The Rancher's Christmas Baby
"I had no idea it was this bad." Amy Carrigan reached over and took the hand of her best friend, Teddy McCabe, the day after Thanksgiving.
He squeezed her hand reassuringly. "Same here." Being careful to keep to the other side of the yellow tape surrounding the century-old community chapel in downtown Laramie, Texas, Teddy let go of her hand and walked around, surveying what remained of the previously beautiful church.
The once towering live oak tree that had been struck by lightning at the advent of the previous night's thunderstorm had a jagged black streak down what remained of the trunk. the rest of the tree had taken out the bell tower and fallen through the center of the church roof.
By the time the fire department had arrived, the white stone chapel was engulfed in flames. nearly half the wooden pews had been destroyed. And though the exquisite stained-glass windows were amazingly still intact, the walls were covered with black soot, the velvet carpeting at the altar beyond repair.
Fortunately, no one had been hurt, and plans were already being made to restore the town-owned landmark.
"Do you think they're really going to be able to get this restored in three weeks' time?" Amy asked.
"Given the number of volunteers that have already signed up to help with the cleanup, yes," Teddy replied.
"Trevor and Rebecca were supposed to have the twins' christening here on the twenty-third."
"We'll get it done," Teddy promised.
Amy hoped so. Although there were numerous other churches in the area, the community chapel was where everyone got married and had their children christened. It was small and intimate and imbued with tradition and hope.
Amy had dreamed of being married here.
Teddy studied her. "Everything okay?"
"What do you mean?"
"You've seemed blue. You hardly cracked a smile during the Thanksgiving festivities yesterday."
Amy had been hoping no one would notice.
She walked around to survey the damaged landscaping around the chapel. "I had a headache."
Teddy ambled along behind her. He had a good nine inches on her. And though they both owned ranches and worked outdoors--she growing plants, Teddy breeding horses--one might have a hard time discerning how physically fit she was because she was so delicately boned and slender.
However, it came as no surprise to anyone that Teddy had ranching in his blood. After all, he had the broad shoulders and strong, rugged build of the McCabe men. Being around him like this always made her feel impossibly feminine...and protected.
"Headache or heartache?" Teddy probed.
Amy returned wryly, "Thank you, Dr. Phil. But I don't need your psychoanalysis."
"That, my friend, is debatable." Teddy placed both hands on her shoulders and turned her so she had no choice but to look at him. "Come on, Amy." His grip tightened ever so slightly, the warmth of his palms transmitting through the fleece vest she wore. "Tell me what's going on."
Her skin tingling from the unexpected contact, Amy knelt to examine a fire-singed Buford holly bush. "It's nothing."
Teddy gazed at her compassionately. "Is it the birthday you have coming up in January?"
Amy glared at Teddy and stepped away. "Way to cheer me up, cowboy."
He exhaled. "Thirty-two is not old." He could say that because he was almost thirty-five.
Amy headed toward the parking lot located behind the chapel, where her pickup truck was parked. "it's not young, either."
"You have a lot to feel good about. A family who loves you and a lot of friends. Not to mention the best plant-and-tree nursery in the area."
Amy did feel proud. Over the last ten years, she had grown her business from a rented greenhouse to a prosperous concern.
"True you don't have a house yet..." Teddy conceded with a frown.
Not like the one he had on his Silverado Ranch, anyway. "Now you're dissing where I live?"
The lines on either side of Teddy's mouth deepened. With the familiarity of someone who had been her friend since elementary school, he said, "You don't have to live in a tiny little trailer.""
Amy shrugged off his concern. "It suits me just fine right now. Besides, I want to pour all my money into expanding."
Laurel Valley Ranch currently comprised fifty acres and ten greenhouses. She grew everything from Christmas trees to perennials and starter plants, and even had a husband-and-wife team working for her full time now.
"Then if it's not that...is it the time of year that's getting you down? The holidays..."
Not surprised that Teddy had seen through her defenses, Amy blurted out, "Can you really blame me?" Tears blurred her eyes. "Everywhere I look, everywhere I go, I'm reminded that Christmas is for kids--and I don't have any! And at the rate I'm going I might never have any!"
To her surprise, Teddy looked as if he were feeling the same. "Then maybe," he said slowly, "it's time you and I both revisited the promise we made to each other."
Amy backed up until her spine touched the back of her pickup. "I was twelve and you were fifteen!"
Teddy propped a shoulder against the door, blocking her way into the driver side. "It doesn't mean it wasn't a good idea."
Amy stared at him, wishing she could say she was shocked by what he was proposing. The same crazy, irrational thought had been in the back of her mind for months now. She'd just been too romantic at heart to bring it up.
She took a deep breath and repeated the vow they had made. "You want us to marry and have babies together--as friends? Not two people who are wildly in love with each other."
Teddy exuded McCabe determination. "We said then if we didn't find anyone else to start a family with by the time we were thirty, that's what we would do. And let's face it," he continued ruefully, "we passed that mark a while ago."
Amy's heartbeat kicked up a notch and she put her hands on the metal door panel on either side of her, steadying herself.
"It's not like we haven't been looking for a mate or been engaged," Teddy argued. "We have. It didn't work out for either of us."
Teddy's march to the altar had been abruptly cut short two years ago. Amy hadn't fared any better herself; her engagement had ended in a firestorm of embarrassment and humiliation, five years prior.
Teddy took both her hands in his and looked down at her with gentle expression. "I'm tired of waiting, Amy. Tired of wishing for that special someone to show up and change my life. Especially now that Rebecca and Trevor have had twins. And Susie and Tyler are expecting their first child."
Amy tightened her fingers in his. "It seems everyone we know is getting married, settling down." Her two older sisters, his two triplet-brothers...their friends and former schoolmates...
He held her gaze deliberately, his hazel eyes reflecting the disappointment he felt about the turn his life had taken. "Except us."
Silence fell between them as a church bell began to ring in the distance.
The Christmas spirit that had been absent in her soul took root again.
"So what do you say?" Teddy took Amy's chin in his hand and a coaxing smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "How about we make this a Christmas we will always remember?"
Also available in this Anthology Reissue