Finally, when she couldn’t stand not to know any longer, she asked, “You want me to stay, too?”
He avoided eye contact. “It’s a dangerous neighborhood.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Yes!” he shouted, as if it made him mad to have to say it. “I want you to stay.”
“Why?” She wasn’t going to make it easy for him.
“Because you’re a damn good teacher and there isn’t a student in your class who didn’t protest when they learned you were leaving.”
She took two steps away from the door. “I’m not talking about my students. I’m asking why you don’t want me to leave.”
“Me?” He swallowed uncomfortably, then pointed to the door. “Father Grady might have a problem driving the bus. It would be better if we continued this conversation some other time.”
She laughed softly. “Not on your life, buster.”
To her amazement, Roberto broke out laughing. “Buster. That’s exactly why I love you so damn much, Brynn Cassidy. The worst you can think to call me is Buster.” He whispered something in Spanish.
“If you love me, then why were you so eager to be rid of me?”
He channeled his fingers through his hair and sighed audibly. “Because I love you. This neighborhood has a way of dragging people down. Eventually it would happen to you, and I couldn’t bear to sit by and watch that.”
“As long as you’re with me that’s not going to happen. We can help one another.”
He buried both hands deep in his pockets. “I’d like to be self-sacrificing and send you back to that fancy girls’ school, but I can’t. The problem is I need you as much as Emilio and his friends.”
“That’s a start,” she said, smiling through her tears. She held her arms out to him.
Roberto reached for her and kissed her gently.
“I need you, too, Roberto . . . so much,” she whispered, kissing him freely and fully.
Roberto groaned and forced her lips to part beneath his. His tongue probed hers in a silken dance, then plunged forward, unleashing a fiery passion.
At last, groaning, he broke away. “Come with me.”
“Onto the bus. Father Grady can’t drive worth beans.”
“Where are we headed?”
“Church,” he told her. “Do you mind?”
She laughed. “No, I don’t mind. It seems like the perfect place for us to be on Christmas Eve.”
The weather was perfect for such a night. Trey glanced at the clear, bright sky as he made his way from the house to the barn. When he’d finished feeding the horses and settling them down for the evening, he planned on stopping off at the Lancasters’ for some of Dillon’s wassail. It had become tradition that he join Jenny’s family for the Christmas Eve celebration.
He’d eat dinner with them, and then they’d attend church services together. The last couple of years the family had invited him to stay for the gift opening, but Trey had refused.
He’d often spent time with the Lancasters on the off chance they could tell him something about Jenny. This year he knew everything there was to know. He’d go for dinner and attend the evening church service, and then, as always, he’d head home. Alone.
Jenny hadn’t contacted him since he’d left New York, not that he’d expected she would.
Pausing in the hallway, Trey picked up the box of fancy chocolates he’d bought for Jenny’s mother. He figured every woman deserved a box of expensive French candies one time in her life. Besides, he owed Paula.
The Lancaster house was bright with outside lights. Trey never could pull into their yard and not think of Jenny. The tightness around his heart felt almost physical as he climbed down from his truck and headed inside.
His timing was perfect. Charlie, Jenny’s brother, and his fiancée, Mary Lou, were carrying serving dishes to the dining room table.
“Hello, Trey. Welcome.” Paula kissed him on the cheek. Trey tucked the chocolates under the tree and shook Dillon’s hand.
“Think it’ll snow?” Dillon asked. It was the same question his friend proposed every Christmas Eve.
“Not this year,” Trey told him, knowing it would disappoint Dillon.
The smells coming from the kitchen were tantalizing enough to convince a confirmed bachelor to find a wife.
Dillon offered him a glass of hot wassail, but Trey declined. He didn’t figure there was enough time to finish it before dinner was served.
“Mom, are these the linen napkins you were looking for earlier?” a soft voice asked from the vicinity of the hallway.
It was a good thing Trey hadn’t been holding a drink. Sure as hell, he would have dropped it. The voice he heard belonged to Jenny. She paused momentarily when she walked into the room. “Hello, Trey. Merry Christmas.”
Trey felt as if someone had knocked him behind the knees with a baseball bat. He stared at Dillon. “What’s Jenny doing home?”
Dillon looked well pleased. “You’ll have to ask her that yourself.”
Trey intended on doing exactly that. He followed her into the kitchen and stood behind her while she dished up a mound of steaming mashed potatoes.
“When did you arrive?” he asked.
“This morning.” She answered him as though there were a hundred other more important items occupying her mind at that moment. “I do need to talk to you, however. I didn’t take kindly to your leaving New York without saying good-bye.”
“Trey, would you mind putting the relish plate on the table?” Paula asked.
“In a minute.” He wasn’t budging until he had the answer he wanted.
“The potatoes are ready,” Jenny announced, and handed the bowl to her brother, who promptly delivered them to the table.
“What about the play?” Trey insisted.
“What about it?”
“I thought you said the rehearsals started before Christmas.”
“They did.” Jenny dipped her finger inside the gravy boat and licked it clean. “Mom, this is your best ever.”
“Thank you, darling.”
Charlie returned, and Trey handed Jenny’s brother the relish dish. He followed Jenny to the other side of the kitchen. “Shouldn’t you be there?” he asked.
He figured she was being deliberately obtuse, and it irritated him no end. “Practicing,” he said louder than he intended.
“Not really,” she mumbled, then said to her mother, “As far as I can see, everything’s on the table.”
“Great. Call your father and we’ll sit down.”
“Dinner,” Jenny called, and the family started to gather around the dining room table.
“Jenny.” Trey’s hand on her arm stopped her. Silently he pleaded with her to tell him what was going on. “Why aren’t you in New York?”
“You honestly don’t know?”
Baffled, he shook his head.
“I’m marrying you, Trey. We’ve got the next fifty years to discuss all this, but right now dinner is getting cold.” She left him standing in the middle of her mother’s kitchen with his mouth sagging open so far, it damn near bounced against the floor.
By the time he’d recovered enough to walk into the dining room, everyone was seated and waiting for him.
“Trey, would you care to say grace?”
Everyone looked to him, but for the life of him Trey couldn’t take his eyes off Jenny long enough to do as her mother requested.
“It seems Trey’s otherwise occupied,” Dillon said, chuckling. “I’ll be happy to say the blessing.”
The Lancaster family bowed their heads while Dillon offered up a short prayer of thanksgiving. When he’d finished, he looked to Trey. “Sit down, Trey. Your place is directly across from Jenny. Once you’re seated, would you kindly pass the mashed potatoes?”
Trey was certain he gave them all a good laugh. The first thing he did was pour gravy over the sweet potatoes. He couldn’t help it. Nothing could make him stop staring at Jenny. He doubted he ate two bites of the entire dinner.
Twice she looked up and smiled, and it was damn near all he could do not to reach for her right there.
“I’d appreciate a few minutes alone with Jenny after dinner,” he said, looking to her parents.
“You don’t need our permission,” Dillon responded. “Jenny makes her own decisions.”
An eternity passed before the meal was over. Jenny tormented him during dessert by licking the whipped cream off the back of her fork—her eyes locked on him the entire time.
When she announced she was too full to take another bite, Trey nearly picked her up out of the chair in his eagerness to get her alone.
“How about a stroll to the barn,” she suggested.
“Fine.” He didn’t care if she suggested New Zealand; he wasn’t waiting another minute for her to explain her earlier statement.
The night was clear and crisp. Trey led her by the hand into the barn. “All right,” he demanded without turning on any of the lights. “Did you mean what you said earlier?”
“I said a number of things. Which one do you mean?”
“Jenny, for the love of heaven.” He jerked her into his arms, and it wasn’t until she slammed against his chest that he realized how willingly she’d come.
“You big oaf,” she said, solidly planting her lips over his before he had a chance to kiss her. Wanting her as badly as he did, for as long as he had, Trey nearly crumpled to the floor under the weight of his joy. The kiss was slow and deep and moist.
“Oaf?” he repeated, holding her head so he could kiss her again and again. Fifty years wouldn’t be nearly enough to satisfy him.
“You didn’t stick around long enough for me to answer. If you’re going to propose to a woman, the least you can do is wait for the response.”
He kissed her just long enough to cut off her tirade. “Answer me now.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “First I think I’ll make you suffer.”
She hadn’t a clue to how much he’d already been suffering. His breath came fast and heavy as she brought his mouth down to hers once more.
“Jenny, I love you.”
“Yes, I know. We’re going to be very happy, Trey. First we’re going to get married, then we’re going to start our family. I want a house full of children. I’ve been so hungry for family.”
His throat went thick. “That sounds perfectly fine with me.” He kissed her a dozen times, and even the gentleness between them, the love and tenderness, were far from being sated. “What about New York?” He had to know.
“Michelle got the part.”
“But I heard . . . Irene asked to talk to you.”
“It’s true they offered it to me first, but when I declined, the role went to Michelle.”
“But this was your big dream.”
“I loved New York, but I love you more. Montana is where I belong, right here with you. I knew it a long time ago, but was too stubborn to admit it. I’m home now.”