A Dartmoor Christmas
It wasn’t snowing, but it was both cold and humid enough to do so. Fat gray clouds hugged the treetops, crowding down between the branches like spray foam insulation. The breeze kept low, swirling around ankles and sending stray brown leaves scuttling under horses’ hooves, causing snorts and shies all down the barn. By the time Emmie hiked back up the hill to the house, she was more than ready to call it a day.
Lessons today had, in a word, sucked. Fingers went numb and noses ran and the horses were too skittish to ever relax into a proper frame. She was chilled, tired, and dreaming of hot chocolate and her favorite blanket.
The lights made her smile as she approached the house. Walsh and Shane, with her dad overseeing and testing their patience, had hung battery-powered, lighted wreaths on the upper windows, and draped the front porch railings with lighted garland. As the last of the daylight faded, the festive warmth of the lights was a welcome sight.
The front hall of the house – the grand, elegantly-tiled foyer she remembered from her time as an employee here – had been turned into an unofficial mud room, crowded with toed-off boots and jackets and umbrellas. Emmie added her clogs and goose down jacket to the mix and went in search of Violet, a small twist of anxiety making itself known in her belly.
Bea had joined a book club, and had left the farm at four. Which meant that for the past hour, Violet had been left in the care of her Uncle Shane. Emmie liked Shane – he was her brother-in-law, and a sweetheart, so she loved him – but he’d never been alone with the baby before. She couldn’t help but worry a little.
The first thing she noticed, as she walked to the living room, was Bing’s voice. “White Christmas.” And then she spotted the TV, and saw that, yes, White Christmas was indeed playing. The tree was lit up, and there was a fire going. Violet and Shane were on the couch. Shane held the baby up on his shoulder, one hand supporting her bottom, the other the back of her head. Her little face was turned toward Emmie, and she could see that she was sleeping. Shane watched the movie with a soft, sad smile that hit Emmie right in the ribs, a shot of tenderness and sympathy.
“Hey,” she greeted quietly, tiptoeing in and sitting in Walsh’s favorite chair. “How was she?”
“Perfect,” he said, turning his smile Emmie’s way. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed to be caught Christmasing it up all by himself. “She’s only been asleep about ten minutes. I didn’t know if you wanted to put her down for a while, or wake her back up.”
“She can have a few more minutes, but she needs dinner and a bath before she’s down for good.” She glanced down at her clothes, dusty and horse snot-smeared even though she’d been wearing a jacket. “I should probably change before I take her up.”
“Go ahead. I’ve got her. Take your time.”
He looked so…natural holding the baby. And happy, like he enjoyed doing it.
Emmie slid to her feet again. “Thanks, Shane.”
After dinner, Walsh poured himself a vodka and headed for the office.
Emmie followed him.
He looked up curiously when she stepped into the room, and his brows jumped when she eased the door shut behind her. “Is this about to turn into my sex-on-the-desk fantasy?” he asked, totally straight-faced, but humor lacing his voice.
“No, listen. I wanted to talk to you about something.” She settled into the chair across from him and he sighed, clearly bummed about the lack of fantasy-fulfillment. “Shane was really good with Vi today.”
Walsh shrugged. “He’s good with everyone. He’s the most likable person I know.” He paused. “Aside from you, love.”
She rolled her eyes. “I think he’s lonely. I think he wants a wife and kids of his own.”
Walsh stared at her. “He said that to you?”
“No, but men never do. I just got the impression.” When Walsh started to protest, she said, “He’s so sweet, and he’s always been a little melancholy. I think he wants to have a special someone.”
“Let’s say that’s true. What are we supposed to do about it?”
She bit her lip. This was the part that she hadn’t expected of herself. She’d always been the type to let people mind their own business; she wasn’t a busybody. But seeing Shane holding Vi with such care had stirred something in her. Something she wasn’t sure she liked, but wasn’t able to ignore, apparently. “We could set him up with someone.”
Walsh blinked. “Right. Because we both know so many eligible bachelorettes.”
“I have plenty of adult students…”
“Who are high-maintenance and pretentious. Not exactly biker wife material.”
“It was just a suggestion.”
His mouth twitched.
“Don’t tell me it was a stupid one.”
“Okay. I won’t.”
“Ugh.” She scrubbed a hand down her face. “Maybe it’s just the exhaustion talking.”
“No.” His voice softened. “It’s a very sweet thought, love.” He sent her a small smile. “I think Charlie’s been pushing women at poor Shane for a while now.”
“I can only imagine.”
“Yeah. I think it’s Dad,” he said, frowning. “Knowing what a wanker he was – is – it hit all of us in different ways. Fox is a total manwhore. And Shane’s the opposite – I think it’s ‘the one’ or nothing for him. And in my experience,” he continued, “no amount of matchmaking can conjure that kind of relationship.”
“No,” she agreed, sighing. “I know I’d resent the hell out of someone who tried to help me meet anybody.”
“I should hope so: you’re married.”
She snorted. “What a comedian I married.”
He waved a finger at her. “Hey.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She stood and leaned across the desk to kiss him.
“I’ll be up in a bit.”
But the problem of Shane plagued her for hours, when she couldn’t fall asleep. That was the trouble with happiness, she decided: it made you want to help other people find it for themselves. She stared at the shadow of the wreath against the window, the glowing dots of its lights, and turned ideas over in her head long into the night, Walsh’s breath warm against the back of her neck.