"Snow!" Luke chortled happily. "Can we make a snowman, Marshy? Together? Can we?"
"I think we need to give it a little while, Luke, before there's enough for that," he replied, an expression on his face indicating he really needed to know where Eden was. But she still stood at the sink, suds up to her wrists dripping unnoticed on the floor, staring at him across the room, breathing hard through her open mouth.
Connie looked from Eden to Marshall then back to Eden again, grabbed a towel and quickly dried her cousin's hands, nodding toward Marshall as she did.
"I know," Eden whispered, but closing her eyes instead of moving.
"Eden?" His voice was low, soft, with a rise to the end of the name that made it a question.
"Here, Marshall. I'm right here."
When she spoke, he knew where in the room she was and held out a hand in her direction. No matter how shaken she was, there was no way she could not respond to that gesture of his. Slipping hers inside his, she let him pull her to him.
"No sleigh," he whispered. "No forest."
Harold didn't seem aware of the significance of his announcement, so added, "Luke, it's coming down so fast I bet you can make your snowman in less than an hour."
"Oh, good! You hear that, Marshy? Just an hour and you and I can go out in the snow."
Martha made a sign to Harold to follow her out of the kitchen, where she explained to him what the snow meant to Eden.
"Ah," he sighed. "Didn't think of that."
Part of Eden felt ridiculous for responding in public the way she had but a larger part of her was replaying what she and Marshall had said just a bit earlier in their room:
"No snow today."
"No, you can't die in the snow today. Not today."
She wanted to say something but her throat had gone all thick and a tremor ran through her body, easily felt by Marshall, who was holding her now, his arm around her waist.
"Edith," he said, keeping his voice level, "would you watch Morgan for a few minutes?" He stood then, taking Eden's hand, leading her toward the stairs and on up to their room. The door had barely closed behind them when she did make a long, strangled sound, then mumbled, "I'm sorry, darling. I'm...I just...I'm..."
"Come here," he said softly, sitting on the bed, pulling her into his lap. "You've nothing to be sorry about, not one thing. I'm the one who let you down, not the other way around."
"Let me down?" Her voice was tight with disbelief. "Oh, God, Marshall, you've never once let me down, not ever."
"In the snow...I..."
"You protected me. You always protect me no matter what it costs you. Don't you dare say you let me down. I won't have it!"
"I hear it, you know."
"You hear the snow falling?"
"Um hm. I know it doesn't make a sound but I've always been able to hear it inside myself. Maybe, I don't know, there's some change in the atmosphere or something, some softening of it. That's why I sat on that bench in the park Christmas before last and let it snow on me. I liked it, especially the big, fat flakes on my face." He made a little sighing sound. "Now it seems to have become the enemy."
"Oh, Marshall...I...I took that away from you, didn't I?"
"You've taken nothing from me but my aloneness. Don't you know what it means to me to have you in my life? You think I'd trade that for a snowflake?"
She nuzzled into his neck. "I want you to enjoy the snow. I really do."
"I didn't particularly enjoy it up in the forest that day."
She pressed her lips together, thinking of how she and Mike had seen marks in the snow of all the times he'd fallen. She'd loved him for fourteen months now but life before him seemed far away, years and years back.
"I think I'm just trying so hard to protect myself from sadness," she said into his neck.
He moved his hand up to stroke her hair. "You can't, you know, protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness."
Her arms went around his shoulders, squeezing tightly. "I love you so absolutely desperately."
"Eden." His voice was firm. "Even though it's snowing, I will not die today. It's Christmas, darling. I tell you what, let's give Luke what we brought for him and then let's go make the biggest, grandest snowman ever."
She inhaled a long, ragged breath. "Maybe Martha will let us use a carrot," she managed.
His hand sought her chin, gently turning her face, and he kissed her a long time. "I love you, Mrs. Dr. Marshall Sinclair."
Downstairs again he asked Ryan to pull a very large box out from behind the Christmas tree.
"For me?" Luke asked, running his hands over the box, tracing down the line of the wide ribbon.
"For you," Marshall affirmed, sitting on the couch, Eden on his right, the rest of the family gathered about in the parlor.
"Now? I can open it now?"
"Can't get any more Christmas Day than it is, Luke," Marshall smiled.
"I heard that!"
"Heard what, Luke?"
"You were smiling. I heard it in your voice."
Marshall enfolded Eden's left hand between the two of his. "It's Christmas, Luke. It's a day for smiling. Go on, pull the ribbons off."
Elizabeth and Dale came closer, curious as to what Marshall could have gotten for their son that would require such a big box. Luke seemed to be enjoying listening to the sounds the wrapping paper was making as he tore at it.
"You hear that, Marshy?"
"I do hear it. It's a happy sound, the tearing of wrapping paper."
"This is a big box. Lots of wrapping paper."
Marshall's lips twitched. "Good things come in big boxes."
"Small boxes, too," Eden said softly, remembering the white velvet one last Christmas with her engagement ring inside.
When Luke had gotten all the ribbons and wrapping paper off, he explored with his hands, finding a way to open the box. Reaching in, he encountered something he didn't recognize. "What's this?"
"I imagine it's some of the styrofoam packing pieces, Luke. Maybe ask your mom and dad to help with getting out what's inside.
After a few minutes, Elizabeth said, "It's...it's...um, what is all this, Marshall?"
"It's the very latest computer technology for the blind, Elizabeth. It's what I use myself and I wanted Luke to have it as he goes through school."
There were several large sections to it and Marshall explained about the computer that would respond to Luke's voice, about the printer that would print in both the regular manner and in Braille, giving a brief rundown of all the other aspects of the technology. "And as new developments come about, I'll be sending him whatever I get for myself so he'll always have the latest technology."
"Oh, Marshall," Elizabeth said, her voice breaking, "I..."
"It's all right, Elizabeth. I really want him to have these things. It's important to me that he does. He means a lot to me."
"Don't forget the other thing," Eden prompted.
"Ah, yes. Martha, can you find one more square, flat package for him?"
Luke opened that one, too. "It's a book?"
"Open the cover, Luke."
He did and Marshall's voice began to read the story, which had simple, embossed pictures on the pages. "I had that specially made for you. Whenever you turn the pages, there I'll be, reading it to you."
"Just like you were in the room," Luke said.
"That's what I wanted, Luke. You can hear me whenever you like."
Luke got up, hurrying toward Marshall, practically falling over the coffee table but not minding. He found Marshall and flung himself into his lap. "I want you all the time, Marshy. I love you so much!"
"I love you, too, Luke. I really do. Now what about that snowman?"
One of the things Marshall had given Eden was a video camera because he knew how important saving the moments were to her. It didn't matter that he couldn't see what she filmed. He wanted her to have it. He still wasn't sure he had any correct concept at all of what even a still photograph was, much less whatever it was a video camera could do, but he knew it would mean a lot to her, especially with Morgan around now, and she spent the entire time the snowman was being built, getting it all on film. What she wanted most was Marshall laughing as he rolled snow into big balls and how he interacted with Luke, all happy and smiling. It was a treasure, she thought, having that on film. All she'd ever had of him before was the videotape the kidnappers had made. She knew what she was doing, though. She was saving him up, hoarding the sight of him against...what? She didn't want to put a name to that. It was Christmas and she was trying desperately hard not to protect herself from happiness.
When they came back inside he made slow love to her in a warm shower, then they dressed in wool and boots, bundling Morgan up for the drive to Stuart's for dinner. Ryan had almost offered to drive them but Connie had shaken her head no. She knew Eden, knew she'd want to drive him there and back herself. Eden had the very best snow tires on her 4-wheel drive car and it was true, she did want her husband and her son in her own vehicle.
Stuart's huge house rang with laughter and happy chatter, and the aromas of good things to eat were marvelous to the nose. Marshall worked again with Luke, getting him to pay attention and be able to identify the scents. He also showed him simple things, like keeping his forefinger just slightly over the inside rim of his glass when it was being filled to tell when it was almost up to the rim. Not that Luke poured things for himself all that often yet, but he would, and little tricks were nice to know.
After dinner they gathered in the big living room while Martha played the piano and everyone joined in Christmas carols. After a while Martha turned and looked at Marshall. "You'll sing for us?" she asked.
"Anything in particular?"
"Well, darling, there's this one song...not Christmas...but I'd love to hear you sing it."
He got up and went to the piano, guided there by Wadsworth as Marshall didn't know the arrangement of Stuart's house like he did the Inn. He leaned down and she whispered the title into his ear.
"I know it," he smiled, so he straightened, standing with his right palm resting on the piano, holding Wadsworth with his left. He knew precisely where in the room Eden was sitting, so he turned his eyes directly toward her as he began to sing.
Hands and faces, earth and sky
Love, love changes everything
How you live and how you die
Love, can make the summer fly
Or a night seem like a lifetime
Yes love, love changes everything
Now I tremble at your name
Nothing in the world will ever be the same
Days are longer, words mean more
Love, love changes everything
Pain is deeper than before
Love will turn your world around
And that world will last forever
Yes love, love changes everything
Brings you glory, brings you shame
Nothing in the world will ever be the same
Off into the
world we go
Planning futures, shaping years
Love comes in and suddenly all our wisdom disappears
Love makes fools of everyone
All the rules we made are broken
Yes love, love changes everyone
Live or perish in its flame
Love will never never let you be the same
Love will never never let you be the same
He'd stood there, right there, late last Christmas Day, singing by himself. She watched him utterly intently as he sang, his son asleep in her lap. Yes, that made it different. His son was asleep in her lap. Her eyes flickered down to him, a tiny, infant version of his father. She hadn't lost him last Christmas. No, she still had him and she had Morgan now, too. But when he sang 'pain is deeper than before' she knew she'd learned the truth of that. When Miles had been killed there in the snow, she'd known great pain, had truly mourned him, but it was simply...more...with Marshall. Everything was stronger, deeper, both love and
pain. And it was also true that love would never let her be the same. As she watched him sing it was all there, all fourteen months of him was there, the heights of the love and the passion and the depths of the agony.
What was it Emily Dickinson had written...Forever is composed of nows. Yes, that was it. She knew Marshall would agree entirely with that. Ok, Eden, she told herself, this is now and he's right there, strong and handsome and singing. Enjoy it, for Pete's sake. It's what you've got...now.
When he finished and came back to sit beside her, he leaned close and whispered, "Now, Eden."
"How did you...?"
"I know my wife. I know how you think. The lyrics...I could almost tangibly feel you thinking."
"It's that cavern of deep harmony thingie, isn't it?"
"I'm very cavernous," he smiled.
"Oh, Marshall, I need to go inside your cavern and float in your harmony."
"Later," he grinned. But he was concerned. They had to drive back to the Inn in a short while and it was snowing and exactly one year later.
In the sleigh last Christmas, the two of them with Ryan and Connie had headed out up the road that ran along the lake before any of the others left. Tonight, Martha made sure that they would travel in a caravan, Harold leading the way with her, Ryan and Connie and Edith right behind Eden's car, Mike and Maria going as far as Mike's house then turning off, Dale driving Elizabeth and Luke. It would be as different as she could make it, and they'd drive the main road, not the small lane by the lake.
Good-byes were said to those staying at Stuart's house, a portion of the leftovers gotten out of the refrigerator to be taken back to the Inn, Ryan and Mike both brushing the snow off Eden's car, exchanging silent looks as they did, both remembering a year ago.
"I don't like her driving it," Mike frowned.
"She wants to," Ryan shrugged. "Maybe she's afraid I'd kill him two Christmases in a row."
"I may go along all the way to the Inn then go back to my place."
"Still need to make sure she's ok, Mike?"
"I've got my head screwed on straight, Ryan. Don't worry about that. Maria's my lady and I'm really pleased with that. Seeing her here at Christmas, though, it just brings back how vulnerable she was, you know, and after a couple of months of watching over her, I kinda got used to it." He reached up to brush snow off the center of the roof of the car. "Just took her so long to come around after she fainted. Guess I just want to be sure she gets back to the Inn all right tonight."
"I know. I need to see him still alive and back inside the Inn. Seems like I've spent a lot of the last year keeping him alive. He's not an easy man to do that for."
Mike paused in his brushing. "When I heard about the kidnapping...my, God, Ryan, I could hardly stand it. And her pregnant, too."
"Well, he'll get to the Inn tonight if I have to carry him on my back."
Marshall was holding Morgan on his lap while Eden went to the bathroom. She already had her coat on but took it off again, hanging it on the back of the door. She didn't really need to use the facilities, but was just looking for a small, private place to gather herself. Staring at her reflection, she said, "You can do this, Eden. It's not far. You can do it and nothing will happen to him on the way."
Pressing her fingers hard into her forehead, she rubbed back and forth. A tension headache was getting a good grip. Wetting her hand, she held her cool palm there then wet it again, holding it to the back of her neck. With her fingers curled over the front edge of the sink, she stared at herself in the mirror again. "Love changes everything," she said to reflection. "How we live and how we die." He'd died a year ago because his love for her led him to protect her and not himself.
She closed the toilet lid and sat down, crossing her arms and pressing them tightly against her middle, forgetting that everyone who was going back to the Inn already had their coats on and was waiting.
After a while Edith tapped on the door. "Eden, darling, are you all right?"
Was she all right? Probably not. "I'm fine. I'll be right out."
With a sigh, she stood and put her coat on. When she opened the door, Edith took one look at her and said, "Oh, darling!"
"Headache, that's all. I'm ok."
"You don't have to do this, you know. "
"I do have to do it, Edith."
Edith sighed. "I suppose you do. Well, come on. Let's get it done before you explode."
Harold's truck had a plow on the front and he led the way, Eden right behind him, the other three vehicles behind her. She drove very slowly, carefully, her lips pressed together in a tight, white line the whole way. Marshall kept his left hand curved over her right thigh, talking to her, but she wasn't interested in conversation and barely said a word, the heaviness of her mood palpable in the car.
It had been the right thing for absolutely everybody, coming to the Inn for Christmas...for everybody but Eden. Marshall could feel the tension in even her thigh. No, next year they wouldn't come. Easter maybe, maybe the 4th of July or even Thanksgiving, but not Christmas. He wouldn't have her enduring this again.
When they were almost there she made a little sound, something that might issue from a wounded kitten, and he quickly asked, "What?" but she didn't reply.
"Tell me, darling," he insisted.
"The snow," she said barely audibly, "it just...stopped...and...and..."
"And what?" he urged.
"The clouds, they're blowing away and I can see..."
Ah, he thought. Stars. Little punctures in the blackness. "It's all right, darling. It's not last year. It's this year, all new if you'll let it."
If she'd let it. She'd been trying so hard but it wasn't working. She'd almost lost him too many times. Pulling into a parking place behind the Inn, she rested her forearms on the steering wheel, leaning her forehead against them.
He unbuckled and slid close. "We're here, my darling. It's over. We're here. Come on inside now."
She didn't move. "My head hurts so bad."
Mike pulled his pickup next to her car and got out. He opened her door, asking, "Eden, are you sick?"
She said nothing and Marshall spoke up. "She's got a really bad headache, Mike. She's been tense all day."
Mike leaned in, pressing the release on her buckle. "Eden, I'm going to get you inside now, all right."
Ryan was there, too, and opened the back door, getting Morgan and his car seat out. Edith watched then said, "Take him up to my room, Ryan. She's pumped some extra breast milk and I'm going to take care of him tonight."
Connie quickly gathered some things for Morgan out of Marshall and Eden's room as Mike laid her on the bed. Maria brought her a couple of headache tablets and some water.
"I...I'm sorry," she murmured. "Such a wimp."
"You are not a wimp," Connie said firmly. "You just get a good night's sleep, all right, and that headache'll go away."
Before she left, Connie got out Eden's nightgown and handed it to Marshall. He took it, whispering, "Not next Christmas."
"Yes," she agreed, "not Christmas. We'll work something else out. You need me to help with anything, Marshall?"
"Thank you, Connie, but no." She kissed his cheek and left.
Eden lay where Mike had placed her. Excedrin always worked fairly rapidly for her and she tried to relax to help it along but the tension just didn't seem to want to leave her body. When Marshall sat down beside her, she said, "Gaze at me."
"What? Oh, darling, not when your head hurts so much."
"Yes. I always feel so relaxed...after. I need to...to let go of this. Please, Marshall. Please put your hands on me."
"Well, I do need to help you get out of these clothes."
"Like only you can do. Please."
He shrugged out of his sport coat and loosened his top shirt buttons. She lay with her eyes closed, waiting. She'd been unconscious at the end of last Christmas Day. This year she wanted, needed, had to have as her last memory of the day, the touch of his hands on her body, his hands, so warm, so alive, so sensitive.
She was near the edge of the bed so he got down on his knees beside it, slipping her shoes off first, then taking his time with her buttons, taking a long, long time to undress her, his hands, his lips moving over her as skin was revealed. His touch was so light it was like being brushed by butterfly wings and the very lightness of it set her nerve endings tingling. As the long, delicious minutes passed, her lips parted more and more widely and she sucked in air in deeper and deeper gasps. When she was completely undressed, he still moved
slowly but more intensely and her back arched more and more. He was deliberately drawing it out, wanting every square inch of her to be involved and as she began to come, he covered her mouth with his. She almost burst apart with the intensity of it and he took her cry into himself, his own body trembling in response to it.
She was utterly drained, of tension, of pain, of wakefulness and so he quickly slipped out of his clothes and lay beside her, enfolding her, his skin against hers. In less than two minutes she was asleep in his arms. As the grandfather clock near the bottom of the stairs began to chime midnight, he kissed her temple and whispered, "Merry Christmas, my precious wife."