"It's almost Christmas," Emma said, snuggling in closer.
Judah watched her face as the glow of the fire played over her golden skin. The light of the flames gave her an angelic radiance.
"I know, darlin'," he replied, draping his arm over her waist under the blanket. "Our home is full and ever'thing feels right. It's good to have Julie here again."
Emma's face lit up at the mention of his stepsister. Julie had arrived home at the farm only this morning. They'd all looked forward to her visit when classes let out for the semester. Emma had planned an old fashioned family Christmas — the first one since her mother had died when she was a child. In truth, Jude figured he was even more excited about it than his future bride.
"Please tell me it'll always be like this," she pleaded, touching his face as they reclined on the bed.
"Count on it," he growled, pulling her to him. "I'll move heaven and hell if I need to just to keep it this way."
"I'm worried about meeting the rest of your family, Jude. What if they don't like me?"
"Not possible, darlin'. They already love you and they ain't even met you yet."
Kissing her soundly, he tried to erase the concern he saw in her eyes. Only his Emma would worry about something so trivial after all they'd been through.
"Don't think plying me with kisses will get you off the hook, cowboy," she said when he came up for air. "I'll be very upset if you leave me alone with all those people."
He chuckled, his hand sliding over her flesh under the blankets. It was hard to believe that a mere four months earlier he had been lost in a lonely world, trying to get his life back together. Then he met this woman with so much beauty inside and out. She had become the center of his universe.
"Why would I leave you alone? I ain't goin' anywhere, baby," he drawled.
Her body quivered, moving closer to his stroking fingers. Not even the blaze in the fireplace could equal the heat they generated.
There were still faint scars that marred her skin from her ordeal with Larry Helm, and she still shuddered visibly whenever she found herself enclosed in a small space. She had nightmares from time to time, but nothing compared to what Junior Ruble had told him that Tara went through. That poor woman had suffered the worst of all of Larry's surviving victims. The other victims, those who had died by Larry's hands and the hands of his whole long, sick line, had been laid to rest at long last. Their families finally had closure.
There were times when Judah wanted to dig Larry up again, bring him back to life so he could kill the man with his own hands. The way he'd found Emma, so close to death and nearly buried alive in that reeking cell under Larry's house was bad enough, but the time she spent hovering between life and death afterwards had almost driven him mad.
Larry Helm was a psycho, Emma's distant cousin who left a stain of anguish on his own family. Now that he was finally dead, smothered in the tomb he'd intended for Emma, Jude had to try to forget the past and concentrate on the promise of a happy future with his fiancée.
"Don't play dumb with me," she hissed. "I heard you talking to Dillon on the phone about all you guys going deer hunting. Then I'll be in a house full of strange women and I'll be scared to death."
Jude grinned at Emma. She'd faced down a monster and survived, but was afraid of his family.
She had gone to so much trouble to paint the walls and decorate the old farm house, spending a small fortune for garland, ornaments and lights — after buying new furniture for the parlor. The place looked great. He hadn't seen anything like it since before he'd gone to prison, when his mother had taken such pleasure in the holidays.
This was to be his first Christmas as a free man, the first one in a long time. All those years, trapped in a sea of criminals, wishing for a taste of free air and hoping to find something in life he could hold onto, seemed so long ago. Smiling at the happiness he'd stumbled onto in the violence of a storm, he pulled Emma's shivering frame beneath him, letting his hands roam over her flesh.
"Judah," she whispered.
The sound of his name on her lips was music to his ears. He looked forward to a lifetime of enjoying it. Another sound reached him in the darkness. It was the sound of Jersey's giggles from down the hall. She and Kyle had found the same kind of happiness that he had found with Emma.
"Sounds like the neighbors are restless," Jude chuckled against her throat.
"Those two better tie the knot quick," Emma sighed, "before Aunt Tillie finds out she's pregnant."
Jude raised his head, staring down at her in disbelief.
"Uh-huh," she giggled. "She told me yesterday. They're trying to keep it quiet until the wedding next month, but Kyle's liable to spill his guts any minute. That's why he's been strutting around so much lately. You'd think Jersey had nothing to do with making that baby she's got growing inside her."
"I'll be damned," he laughed. "I thought you had a talk with her about being careful."
"I did, but that cousin of mine, it seems, can get a little carried away. Jersey's dad is pretty happy, though he wants them to hurry up and get married."
"I'm glad for them. I can't wait to know what it feels like to be a dad."
She smiled up at him, running her fingers through his hair.
"You may not have to wait too long, honey," she said.
His heart skipped a beat. Had he heard her right?
"What do you mean?" he asked slowly.
"I have an appointment with my doctor tomorrow. I'll know for sure then, but seven home pregnancy tests can't all be wrong."
He was on his feet in the blink of an eye, fairly dancing across the room to toss another log on the fire. Running back to the bed, he pulled another quilt over her, tucking the edges around her body.
"Are you warm enough? Do you need anything?"
She laughed uproariously, tossing the blanket back.
"I'm smothering. Lord, Judah. I'm pregnant, not dying."
"When? How did this happen? Are you sure you're strong enough? You been through a lot, baby. What's the doctor say?"
"For heaven's sake, honey. Settle down. I think you know how this happened. Making love every day for all those weeks straight is bound to produce something. And I haven't even seen the doctor yet. How could she say anything?"
"I shoulda been more careful. Damn," he growled.
The look in Emma's eyes was one he never wanted to see again. He'd upset her and he hadn't meant to.
"You're not happy?"
"No, Jesus, yes, I'm happy," he said, dropping to sit beside her. "It's just that, well..."
"It wasn't so long ago that you almost died. God, Emma, I can't lose you."
"Lose me? For heaven's sake, Judah. Women have been having babies for as long as people have been walking the earth. Listen, I may have had a close call, but that was in the past and has nothing to do with my being pregnant. There's nothing to worry about. I feel fine. To be honest, I've never felt better in my life. I don't even get sick in the mornings like Jersey."
He was suddenly angry, glowering at her like she'd committed a crime.
"Why didn't you tell me before we went riding yesterday? You got no business bein' on a horse in your condition."
"Now, wait just a minute," she said, raising up to clutch the sheet to her throat. "I won't have you dictating how I get to live my life. Mooney's a gentle horse and I'm a good rider. I've never fallen off. I'll let you know when I need to stop doing certain things. The exercise is healthy and I enjoy it."
"Emma, I'm just trying to do what's best. If you're not gonna take care of yourself, I'll have to."
"That's it," she said, dropping back against the pillows with her arms folded across her chest. "First you fly off the handle and now you're just being insulting. I take very good care of myself and you know it. Who are you to lord over me? If you think this high-handedness of yours is going to get you back in this bed, you got another think coming. Go sleep on the couch."
"Let's not get hasty, Emma. I guess I'm not doing this right, am I?"
Damn, she was beautiful when her eyes flashed green fire. He had never known a woman who could get in a snit as fast as his Emma.
"Me," he drawled, scratching his head. "I'm gonna be a daddy. Wow."
He saw her lips quiver and the way she fought against the smile that promised to bow that luscious mouth. There was a swelling in his chest as realization began to sink in. He was going to be a father. Throwing back his head, he let out a whoop that shook the rafters.
"Quiet!" she hissed, sitting bolt upright. "Do you want to wake the whole house?"
"Yes!" he yelled, snatching her off the bed and swinging her into a bone-crushing bear hug. "I wanna wake the whole world. I'm the luckiest guy alive."
"Quiet in there," a voice shouted from down the hall. "Some of us are trying to sleep."
"The hell you are, Kyle," Jude yelled back. "I'm going to be a dad."
"Congratulations," Kyle returned, followed by the happy squeal of Jersey. "Now shut up and let a guy sleep."
Emma clapped her hand over Jude's mouth when he opened it to yell again. Her face was all smiles as she tried to stifle a giggle. He was just about to throw her down on the bed and celebrate in earnest when there was a knock at the door.
"Who is it?" Emma said, laughing when she pulled back from Jude to find her robe.
"Danielle. Is everything all right in there? We heard a lot of yelling."
.... There is more of this story ...