"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."
Emma pulled the door open just as Judah wrapped the bed sheet around his waist. He was smiling from ear to ear when he saw Emma's sister-in-law with a worried frown on her face.
"Everything's fine," Jude chuckled while tucking in the end of the sheet. "I was just letting Emma know how happy she makes me. We're havin' a baby."
"Wonderful," Danielle answered, trying to hide her smile, "but would you mind holding it down? It's past midnight and my children need their sleep."
"I'll do my best to keep him quiet, Dani," Emma laughed, "but you know how excitable he is."
"Yes," she answered cryptically, "I know."
Brock's wife turned back down the hall, shaking her head and laughing, causing Emma to blush clear to her temples. Jude was already pushing the door shut, hauling her body up against his own. The sheet lay forgotten on the floor when he carried her back to the bed.
"Don't forget," she said when he laid her down. "You and Brock promised to finish setting up the rest of the furniture in those attic rooms. The entire Hunter clan will be here in two days and I want to make sure we have some place to put them."
"You're killin' the mood, darlin'," he growled against the silky flesh of her throat.
He, Kyle and Brock had worked like fiends for four weeks converting her grandmother's old workshop at the front of the attic into comfortable sleeping chambers for their guests. When Emma had shown him the place where the woman had created the richly colored quilts that graced all their beds, he'd known a moment of regret for having invited his cousins.
The huge space had to be insulated and walls built to create four rooms. Then they had to be painted and carpeted to make them ready. Then Emma had got it in her head that she wanted fireplaces in each of them, just like the other bedrooms of the house. The men had run all over the countryside to find just the right equipment and accessories to satisfy her critical eye.
He had put the finishing touches on the last gas burner only that morning, just glad she had opted for the gas type, rather than have him laying brick and building new chimneys for the old-fashioned wood-burners. Now each room was cheerily decorated with homey cast-iron type stoves to add warmth.
Then there was the storage room at the back of the attic. It was full of old furniture that had to be brought out and cleaned to be used in those rooms. The women had cleaned and polished and painted until every piece gleamed like new. The new mattresses and box springs for the three beds had arrived three days earlier and still waited to be installed. All the work had been worth it just to see the smile on her face.
"Sorry, but we have so many people coming for the holidays. All I can think about is how to accommodate everyone. The house is pretty full as it is."
"It's gonna be a crowd," Judah said, grinning at the way she sighed when his fingers grazed her nipple under the robe. "You sure you're up for it? I don't want you to tire yourself out."
"Are you kidding? It'll be a blast. Let's just hope Ma Nature cooperates and gives us a white Christmas. Now, the way I got it planned, Dillon and Rylie get the big room. Aaron and Angel can have the one done in roses. We'll put Shanna and Brandon in the yellow room. It'll be the farthest from the nursery, more restful for them. I love the wallpaper we put in the babies' room."
"We? I don't remember you helpin' too much."
She popped him on the arm, laughing at the mock stern look on his face.
"Who do you think kept you men fed the whole time you were working? Anyway, you still need to go to town tomorrow and pick up all that baby furniture. I hope your cousins don't mind putting their kids in borrowed beds. I wanted to fill this house with babies, but this borders on the ridiculous."
"Angel'll get a kick out of that old cradle you set up in her room. It looks like something straight out of a story book. It's perfect for her new baby. How many Dixons slept in it?"
"At least three generations that I know of," she sighed, smiling dreamily. "And another on the way."
His hand went to the tie of her robe, pulling it open to splay his fingers across her belly. He stared at that spot on her body, trying to imagine what she'd look like at full term.
"That's a lot of history, darlin'. It's gonna be good to see our own baby layin' in it."
"I know," said Emma, putting her hand over his. "We have a lot to celebrate this Christmas. The house will be full to the brim with the people we love and everything will be perfect."
"What are you going to do when the house is empty? You know, it won't be long until everyone'll be gone. Kyle's plannin' on having his house finished by spring. He and Jersey will be moving out and taking her father with them. Then Brock and Danielle will be moving into their own place. He says they'll break ground in May, just as soon as the last of the paperwork is done so he can buy that land yonder."
"It'll seem so lonely, but it'll be nice to have you all to myself for awhile," she sighed. "After that, I guess we'll just have to fill all those empty rooms with babies."
He chuckled at that, strumming the soft flesh of her still-flat belly. If he lived to be a hundred, he'd never get enough of just touching her.
"I want," she said, snuggling closer under his stroking fingers, "you to put the biggest bed in the green room up front, since you say Dillon's the biggest of you Hunter boys."
"It's too bad that the others couldn't make it, but it'll be good to see some of the family. By the way, I never thanked you for fixing up that sleeping porch for Julie. You did a beautiful job with it."
"I just hope she's comfortable. I felt bad putting her in there. I'd rather she had a regular bedroom."
"I don't think she minds, hon," Jude grinned. "Judging by the look on her face when she saw the canopy over the bed and all the pretty things you put in there, I'd say she's pleased."
"The canopy was Jersey's idea. I think Jersey always dreamed of having one herself. Judah, I'm so happy for her and Kyle. If you'd known the girl before, when she was by herself ... Honey, she was the saddest kid. She was always alone. So much tragedy in her life with her parents being invalids, and to lose her mother the way she did."
"Tears?" he said, stroking his thumb across her cheek. "Why're you crying, baby?"
"Get use to it," she groused, blinking hard. "I'm told that a pregnant woman cries all the time."
He smiled, pushing the robe open farther.
"Any time you feel like crying, you just let me know," he whispered as he dipped his head over her breast. "I'll love on your body until you forget all about it."
"You got a deal."
Emma moaned, feeling the pure, hot pleasure of his mouth suckling her nipple until it was achingly hard. Her fingers tangled in his hair, holding him fast as she writhed under him. Groaning, he tugged free of her grasp, moving his mouth lower along the gentle slope of her ribs.
She began to wiggle, struggling to get free of her cumbersome robe. He lent a hand, wanting only to have her flesh pressed to his. When his tongue slipped into her navel, her body reacted with a start. It was all he could do to keep her from bucking him off.
He moved lower still, his fingers paving the way for his mouth to get at her drenched sex. She responded almost violently, her fingers snatching at his hair as she hissed his name through clenched teeth. He didn't need any more encouragement, as he slipped a finger into her silken recesses.
"Oh, my God," she cried, grinding into his face. "I can't stand it."
"Yes, you can," he laughed, looking up at her impassioned face.
"Shut up and finish it. If you stop again, I'll go insane."
"The madness looks good on you, darlin'."
He continued to watch as her head thrashed on the pillow. Hooking his finger upward, he stroked the soft, hidden flesh that gave her so much pleasure. Her stomach muscles contracted while she pumped against his hand.
Moving up along her body, he caught her neglected nipple in his mouth, nibbling gently. Her nails raked the skin over his shoulder blades, sending a chill down his spine. His own need throbbed painfully against her leg, begging to be appeased.
She turned into a wild woman, gouging his back with her nails, even nipping at him with her teeth. He'd never seen her like this, and she was pushing him to the brink of his control.
"I need you inside me. I want you now."
The urgency in her voice, the way her body moved under him, sent him over the edge. He tossed her onto her belly, pulling her backside up and impaling her with his rigid manhood in one fluid motion.
She bit into the pillow under her face in an effort to keep from crying out. He pummeled her mercilessly, unable to restrain himself. It barely registered that she was giving as good as she got, so frenzied was his state. No other woman had ever been able to arouse in him the animalistic fervor that she could.
Grasping her hips, he continued his onslaught, feeling the way her muscles clenched around him. Knowing she was so close to that screaming climax that they both craved only brought him closer to his own powerful release.
Her back arched, her hand reaching back to clutch the fingers that held her waist. Feeling his heart pounding inside his chest, he pushed relentlessly, wanting nothing more than to feel her lose herself in blinding pleasure.
She pulled his fingers downward between her legs, telling him without words what she wanted him to do. Finding the hardened kernel that was nestled within the swollen folds of her sex, he flicked the tip of his finger, reveling in the sound of her moans. It was enough to send them both crashing over the edge as the night exploded into shards of white light and incredible pleasure.
His body went rigid as hers continued to buck under him. He held himself deeply within as his burning seed filled her. Every spasm of her inner muscles drew more of the hot elixir forth until he was completely drained. Wrapping his arms around her, he fell sideways, panting, trying to draw in enough oxygen to sustain his life.
Every time they made love was better than the last. He didn't know how they'd survive if the trend continued. It was a shaking hand he used to brush the hair back from her face and pull her in to spoon against him.
It felt right to have her bottom nestled against his groin. It felt right to have the sensation of her racing heart against his chest. Remembering what she looked like in that hospital only a few weeks before, with the tubes and wires sticking out of her had him wrapping his arms tightly about her. A fierce protectiveness washed over him at the thought of how close he had been to losing her.
"Judah," she gasped. "I can't breathe."
"Sorry," he whispered, reluctantly loosening his grip.
"What is it?" she asked, turning in his arms to look at his face.
"You're my whole world, Emma."
She frowned at him, reading more into his words than he wanted to show. He'd never be able to adequately explain the emotions that hit him like a punch in the gut whenever he thought of those dark days.
"Honey, what's wrong?"
"Nothing, darlin'," he said, smiling while he stroked her hair back. "I just want you to know how much I love you."
She sighed, enjoying the feel of his hand on her head.
"I love you, too. You make me whole again."
He held her tightly, even long after she drifted into sleep. His life had certainly changed since coming to Illinois. Never had he known the kind of peace he felt when she was in his arms.
"I just can't get over it," Tillie said for at least the fifth time since arriving this morning. "This place looks brand new. You even polished the wood floors. You sure you're not working yourself too hard, honey?"
The flurry of activity in the house over the past two days had been astounding. Furniture had been erected, food had been brought in and everything had been given a final cleaning. The home was immaculate.
"Honestly, Tillie," Emma said, shaking her head, "if I let you and Jude have your way, I'd never get anything done. I'm fine. I assure you I'm completely recovered."
"That's not what I'm talkin' about," barked Tillie, casting her a stern look.
"Don't play dumb with me, Dixie-girl. You think I'm an idiot?"
Emma watched as her aunt cast her vision down to her flat belly. When Tillie looked her in the eye again, Emma's face was burning with a tell-tale blush.
"I shoulda known I wouldn't be able to keep it a secret from you," Emma snorted.
"Hah!" Tillie shot back. "I probably knew before you did. Been to see a doctor yet?"
Smiling dreamily, Emma nodded her head. She returned to the task of working on the flower arrangement that would be the centerpiece for her Christmas dinner in two days.
"Well?" Tillie demanded with her hands on her hips.
"What did the doctor say?"
"Oh, that," Emma laughed as her aunt continued to glower at her. "She says I'm perfectly healthy and the baby should be along the first week of August."
"What about Jersey? She been to see that doctor?"
"Damn it, Tillie," Emma hissed. "You're not supposed to know about that. Jersey will be so upset."
"Watch your language," Tillie huffed before allowing her face to soften. "I know that, Emmeline. That's why I'm asking you the questions. And I want you to know, aside from you both puttin' the cart afore the horse, I'm happy for all four of you kids. Now, what did the doctor say about Jersey?"
"She's due in July and is doing perfectly well. Poor kid has morning sickness, though. You should've seen your son yesterday," Emma said, laughing. "Jersey woke up wanting fresh strawberries. Kyle went clear to Quincy to find them. He bought out the store."
"That's my boy," Tillie said. "He's always over-doing it. So when's this famous Hunter clan suppose to get here?"