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Betrayal, forgiveness, a wounded hero and the only woman he ever loved.
After years in a Yankee prison camp, Tom Montgomery returned to Virginia to discover the wife who said she'd love him forever had mistakenly been informed of his death and married another man. Seven years later, Tom returns to Montgomery, Texas to discover Elizabeth has been living at his grandfather's ranch. Can a Christmas miracle heal the pain of betrayal and bring their two hearts together again?
Moving forward, he refused to dwell on all that had been lost. With his head high, he shifted his crutches in front of his body, then hopped forward to meet them, his rhythm like that of a broken pendulum only able to swing halfway. His underarms ached from the constant pressure of his weight against the padded wood, but as he hobbled up the narrow lane he was grateful he had two legs and could still walk.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and his chest tightened painfully beneath his tattered, gray uniform as the house came into focus. Its silhouette appeared dark against the backdrop of orange and pink evening sky. And despite the destruction of this once beautiful horse farm, he felt buoyant, as though a great weight had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders.
Bethís grandfather sat on the porch. His wicker rocking chair moved quietly back and forth, as Tom, managing one stair at a time, slowly hopped up the wide wooden steps. He was grateful the old man said nothing. Tom didnít want help, and he didnít want pity. Exhausted, he leaned his back against a pillar at the top of the stairs. Once painted a creamy white, the column was now chipped and bare.
"Hello, Mr. Bennett."
Henry Bennett stared back. "Hello." But there was no recognition in his voice.
Tom knew he looked bad. Prison had emaciated his once healthy body to mere skin and bones. The scar from a saber cut bisected the left side of his face, and a leather patch now covered the place
where his eye should have been.
"Itís me, Tom Montgomery."
A slow smile spread across Henry Bennettís lined face, and his pale blue eyes lost their slightly vacant look.
"Yes," he agreed with growing enthusiasm. "Elizabethís favorite suitor. Sheís quite fond of you, young man."
Tom smiled to himself. He certainly hoped Beth was fond of him. She had married him at Christmas, six months before he marched off to war.
The old man gave his rocker a push. "I havenít seen you lately. Where have you been keepiní yourself?"
Taken aback, Tomís mouth dropped open. He gaped at Bethís grandfather, until he recalled the manís odd sense of humor.
"I reckon business has kept me out of town, sir." Tom chuckled, but his laughter erupted into several minutes of harsh coughing.
The old man nodded, continued rocking, and stared out across the overgrown lawn until Tom had composed himself.
"Excuse me, sir." He offered a hesitant smile. "Itís been so long. Is Beth at home?"
The old man lifted his pale gaze to Tomís face.
Tom frowned. He tried again. "Elizabeth. Iíve missed her so much. Is she here?" A funny little knot tightened the walls of his stomach. Heíd always imagined Beth waiting for him. It never crossed his mind that something could have happened to her. Illness, an accident, or even Yankee guerillas. Oh God, please donít let her be dead!
Bethís Grandfather briefly swung his attention to the front door of the house. Tom followed his gaze but no one appeared. Was Beth inside?
The old man blinked several times before he spoke. "Elizabeth has gone north to stay with my
sister, Catherine, in Albany."
Albany? Tom exhaled a weighted sigh. At least she was all right. Though the news was disappointing, sending Beth north had probably been the best thing her grandfather could have done. She would have been safe from cannon fire and stray bullets, had plenty to eat, and access to basic necessities.
"New York is lovely this time of year with all the snow and the evergreens." Henry Bennett continued. "I remember the first time Elizabeth saw all that snow. How she laughed! My granddaughter has the most beautiful smile."
Yes, Tom had dreamed of that smile during the long feverish nights in the hospital after he was wounded and the dark months of prison camp which followed. The memory of Bethís smile had kept him alive many times when he wanted to die.
"When will she be back? Maybe I could go there." He didnít know how he would manage it. He still wasnít feeling well, and he had no money. Actually, the war had been over for months. She should have returned by now. He wondered briefly what had kept her away.
The old man shook his head. "Iím sorry, son, but my granddaughter is married now."
"Yes, sir, to meóTom Montgomery."
He shook his white head sadly. "Tom Montgomery is dead."
"Thereís been a mistake. I didnít die." Tom took a breath to continue, but began coughing. The deep rasping sound was torn from the bottom of his lungs. He doubled over from the force of it, his hands squeezing tight the padded grips of his crutches as he struggled to keep from collapsing.
"She has a child now. No, two children. Boys. Heís a nice young man too." He gave the rocker another push. "What is his name? I have a hard time
rememberiní his name. I must be gettiní old. Loves horses he does. My Elizabeth, too. I have never seen her so happy." Henry Bennett continued talking, but Tom no longer listened.