Mary Cassidy pulled the sheet of sugar cookies out of the oven and set it on the kitchen counter. Bright sunlight slanting through the window blinded her for a moment. She paused and rubbed the back of her hand across watering eyes. Blinking to clear her vision, she surveyed the line of cookie sheets sitting on every available space in the large kitchen. Almost done! One more batch of shortbread and then the almond crescents and I’m finished with the cookies.
Her hands automatically readied the icing, adding ingredients and stirring while Mary went over the remaining preparations yet to be completed. Christmas Eve, her very favorite day of the year, well, except maybe for the day she married Luke. Her hand stilled on the frosting and tears clouded her eyes. The old fool was out in the clinic looking after the few animals who weren’t well enough to go home for the holidays. It was just a few weeks since the man came home from the hospital himself. Mary pressed her free hand to her heart and swallowed. She’d come so close to losing him, her world without Luke would have no meaning. Never one to dwell on morbid thoughts, she shook herself and turned her attention back to her preparations.
By her count, there should be about thirty people dropping in throughout the evening. The Cassidy Christmas Eve open house was a must stop for friends and family. In the small village of Longview, Alberta everyone was either friend or family it seemed. Of course, some of the inhabitants had gone to the mountains or to visit far off relatives for the Christmas season. Still, there would be a steady stream of revellers throughout the night. She glanced at her watch. Michelle should be showing up soon. Mary shook her head; hopefully the girl had worked things out with Cale. Such a silly thing to let pride stand in the way of their love for each other.
The older woman grinned remembering some of the arguments she and Luke used to have over things that seemed very important at the time, but amounted to nothing when seen from the perspective of long years later. Thoughts of Michelle’s troubles turned her mind to Rob and Kayla Chetwynd. The poor girl was having trouble keeping that scallywag in line. Mary’s lips thinned. This time last year Rob had just dumped Michelle, his fiancée and childhood sweetheart and came home from the National Finals Rodeo married to little blonde Kayla. In her opinion, Michelle was far better off without the boy. He’d always had a wandering eye, but Michelle would never hear a word against him.
“Hey, Mary!” Michelle held the back door open to allow the three-legged black dog to enter before her. Close on Storm’s heels, her young offspring better known as Crazy Puppy, bounded through the door. He skidded to a halt at Mary’s side, tongue lolling out his mouth, gaze fixed on the cookie in her hand.
“Hey, yourself. C’mon in and shut the door, you’re letting the heat out.
Michelle closed the door and shed her coat, hanging it on the hook by the door. She dropped her Stetson on the hat rack nearby and crossed the room to hug the older woman.
“So, what still needs to be done? You look like you’ve got things under control here.” Michelle surveyed the cookie sheets cluttering the room. “You want me to help put these on trays? Or are some going into tins as gifts?”
“Those over there,” she gestured with her chin, “need to be put in those tins piled on the settee in the living room.” Mary deftly transferred an assortment of cookies unto plates and trays decorated with Christmas napkins. “These ones are for tonight. Lord, I hope I made enough.”
Michelle laughed. “Looks like you’ve made enough to feed a small army, Mary.”
“You know how those boys eat,” Mary replied. “I doubt there’ll be much left. I’ve got some put away for tomorrow’s dinner already.”
“Do you want an assortment of cookies in each tin? Where are the paper doilies to go on the bottom?” Michelle busied herself arranging a row of tins on the dining room table, the lids waiting beside them.
“Here’s the doilies.” Mary tossed her a large package of paper napkins emblazoned with red ribbons, holly, and Christmas trees. “An assortment would be great, except for the three tins for Harvey. He only likes the shortbread and sugar cookies. Maybe do up one tin with shortbread and the other two with sugar cookies. Oh, you’ll have to help me ice those sugar ones first though.”
“Is the icing ready? I’ll try not to make too much of a mess. You know how unartistic I am.”
“Here you go.” Mary handed over a bowl of white icing and another with green icing. “The coloured candy balls and gee-gaws for the decorations are already on the table.”
“Oh, you are asking for trouble.” Michelle laughed. “You expect me to draw trees on these things and decorate them? I’ll do my best, but I’m not responsible for the outcome.”
“Just get to it, missy.” Mary waved a spatula at her.
“Slave driver,” she retorted.
Mary waited until her friend was engrossed in applying the green icing to the cookies before she broached the subject that was on her mind. “Have you talked to Kayla today?” She watched for Michelle’s reaction out of the corner of her eye.
“Not today,” Michelle replied. “I saw her at the UFA yesterday.”
“How was she?” Mary persisted.
Michelle glanced up with a puzzled expression. “Okay, I guess. Why? Rob do something else stupid lately?”
“Not that I know of. Watch that icing, girly!” Mary pointed to the string of green oozing out of the sleeve of icing.
“Oops, sorry.” Michelle caught the escaping confection on her finger and licked it off. “Tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.” She grinned. “Why are you asking about Kayla?”
“Just wondering how those two are getting on after all the trouble he stirred up last spring and summer. I don’t see too much of his mom since she moved up to Turner Valley.”
“As long as he stays away from me, I don’t really care what he does. I do feel sorry for the girl though. She’s got her hands full keeping him from falling off the wagon again. I hear he ran a little wild in Vegas and she had to track him down and drag him out of a few casinos during the NFR.”
“So, you haven’t heard from him then?” Mary persisted.
Michelle stopped what she was doing and came to lean in the doorway to the kitchen. “What’s up, Mary. Spill, what are you pussy footing around? Did Kayla say something to you?”
“No, no. Of course not! It’s just…I’ve been wondering how you and Cale are getting on, now you’re back from the NFR and all.”
Michelle hid a grin. “What exactly are you wondering about?”
Mary busied herself with collecting the now empty cookie sheets and sliding them into one side of the double sink. She pointedly avoided looking at Michelle. “Well, are you still hiding out in your trailer over at Pat’s? I can’t imagine it’s very comfortable in weather like this.” She turned on the hot water tap and added dish soap.
“I can see the wheels turning in that head of yours, Mary! What scheme have you come up with that you plan to implement if I say I’m still in the trailer?” Michelle crossed the kitchen and reached around the older woman to stop the flow of water.
“What, me? I never scheme, as you so baldly put it.” Mary feigned astonishment and hurt feelings.
Michelle snorted. “Yeah, right! Like you never stole my distributer cap out at East Longview last year so Cale had to drive me home from the concert.”
A grin slid across Mary’s face though she fought to conceal it. “Okay, maybe I’ve been guilty of giving a nudge here or there, but I don’t scheme,” she insisted.
“Call it what you like, everyone knows you and your cronies have your match making coffee meetings every week. The village is on to you.” Michelle leaned a hip on the counter and slung a dish towel over her shoulder. “Start washing those cookie sheets, woman, or we’ll never get finished.”
“Chelly, you wound me to the quick! Us ladies get together to quilt and crochet, that’s all.” She plunged her hands into the soapy water, the colour staining her cheeks not just from the heat of the kitchen. “You never answered my question, are you still at the trailer, or have you come to your senses and gone back to Cale’s?”
“Man, you’re like a dog with a bone.” Michelle dried a cookie sheet and set in with the others on the counter.
“Well?” Mary quit washing to stare at her.
“Fine, yes Cale and I talked and I’ve taken the trailer and the horses back to the ranch. They need a break from work, and you’re right, the trailer is like an ice box when the wind gets to blowing. Satisfied?”
“Did you work things out? Everything back to normal now?” Mary persisted.
“Sort of, I guess.” Michelle dropped her gaze and busied herself with another cookie sheet.
“What does that mean?” The older woman raised an eyebrow at her.
She sighed in surrender and frustration. “It means that I’m staying in Cara’s old room, but at least he’s talking to me and acting almost normal.”
“Whose choice is that? You staying in Cara’s old room, I mean?”
Michelle hesitated and considered her answer. “Both of us, I guess. I’m still pissed that he doesn’t believe me when I say I’m over Rob. Cale still isn’t sure I’m really ready to settle down, at least I think that’s what he thinks. Has he said anything to Doc, or to you?” Hope gathered in her heart.
“Not to me, and if he’s spoken to Luke about it I haven’t heard. Chelly, it’s Christmas, surely you two can work this out. Until this mess with Rob, you’ve looked happier and more settled than I’ve ever seen you.”
“Let’s hope Rob stays away from me and that Kayla can keep a leash on that idiot,” Michelle retorted.
“Chelly…” Mary paused and wiped her soapy hands on a towel. “Maybe it’s not my place to say this, but our own momma is gone and I’ve always thought of you as the daughter Luke and I never had…”
“Out with it, Mary. Whatever it is you feel you need to say, you know I’ll love you no matter what.”
“C’mon, let’s take a break. I’ll pour the coffee, you get some of those cookies for us. The bakers need to quality test the wares. Mary grinned.
Mary settled at the table and regarded the young woman across from her. “Chelly, you have to be careful about sending mixed messages—”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Temper flared in Chelly’s eyes.
“Don’t go gettin’ all uppity with me. You need to hear this.”
“Fine, go on.” Michelle frowned and leaned back in her chair.
“You can’t blame Cale for being cautious, you two haven’t been together all that long and he’s heard all the stories about how you idolized Rob Chetwynd from the time you were in diapers together.”
“I can’t change the past, for heaven’s sake. And I can’t change the fact I was blind and stupid not to see what was happening right under my nose. Why do people feel like they should stick their noses into it?”
“You know how it is, Chelly. There’s those who just want to stir the pot and watch it boil over, and there’s them who are worried Cale will up and leave if things go bad between you two. They figure if he knows the lay of the land going in he can decide if he can live with it or not.”
“Okay, I guess I can understand that. But still—”
“I’m not done, Michelle. You need to keep your distance from the boy.