As if he sensed her disappointment, Blythe took her hand into his and gently stroked her fingers. “It'll be all right, Shamrock. We'll still spend a memorable Christmas and we'll see the kids in a few days.”
An avalanche had closed the Trans-Canada Highway near Revelstoke, trapping Hunter on the wrong side of the snow dump, and an ice storm on the east coast had cancelled Rowan's connecting flight to Calgary. What should have been their first Christmas as a family on their new ranch had turned into heartbreak.
“I know...” Still, she would rather spend Christmas Eve alone with her husband at the ranch than surrounded by strangers. “Can we go back home and cuddle in front of the fireplace?”
Deep laughter reverberated inside the SUV. “It's tempting, but no.”
To cheer her up, Blythe had insisted on a road trip to a secret destination. After what felt like hours, he stopped and turned the engine off. A tender kiss brushed her lips then the blindfold loosened and fell onto her lap.
A snowy mountain covered with evergreen climbed into the clouds. In its fold rested a wooden building from where vapor mounted into the air.
“It's beautiful, Blythe. Where are we?”
“Banff.” He reached on the backseat for their gym bags. “Come.”
Her hand tucked into Blythe's glove and her bag slung over her shoulder, she strolled by his side. Teased by the wind, the snowflakes swirled in the cold air and pricked her cheeks. As they drew closer, voices and laughter leaped from the vapor, and a strong, acerbic odor tickled Riley's nose.
“Is that sulfur?” As she identified the chemical compound, understanding dawned on her. “Hot Springs?”
~ * ~
In the changing room, Riley searched her bag. Blythe had replaced her top, shorts, and runners with a towel and the teal bikini she'd bought on their Icelandic honeymoon in November. The purchase had been for her husband's eyes only, not to parade in public.
Around her, tourists wore old-fashioned bathing suits while chatting in foreign languages Riley didn't understand. To her relief, no one seemed to pay attention to her or her sexy attire.
A steamy tunnel sloping downward led to the thermal pool. As she advanced, the hot mineral water rose, encircling her ankles. Sporting blue and gray trunks, Blythe waited a few feet away.
He sought her hand, then her waist, pulling her into a loving embrace. “You're stunning.”
The door opened and the cold Canadian winter assailed her bare skin.
“This is amazing, Blythe.”
~ * ~
Riley sank to her neck into the water, and the blissful sigh escaping her lips warmed Blythe's heart. Christmas was all about love and family. Tears of sorrow didn't belong in her lovely green eyes.
He wrapped her in his arms and sat with her on his lap. A shield of vapor arched over their heads, transforming the falling snow into a warm mist. The tension of the day ebbed away as his wife relaxed against his chest. Leaning forward, he nibbled on her ear. Her wiggly response fueled his passion. “I love you, Shamrock.”
At the mercy of strong wind gusts, fog patches drifted across the water, enveloping the bathers. Taking advantage of the low visibility, Blythe ventured covert caresses over her bikini.
“You're not behaving,” she whispered against his neck, her fingers laced with his.
His skin tingled under her touch and he basked in the sensations she awoke. “You're impossible to resist.”
Silent laughter rippled through her body. “Will we spend the night in Banff?”
Had his efforts to give her a special Christmas failed, he would have entertained the idea. “No, we have a plane to catch.”
“We're flying?” A hint of panic had crept into her voice. “Where?”
He bestowed a feathery kiss in the crook of her neck. “If I tell you, it won't be a surprise.”
~ * ~
As Riley entered the Calgary airport, hope there might have been a last-minute seat available for Rowan or Hunter surged, only to crash when Blythe presented her with a boarding pass.
The destination stunned her. “We're flying to Winnipeg?”
“When Beth learned the kids couldn't come home until later this week, she invited us.” Blythe shared a close relationship with his sister Beth and her twin sons. That he'd want to spend Christmas with them shouldn't have come as a shock. After all, Christmas was all about spending time with loved ones.
Her disappointment bottled up, Riley smiled. “That's very sweet of her.”
During the flight, Blythe regaled her with childhood stories, and as she joined in with tales of her own, the memories of the past alleviated the ache in her heart. She might not be with her children, but they were present in her heart.
By the time the plane landed, she was eager to experience the magic of Christmas through the eyes of two rambunctious eight-year-old boys.
~ * ~
The smell of chocolate and cookie dough wafted into the vestibule, teasing Blythe's nose and empty stomach.
“I'm so glad you're here.” Beth smothered him and Riley with a long hug. “Noah and Adam are in the kitchen making cookies with their two little cousins.”
Eager to meet the visitors and taste their creation, Blythe pressed a hand to the small of his wife's back and directed her toward the clatters and laughter.
“You have four cookie monsters in your kitchen?” Riley's gorgeous eyes shone a darker shade of green. “Are you sure it's safe to enter?”
His sister looked at him with a knowing smile. Blythe owed her big for the many trips she made to the airport today.
“I promise to protect you from sticky fingers.” As he teased his wife, Blythe nudged her along. “This way.”
Riley stilled in the kitchen doorway.
A spatula clunked onto the floor, dropping chunks of cookie dough in its wake. His nephews squealed when Rowan and Hunter enveloped their mother in a bear hug.
Tears streamed down Riley's cheeks as she gazed lovingly at him over their children's shoulders. “Thank you.”
“Merry Christmas, Shamrock.”
~ * ~
Author’s note: "Unexpected: Duty Bound for Christmas" is a short story taking place between Unscripted (Duty Bound #1) and Unearthed (Duty Bound #2). I hope you enjoyed. Merry Christmas! XOX