed as she descended the stairs was how quiet the house seemed, before she remembered Marsha had one of her wicked migraines and had turned in early hoping to fight it off. Sheila would be tied up with her little ones in their rooms, which Shannon knew were at the far back of the house. After the grandchildren started coming along Marsha had sectioned off parts of the huge house into suites so everyone would have the privacy they needed. Adding bathrooms where needed. Shannon was the only one who had a bedroom that shared a connecting bath in the main part of the house, down the hall from Marsha.
Just as she stepped off the bottom step, she heard a noise at the front door. She hesitated, unsure what to do. Who could be visiting at this hour? Just when she expected to hear a knock, she heard something else instead. A key was being inserted into the lock, and right before her startled eyes, she watched the knob turn and the door open. Her gaze landed on a pair of army boots and slowly traveled upward, taking in the muscular body in military fatigues. Her mouth dropped open in shock. Ohmygod!
Ryan had come home!
He appeared just as startled as she was. Halting in the threshold as their eyes meet, his rugged expression carved in granite. Only his eyes, those piercing blue orbs, showed any sign of life, if you could call it that. Shannon had a feeling that Ryan Hayes didn’t reveal any emotions that weren’t hardened by years of combat. For a moment, she thought he wasn’t going to speak and half expected him to back out and leave.
“Do you mind if I come in?” His deep voice was just as Shannon remembered. “It’s damn cold out here.”
For the first time she realized she was blocking his way. Swallowing, she stepped back enough for him to enter and close the door behind him. He dropped a large army bag on the floor by his feet, and shook off the snow onto the floor mat. All the while keeping his eyes trained on Shannon, as though she were the enemy. She took a nervous step further into the foyer, directly into the soft glow of the lamp that had been left on in the living room.
Ryan looked just like he did the last time she saw him. Big and tall, cloaked in that attitude of quiet strength he seemed to possess. His black hair cut in military fashion and suited his strong, square boned face. Though sporting a tiny scar over his left eyebrow and another, bigger one halfway down his left cheek he was still a handsome man. He eluded danger in practically every move he made, every glance.
His eyes dropped, running over Shannon rapidly, making her painfully aware of her disheveled state. She refused to reach up and smooth her hair back, knowing that it would do no good. The tiniest quirk on his full, sensuous mouth revealed he found her condition amusing. Quickly, his lips thinned almost menacingly when his gaze narrowed on her breasts. It was then that Shannon reached up and pulled her ruined blouse together where the buttons had come off.
She finally found her voice. “Welcome home, Ryan.”
“Where is everyone?” His tone seemed hard, gruff, more commanding than inquiring. He slipped off his jacket and hung it on a peg on the back of the door, and then bent to slip off his boots.
“Mom went to bed with a headache. Sheila must be putting the kids to bed. The rest won’t get here until tomorrow night.” Shannon couldn’t help but notice the quick glance he shot her way when she called his mother mom. She watched quietly as he set his boots against the wall and stood, towering over her again.
“It’s just as well. I’m tired as hell and want to turn in early myself. But first, I want to find something to eat. I’m starved.” Closing the distance between them, Ryan halted when he reached Shannon. “Is that okay?”
Shannon felt a telltale heat rush up to her cheeks when she realized she was watching Ryan’s mouth form the words. What the heck was wrong with her? Jet lag, that’s what. She gave her head a little shake. She must be more tired than she thought. As his words became clear, it dawned on her that she was once again blocking his way. “Oh! I’m, ah sorry.” Instead of moving to let him pass, she turned and began to walk in the direction of the kitchen. “I’ll be glad to fix you something to eat.”
“Thanks, but that won’t be necessary.” He was right on her heels.
“That’s okay.” Shannon pushed the kitchen door open and flipped on the light switch on the wall next to it. “Sheila put a plate for me in the oven and if I know her, she left enough for two. I don’t mind sharing.” Not waiting for Ryan to acknowledge her, Shannon took the potholders from the counter by the stove, opened the oven door and retrieved the plate. “Just as I thought.” She turned and showed him the full plate of corn beef hash. But the expression on Ryan’s face almost made her drop it.
Sweat had broken out on his forehead and he’d turned pale, his lips were thin as a muscle twitched in his jaw that had hardened in an effort to hold back that he was in obvious pain. Intense pain. He was clutching the island counter in the middle of the kitchen as if it alone was holding him upright. “Ryan!” Shannon set the plate down and rushed to his side. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
He held a hand up in a silent warning for her to back off. She stopped immediately and waited for another sign from him, afraid he was having some kind of attack. After a few more seconds, he sucked in several deep breaths and released them slowly. It was clear by his expression that he hated showing her even that one small weakness. It was very clear that he didn’t intend talking about it. Shannon knew the moment the pain left his body when his expression relaxed.
“You said something about sharing your dinner?” He pulled out one of the barstools from around the island and sank down onto it.
Shannon hesitated for a moment, fighting the urge to question him. Something was terribly wrong, she just knew it, but she didn’t know Ryan well enough to feel she had the right to ask him anything personal. The look in his cold eyes warned her she’d be shot down before she managed to speak the first word. Forcing a smile she was far from feeling, she turned to get a second plate.
“I’ll thank you not to mention what just occurred to my family,” Ryan surprised her by saying while her back was turned to him.
“If that’s what you want,” Shannon responded, opening a cupboard door.
She glanced with surprise at where the plates were usually stacked. Glasses had replaced them. Marsha had obviously done some rearranging since the last time Shannon had been there. She opened up several other doors before finding the plates, stacked on the second shelf. Standing on tip toe she strained to reach them.
“Here, let me help you.”
“Oh!” Feeling Ryan brush up against her, Shannon spun around before she could think. Suddenly, it wasn’t her backside feeling his hardened muscles. Since he was in the process of reaching over her head for a plate, they were now flush against each other. Her breasts flattened against his hard chest, the lower halves of their bodies were shockingly aligned, and their thighs were touching. Mouths within inches of each other, their breath mingled. It was crazy but Shannon was sure she felt their hearts beating in rhythm. She began to tingle everywhere and held her breath.
Their gazes met and held and Ryan became motionless, his arm still above her head reaching for the plate. It struck Shannon that she was seeing the dangerous side of him, the soldier sizing up the situation and preparing for action. Only in this case, what would that be? She refused to let her mind go there.
When his gaze fell to her mouth she began to tremble, but not from fear. A sliver of excitement shot through her. Then as quick as it happened it was over and he was pulling a plate out and stepping away.
“Thank you,” she whispered, not sure what just happened or what she was feeling. It was insane, finding herself momentarily attracted to Ryan. He was her husband’s brother for crying out loud! A feeling of overwhelming guilt engulfed Shannon and she wondered that it might be best if she skipped dinner and went straight to bed.
“You have nothing to fear from me, Shannon.” Ryan said out of the blue, breaking into her thoughts. She unwillingly met his eyes again, wondering what prompted him to say such a thing. Had he felt something too?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not afraid of you. Why would I be?” Finally able to move, she went to the island and picked up the plate with the corn beef hash on it. Without looking at Ryan, she scooped more than half onto the extra plate before setting it down before him. He surprised her by reaching out and grabbing her wrist before she could move away. Shannon reluctantly raised her gaze to his and that’s when she knew she had to get out of there. She wasn’t afraid of him, she was afraid of herself! “If you’ll excuse me, I better go check on Alivia.”
So many emotions were running through Shannon at that moment. Feelings she hadn’t felt in a while, and didn’t know how to handle. She was confused and frightened. Where had they come from?
Without waiting for his acknowledgement, she turned and fled the kitchen.
© Tory Richards
Author: Tory Richards
Publisher: Liquid Silver Press
Shannon Hayes’ husband David was killed in Iraq nearly a year ago, and now she must face her first holiday season without him. With a toddler in tow, she travels to the Vermont farm where the rest of the family has gathered for the holidays. There she comes face to face with the man who was with him when he died, and her destiny, his older brother Ryan.
For the first time in years, Ryan returns home to keep a promise he made to David—to take care of Shannon and their daughter. It’s a pledge Ryan is reluctant to keep because he’s been secretly in love with Shannon since first setting eyes on her. Their attraction to each other is instant, intense and soon the promise isn’t the only thing between them.