"If it’s all right with you, I thought we’d leave for Seattle about two o’clock Christmas Eve," she said, interrupting his thoughts.
"Sure," Riley answered, cutting a fat link sausage with the side of his fork. "That’ll be fine."
"Dad’s anxious to see us both. I’ve missed him."
Riley nodded, preoccupied. "It might be a good idea if we go shopping soon for a crib and whatever else we’re going to need."
"I’d like to have everything set up for the baby before the middle of January."
"Why?" She stopped eating, setting her fork down as she studied him.
The apprehension in her eyes ate at him like battery acid. "I’ll be away again. This time until April."
She swallowed tightly. "The baby’s due the middle of March."
"I know. I won’t be here, Hannah. I’d give anything to be with you, but I can’t."
"I…know," she admitted reluctantly. "But don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Cheryl volunteered to be my birthing partner… but I wish it could be you."
"I wish it could be, too." More than she’d ever know, but it wouldn’t do any good to stew about it. Several of his peers had become first-time fathers while out at sea. He’d do it, too, although it didn’t sit right with him to have Hannah go through the delivery and birth without him there.
"Would you like to do some Christmas shopping this afternoon?" Riley asked, hoping to lighten the mood.
Her nod was eager. "I love Christmas. I guess I’m just a little kid at heart."
"We all are when it comes to receiving presents," Riley murmured. Until recently he hadn’t a clue what he should buy for Hannah, but he’d inadvertently stumbled upon the perfect gift for his wife. Now, all he had to do was keep it a secret for the next three weeks.
* * *
"Dad!" Hannah called out as she stepped into her childhood home, feeling engulfed in its warmth and welcome. "We’re here."
George Raymond stepped out from the den, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. He wore slacks, a shirt and the old gray wool sweater she’d knitted for him several years back. His smile was broad and automatic as he spied Hannah and Riley just inside the front door.
"Welcome, welcome," he greeted, holding open his arms. He gave Hannah an enthusiastic hug and exchanged hearty handshakes with Riley.
"Let me get a good look at you," her father said excitedly, stepping back to examine her.
Hannah couldn’t help but blush. She removed her coat and hung it in the hall closet, self-conscious the whole time of how prominent her pregnancy was becoming. A little nervous, as well, knowing she’d be confronting members of her father’s congregation. It wouldn’t take long for anyone to realize she’d been several months pregnant when she married Riley.
"I’m getting so fat," she murmured, resting her hands on her bulging stomach.
"I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you more beautiful," he told her thoughtfully. "My goodness, girl! You look more like your mother every day."
"Where would you like me to put these things?" Riley asked. He’d returned to the car and had carted back an armload of goods Hannah had insisted they bring.
"Oh, my goodness, I forgot about the pies. In here," she said, directing Riley toward the kitchen.
He followed her into the country-style kitchen and set the flat boxes that contained the pumpkin and apple pies on the countertop. "I swear you packed enough food to feed an army," he chastised. But she noted he wasn’t complaining too loudly since she’d baked the apple pie especially for him.
"Dad wouldn’t have known what to have ready," she explained for the sixth time. She’d gone grocery shopping the day before, picking up everything they’d need for Christmas dinner. Her father had relied on her to cook the main meal at Christmas for so many years, she doubted that he knew what to have on hand. Rather than leave it to chance, she’d brought everything with her, much to Riley’s chagrin.
As Riley and her father carried everything inside, she sorted through the grocery sacks, tucking several items inside the cupboards.
It felt good to be home again, Hannah mused. She felt keenly the warmth of her father’s welcome, although she’d had mixed feelings about this visit for several weeks.
Oh, she was pleased to see her father again. They’d spoken regularly on the phone, taking turns contacting each other, and he’d been the one to suggest she and Riley make the two-hour trip to Seattle for the Christmas holiday.
Hannah had agreed without giving the invitation a second thought. It wasn’t until much later that she realized it would be difficult to hide her pregnancy. Although most everyone in her father’s congregation was kind and loving, there were sure to be some who’d feel it was their God-given duty to point out that she’d married much too quickly and quietly after losing Jerry; and when they noticed her stomach, they’d know why.
Funny, she hadn’t thought about her late fiancé in weeks. Although he was never far from her mind, the love she felt for him seemed far removed from the life she shared with Riley now. Jerry would always be someone special in her life and in her heart, but he was gone. Without her ever realizing it, the emptiness she’d experienced in the grief-filled weeks following his death had come to be filled with the love that had flourished for Riley and their child.
Even so, someone was bound to mention Jerry during her visit, and she wasn’t sure how Riley would react when it happened.
The weeks since his return from the training cruise had been idyllic – so perfect that she didn’t want to risk ruining the fragile peace between them.
"Hannah, my goodness!" her father called out from the living room. "So many gifts."
She left the kitchen to find Riley bent under the Christmas tree, unloading two shopping bags filled with brightly wrapped gifts.
"Ho, ho, ho," he teased, grinning up at her.
"What’s that?" she asked, noticing a large square box she hadn’t seen before.
Riley tucked it at the back of the tree, out of her reach. "Never you mind."
"The candlelight service is at seven," her father reminded them.
Hannah glanced at her watch. "I’d better change my clothes now," she said, heading toward the stairway.
"I put your suitcases in your old room," her father called out after her. Hannah stopped midstep and glanced back at her husband, her eyes wide with apprehension.
Riley read her look and followed her up the stairs. "What’s wrong?" he asked, once they were out of earshot of the living room.
"Dad doesn’t know," she whispered, hating the way color crept into her cheeks.
Rather than go into a long explanation, she climbed to the top of the stairs and opened her bedroom door for him to see for himself. Inside sat two suitcases: one belonging to her and the other to Riley.
"Dad assumes we’re sleeping together," she said. "If we don’t… he might think something is wrong. Would you mind very much, Riley, just for tonight?"
He paused just inside the room, and his eyes slowly found hers. "No, Hannah," he told her after a while. "I don’t mind at all."
Riley couldn’t be more pleased at this turn of events. His own father-in-law had inadvertently laid the groundwork Riley had been impatiently waiting weeks to arrange. Hannah and he would be sharing a bed for the first time since their marriage nearly three months past. It was all Riley could do not to wear a silly grin.
"Will you be joining us for the candlelight service?" George Raymond asked Riley once he was back downstairs.
Personally, Riley hadn’t given the matter much thought. He’d been attending services with Hannah for the past few Sundays and was surprised to find church wasn’t nearly as bad as he’d assumed. The sermons had practical applications to everyday life. He listened carefully, hoping to gain insight into Hannah’s personality. And into his own.
"Hannah told me you’d been going to church with her lately," George added, wearing a proud look, as though he’d always known his daughter would turn Riley’s life around. "I’m pleased to hear it."
Riley nodded, swallowing down a sarcastic reply; but one good turn deserved another, and his father-in-law had gotten Hannah into his bed – a feat Riley had been attempting for weeks. Christmas Eve candlelight service, however, seemed above and beyond the call of duty.
It wasn’t until they walked the short distance from the parsonage to the white steepled church that Riley understood why George had made an issue of inviting him to the service. It would be the first time Hannah had been home since their wedding. With them married short of three months and her pregnancy apparent, there was sure to be stares and a few harsh questions.
Riley’s arm tightened around Hannah’s shoulders; he wanted to shield her from gossip and candid looks. He was grateful when they sat toward the front of the church, away from discerning eyes.
Once they were situated in the polished wooden pew, Riley’s gaze found the manger scene. The baby nestled in the straw captured his attention, and he couldn’t help wondering how Joseph must have felt the night Mary had been in labor. At least he hadn’t been out to sea, worrying about his wife, wishing he could be with her. The scene hit too close to home, and drawing a heavy breath, he looked away.
The service started shortly after they arrived. One thing Riley appreciated about church was the music. When they stood and sang Christmas carols, his loud baritone voice boomed through the building, bringing several stares and a few appreciative nods.
Hannah glanced up at him and smiled so sweetly that for a few measures, Riley had trouble singing. Love did funny things to a man, he realized meaningfully. Last Christmas Eve he’d been sitting in a bar, hitting on the waitress. Twelve months later, he was standing in a church singing "Silent Night" at the top of his lungs.
George Raymond moved toward the altar and lit a candle, using it to ignite others. Two men stepped forward and accepted the lighted candles. Protecting the flame by cupping their hands behind the wick, they moved down the center aisle, lighting the candle of the parishoner sitting at the end of the pew. That person shared the flame with the one sitting next to him, who turned to share it with the next person, until the light had been passed all the way down the row. Soon every candle in the church was burning.
There were a few more rousing Christmas carols. George might not have intended them to be sung boisterously, but Riley was in a spirited mood and it felt good to sing loud and strong as if he’d been doing it every Christmas of his life. At least he knew the tunes of these hymns. Some of the others he’d heard in church the past few weeks sounded as though they’d come straight out of the Middle Ages.
The sermon was short and sweet, just the way Riley liked them. He’d wondered what kind of preacher his father-in-law would be, suspecting George Raymond would be the fire-and-brimstone type, but Riley was pleasantly surprised.