Christmas Morning on the Ranch
I was planning on making this an epilogue for After Bridges Burn but my amazing beta group and I decided that the way the book ends currently was the best way to go. I do plan to use a few small bits of this chapter in the beginning of book 2 but I thought you all might enjoy this extra chapter. Merry Christmas!!!
P.S. Forgive the roughness of this chapter. It hit the cutting room floor before going to the editor.
***This chapter contains spoilers. I would suggest not reading this unless you’ve read After Bridges Burn.***
Summer blinked sleepily as she rolled to greet the winter glow of the soft morning light that filtering in through the huge window at the head of her bed. She heard the voices of her siblings drifting up to her, most notably Harrison’s. Summer knew she should go down and join them but that could wait another moment. Summer felt safe and warm as she pulled the blankets up around her shoulders, snuggling deeper into her soft bed. She nearly drifted back off to sleep as the beautiful serenity of the moment hung around her. The blissful almost wakefulness lasted for another second or so before her brain began to pull things into perspective and reality began to once again take shape. Summer’s eyes popped open as one realization struck. She’d been asleep. Not just asleep but deeply asleep, the kind of deep that brought forth the nightmares that she envied Lucy for achieving so easily. And yet, she’d somehow fallen into it without awakening the demons that lived just inside its depths. Rolling onto her back Summer took a few deep breaths forcing her brain to focus. Around five am she’d woken up, unable to sleep well, with so many memories surrounding the holiday and so many demons wanting to draw blood so she’d gone downstairs but instead of finding quiet peace, she’d found Jed. He’d sat on the couch watching her, making her wish she’d stayed put in her bedroom staring into the pitch black. Then he’d started talking and – Summer covered her face with her hands and forced more oxygen into her lungs. Jed had apologized. No, Jed had laid himself bare. He’d explained why he did what he did and then called himself a coward for ever thinking that was a good idea. Summer felt tears run down her temples. Just when she’d thought it was over, when she thought he’d called it quits and left as they both stood on opposite sides of the kitchen crying, he’d come back and wrapped her up in his big arms and held her the way she’d needed him to since the day Chad stripped her of her innocence in the middle of that dark field.
Wiping her hands down the sides of her face, Summer cleared away the tears and stared up at the ceiling for a moment. Could something so simple have driven off her demons? Summer didn’t think so, but then again she did wake up feeling safe for the first time in a very long time. Sitting up, she glanced out the window and felt a slow smile come to her lips. It was snowing. But it wasn’t the run-of-the-mill flurries, the flakes were huge lazy things that drifted like white leaves on a meandering breeze. Christmas didn’t seem quite like Christmas without snow and even though there was plenty of snow outside to go around for a while, there was something magical about snow like that coming down on Christmas morning.
With her feet snuggly cocooned in her slippers and an oversized sweater comfortably slung around her shoulders Summer padded downstairs.
“Finally!” Harrison said even before Summer made it halfway down the staircase. “Now Lucy can quit shushing me.”
“It’s courteous to keep your voice down when someone is trying to sleep.” Lucy chided from the living room before smiling at Summer. “Merry Christmas.”
Summer smiled back and she couldn’t help her gaze flicking over to where Jed sat in his recliner. He’d been the first one to wish her a Merry Christmas today, and she wondered where they stood. She expected him to find the contents of his mug far more fascinating than meeting her eye, but she found him meeting her gaze and holding it. A few seconds later Summer was the one who needed to break away to look back to Lucy.
“Merry Christmas, Lucy.” Obviously Jed took to heart what happened that morning but where exactly did they stand? She wanted to go over to him and talk it out with him the way she’d done with Harrison after their big talk, but that didn’t feel like the right move. The rebuilding had begun but whatever foundation they’d laid was shaky at best.
“So what am I, chopped liver?” Harrison’s question pulled Summer out of her reverie.
“You Merry Christmas only one sibling? Come on.”
Summer snorted a laugh and walked into the kitchen, “maybe I only Merry Christmas the siblings who keep it down while I sleep.” she teased.
“Oh! Hurtful words! And I will have you know I was quiet!”
“No, you weren’t,” Summer, Jed and Lucy all said in unison. Harrison simply pointed a finger at all of them and glared playfully then gulped down some coffee. Summer filled her own cup and gave him a friendly bump with her shoulder.
“Merry Christmas, little brother.” Harrison’s knee jerk snort of derision at her choice of words brought forth a fountain of creamy brown liquid followed by coughing and cursing. Summer stepped over and grabbed a hand towel and tossed to the muttering Harrison.
“It’s not eggnog but I think I still technically win or something.” Summer said throwing a handful of paper towels down on the ground. Harrison shot her a glare as he dramatically wiped at his shirt.
“You little….” but the grin on his face couldn’t be hidden and the warmth of that sight spread through Summer. A few weeks ago she’d thought her twin smiling at her would be a thing of memory, something she’d never experience again, and now here he was, teasing her and smiling at her and being the best friend she loved.
“I’m going to have to go change this.” he huffed tossing the towel onto the counter.
“Hurry up then.” Lucy called, still sitting in the living room, “we’re opening presents soon.” Harrison opened his mouth in mock horror looking quickly from Summer to Lucy then back to Summer. Lucy, wearing a grin of her own made a shooing motion with her hand to get him to get going.
“Seriously. Chopped liver.” He grouched before bounding up the stairs. Summer chuckled as she made her way into the living room and took the open seat on the other end of the couch. She could feel both of them watching her though this time it didn’t unnerve her the way it used to. Now that Lucy knew about the pregnancy and Jed had been honest with her, everything was shifting into a new arrangement she didn’t understand but it didn’t scare or bother her nearly as much as it used to. When she looked up though, neither of them were paying attention to her. She chewed on her mangled thumbnail for a moment, debating whether or not she should say anything or simply leave it at status quo. No, she couldn’t shy away from this. He’d said it, now it was her turn.
“Merry Christmas, Jed.” Summer said. Jed looked up a slightly startled expression on his face as though he’d really not been expecting her to speak to him. She lifted her mug a little and smiled at her big brother. It didn’t feel quite natural but the smile that pulled up half his face made it completely worthwhile.
It didn’t take long for Harrison to come back downstairs or for them to relieve all the gifts of their wrapping paper. Summer perched on her end of the couch with her legs folded in front of her, her mug of nested in her hands. Harrison sat on the floor across from her laughing at something Lucy obviously found amusing even though she was trying to hide her grin behind her own mug. Jed, sitting in the recliner, shook his head a whisper of a smile tugging at his bearded cheeks.
“You should have seen his face.” Harrison said between laughs that had him gasping for air, “It. Was. Priceless.” Summer heard a snorting kind of laugh echo off of the inside of Lucy’s mug.
“It wasn’t that funny.” Jed said, his voice deep and quiet. His eyes cut over to Summer for the hundredth time as if he were afraid she’d vanish. It was nice not having him constantly looking away from her, like she were some kind of shameful secret he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge. But in the same token the way he kept looking at her made her want to tell him… what exactly? Should she forgive him? She wanted to. She knew it was the right thing to do but anger and hurt, cut and molded over the course of a year didn’t simply fade over one conversation and a hug. Ture, the conversation was a deep one and the hug… well, the hug had made Summer feel safe, a sensation she wasn’t even sure she comprehended any more. Not like that. She wanted to forgive him and maybe that’s what she needed to tell him but she didn’t know how. You know how. The words weren’t so much words she heard with her ears or her mind but something that stirred in her very soul. It was a sensation she’d once known intimately but by deliberate decision making had removed herself from it. Summer felt her heart skip a beat as her whole being stirred in response. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t forgive Jed and Him too, could she?
“It’s torture.” Harrison exclaimed, shocking Summer out of her thoughts with a start.
“What is?” Lucy asked.
“The cinnamon rolls?” Lucy’s eyebrows arched with the question.
“Yes, the cinnamon rolls. They smell so damn good and I am forced to smell that while my stomach eats itself.” Harrison dramatically clutched at the front of his shirt. Harrison had always had a flare for the dramatic and unlike Jed he never lacked for words. Summer was glad that the days of him trying to torture her with those words seemed to be over.
“You’ll live.” Lucy scoffed rolling her eyes.
“You don’t know that.” Harrison challenged sounding, absolutely serious.
“You could go plow.” Jed said around the rim of his mug. Harrison shot him a look but Summer couldn’t help but smile.
“Hey that’s not a half bad idea. That way you wouldn’t have to be tortured by the oppressive smell of cinnamon rolls,” Lucy offered with mock sincerity.
“You two, stop it. Teaming up against me isn’t fair.” Harrison said holding up a finger and shifting it from Lucy to Jed.
“Life isn’t fair.” Jed mumbled.
“That hurts.” Harrison thudded his fist against his chest, “It hurts, right here.”
“Life is pain.” Lucy teased with a smirk.
“And anyone who tells you differently is selling you something.” Summer added with mock anger. Lucy chuckled and Harrison thudded his chest with his fist again.
“Twin. Heart of my heart, you hurt me so.”
“Oh brother.” Lucy said rolling her eyes again. The peel of the oven timer broke through the good-natured banter and Harrison jumped to his feet faster than Summer had ever seen. He nearly flew to the kitchen and yanked the oven door open. Lucy was right behind him slapping him away with a scowl that barely disguised a smile. Summer didn’t budge as she watched her two siblings playfully bicker about the doneness of the rolls and Lucy putting Harrison to work frying up the bacon while she started a pan for the eggs.
It amused Summer to watch Lucy and Harrison navigate the kitchen, especially since teasing Lucy came in a hot second after him actually helping her. Lucy stood a good foot shorter than Harrison and he kept putting things out of her reach when she wasn’t watching. A little ache formed in Summer’s chest that she couldn’t ignore. How long would all of this last? The easy banter. The teasing and smiles. How long could something so normal, so good, last? She swallowed the last of her coffee, trying to push away the fear that rose with the question. Summer dared a glance over at Jed who was fixedly staring at his mug. The hint of a smile was gone, and he looked like the old man she had talked to that morning. The lines in his face made him look like he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders and he seemed to be bracing himself for more. She absentmindedly chewed on the side of her pinkie watching him. Summer wanted to say something to him but she wasn’t sure what. Despite how much ground she felt they’d covered that morning there was still a vastness between them and it would take time, a lot of time, for that to sort itself out.
Soon they were all seated around the kitchen table. The beautifully golden brown rolls steamed in the middle, flanked by a plate of perfectly crisped bacon and a bowl of scrambled eggs. It was a feast of its own right and a meal that brought with it a slew of memories of Christmas’ past. The playful banter continued between Harrison and Lucy with Jed interjection a word or two here and there. It felt a little like a dream as if nothing had ever happened and they’d continued as ever they were. It felt like any minute Jackson would come through the door and join them like he often did at mealtimes. It felt… Summer sucked in a quick breath her fork clattering to her plate. Harrison stopped mid-word, cutting her a confused and slightly worried look. Lucy furrowed her brow and cocked her head in a silent, ‘you okay?’. Jed having glanced up at the noise, met her eyes for a moment then quickly averted his gaze. A second later he got up and walked around to top off his coffee. Summer’s hand flew to her stomach under the table. She met Lucy’s concerned gaze and gave her one slow nod and a strangled smile as she took a deep breath. Maybe she had imagined it. Maybe it was bacon that didn’t agree with her in a very visceral way or maybe—there it was again and this time there was no denying it. This meant so many things Summer hadn’t even let herself contemplate since she’d left Vegas. She bit her upper lip, hard, and Lucy’s brows knitted even closer together.
“Okay, what is going on?” Harrison asked confusion deeply coloring his words. Summer, despite herself, felt a smile tug at the corners of her mouth. For how observant Harrison could be he could also be totally oblivious. Summer hazarded a glance over her shoulder to where Jed was still hovering over the coffee pot.
“I already told him.” Lucy said, her voice a little sheepish. Summer slowly turned back to her sister, anger instantly heating her cheeks. How could she have shared something like that with him? Him. Jed. The man who had made her life a living hell after her rape. How could Lucy be so stupid! As quickly as the anger flared up, it vanished like a handful of flash paper. Of course she would have told him. Lucy would want Jed to know so they could plan, so they could think things through together. Lucy’s eyes darted to Jed then back to Summer, and she looked torn between stubbornly defending herself or apologizing.
“Jed knows what?” Harrison demanded looking from sibling to sibling before his gaze once again settled on Summer, one eyebrow cocked. No one answered. Summer could hear Jed moving behind her but she didn’t look. Instead, somehow, both of her lips found a way into her mouth making her feel like a child who didn’t want to admit to having their hand in the cookie jar. That’s when Harrison’s brow dropped back into place, his eyes widening with dawning realization. Could he really have figured it out? Summer felt like throwing up.
“Are you… are you sick.” Harrison asked, quietly clearing his throat.
It was Summer’s turn to raise her eyebrows, and that’s when she saw it. Fear.
“Oh no – Jeez no, I’m not sick. I’m not – nothing terrible. I’m fine. I’ll live.” she said tripping over her own words in a sudden need to comfort her twin. Fear was not something she often saw in Harrison and the idea that he would fear for her made her feel a little light headed. Sure they finally started getting along again in the last few weeks, but this was something deeper something she was sure had been lost between them, that bone deep connection that only a twin would ever understand.
“So what then?” he asked, sounding more irritated than anything, now that Summer’s imminent doom had been settled. Harrison hated being left out. Summer took a long slow breath before fixing her gaze on her twin.
“I should have told you before. I should have told all of you before but I was terrified that it would—” she licked her lips and glanced around the room before forcing herself to look at her brother again. “I’m pregnant.”
Harrison sat in stunned silence staring at her. After a moment that dragged on longer than she would have expected, Summer was half tempted to wave a hand in front of his face to see if he was still fully there. Then his eyes widened like lake blue saucers in his winter paled face, his mouth dropping open before he clamped it shut with an audible click. Summer wasn’t sure what to say to that reaction and neither Lucy nor Jed jumped in with anything other than more silence. Summer’s hand ran across her belly, a protective gesture, though she wasn’t sure why, but she suddenly felt very anxious and protective.
“Holy Shit!” Harrison’s exclamation made both Lucy and Summer jump and Summer heard a little slosh behind her, followed by Jed cursing under his breath. Harrison was grinning like a fool, his smile nearly splitting his face, his eyes glowing. The overwhelming relief that washed over Summer at her brother’s reaction made her own face pull into a smile. He was taking this better than she’d expected.
Harrison let out a short burst of laughter shaking his head. “And I thought Jackson was holding out for some religious belief thing but… I mean, I realized a long time ago there was something between you two but this… this means he’s actually going to be related to us. I mean, in a way.” Another burst of laughter and Summer couldn’t tell if it was true amusement at the situation or if this was Harrison being nervous. She’d so rarely seen him nervous and never directed toward her that this reaction had her completely flummoxed. Then his words began to sink in each digging deeper than the last. Her stomach twisted, painfully and her lungs suddenly went on strike, refusing to fill or cooperate in any way. She forced a breath in then out, slow and steady. He was reacting so well because he thought it was Jackson’s. Dear God, how was he going to react as soon as he found out the truth. The familiar sting of tears washed across the back of her eyes, blurring her vision.
“What?” Jed’s deep voice boomed out from behind her, the single word filled with more threat and anger than Summer had heard in a long time. She blinked against the onslaught of memories the sound produced, forcing tears down both her cheeks.
“No… Jed… it’s not…” Lucy said shaking her head. She stood and walked over to where Jed was standing bristling like a bear on the verge of an attack. She looked tiny next to him. Unlike Harrison full of lean corded muscle, Jed was burly and thick all over and was at least four inches taller than his brother making him a giant next to Lucy. She reached out and placed a hand on his arm, giving it a little squeeze. His knuckles, that were bloodless around his mug, began to regain color and his shoulders slumped forward a little.
“No it’s not what?” Harrison asked his laughter tapering off.
“It’s not Jackson’s.” Summer said quietly and with that every trace of good humor was wiped off of Harrison’s face.
“It’s not Jackson’s baby. As far as I know Jackson… It’s not his. We never…” Once again, Summer felt like her stomach was about to reverse engineer her breakfast. “It’s not Jackson’s.” She repeated nearly choking on the words. How different this might have looked if it were. She could almost see it. Jackson would be there, holding her hand, maybe even kissing her, beaming like a father should. Lucy would be hugging him and smiling like a proud big sister turned proud aunt, and Harrison would be giving him good-natured crap about being brothers and so on. Jed… well Jed would probably be acting very much the same as he was right then. But this wasn’t Jackson’s baby. It was the bastard child of an abusive narcissist who’d nearly killed her. Or maybe it was the bastard child of any number of his sick and twisted friends who had enjoyed taking everything they could from her while making her hurt in ways she’d never imagined possible. Summer put her hand over her mouth swallowing back the bile that burned her throat.
“So, whose is it?” Harrison’s hesitant question made her wish she had a lie that would make this whole thing less disgusting. What was she supposed to say? She wiped her face with the back of her sleeve but didn’t meet anyone’s eyes.
“He was my roommate in Vegas.” she could almost feel all of their collective eyebrows raise. She pushed on before anyone could ask another question. “He offered me a room and promised me it was all on the up and up. He even had a girlfriend. He was a cop, and he seemed nice enough and I needed a place to stay and I guess I convinced myself that it was temporary and it would be fine but…” But there was so much more to the story that she wasn’t sure she could tell them. She had just gotten back on speaking terms with Jed that morning. What would a revelation like this do to that? Summer opened her mouth to try to explain but Harrison spoke first.
“She was abused.” he said firmly his voice steady and calm. Summer’s head shot up in surprise. She had told him a few of the horror stories she’d lived through, skimming the top, giving him only the most crucial details and she’d wondered how much of that he remembered. She wouldn’t have blamed him for trying to forget it, God knew she wished she could.
“She was abused and apparently he got her pregnant,” he paused to look at Summer and give her a tiny, reassuring smile, “and we don’t need to know the details.” he sounded so protective, something Summer had been used to once, had resented, but now it sounded strange yet wonderful. She suddenly had the urge to run over to him and throw her arms around him wrapping Harrison into a fierce hug. Instead she stared at him, eyes overflowing.
“Thank you,” she mouthed. He offered her a lopsided smile that made her heart give a little jump. She recognized that look. It was a look she’d gotten so many times growing up, a look that meant, I’ve got your back.