Skylar walked into the living room and silently groaned. She’d been doing so well.
Stephanie lay on the sofa in the near darkness, a streetlight shining in through the window. She had pulled a blanket up over her head and was curled into herself, her body shaking as she cried.
This wasn’t new, and it had been a while since she’d fallen so completely apart. Stephanie refused to allow Kayla to see this side of her, but tonight Kayla was with Rebecca and the stress of the season had finally caught up.
“I’m here,” he said quietly. He’d been gone most of the day, finishing last-minute Christmas shopping and taking care of errands for the hotel. Stephanie had a wedding reception earlier today and she was done until Tuesday when Sycamore House would act as host for yet more holiday parties. They were both looking forward to February. He couldn’t wait to get her away from Bellingwood for a short cruise she’d scheduled. Whenever they traveled, Stephanie left everything behind. The first few times they’d gone without Kayla, she’d worried enough to call and check, but Kayla was a responsible girl, and besides, Rebecca was always around.
Stephanie had been pushing hard through these last few weeks with wedding receptions, holiday parties, and two business classes she’d taken in Boone. The girl never let herself slow down because when she did, the horrors of her past and the grief she felt over those days overwhelmed her. As she had grown into the role of mother to Kayla, assistant to Jeff Lyndsay, and manager of so much, she set herself aside. It had taken more than a year for her to allow Skylar to see the part of her that was so terribly wounded.
The first time she’d drifted into such deep melancholy, Skylar hadn’t known what to think or do for her. Kayla was out of the house and Stephanie managed to tell him that he couldn’t ask her sister for help. Kayla didn’t know about this. He’d stuck close, surprising Stephanie completely. She told him later that was the moment she trusted he’d never leave her.
As if he could ever leave her. He’d fallen for her hard. How could he not? She was incredible. Self-sacrifice described this girl and yet she didn’t see it in herself. She was stubborn and bright, tenacious and driven. Everything Stephanie achieved, she did for herself. He was so proud of her.
Skylar couldn’t imagine growing up, living as Stephanie did. Terrified of her father’s abuse, terrified of what he did to her every night in the darkness of her bedroom, terrified of what he did to his wife in the light of day. She’d run, taking her sister away from that awful man before he transferred his affections, knowing that her mother would be punished. And the woman had paid for allowing her daughters to leave with her life. That guilt weighed on Stephanie, even though she knew that her mother wanted them to go. She hadn’t been strong enough to stop the abuse, but she’d take whatever he handed out to offer freedom to her daughters.
Sometimes Skylar got so angry, though. She could have given those girls up long before that man started in on Stephanie. But his anger did nothing to help Stephanie now. That story was told and finished … in the real world. In Stephanie’s mind, the story replayed itself over and over and Skylar couldn’t fix it. All he could do was stay close when she fell to pieces.
When she was like this, darkness was all Stephanie could handle. The blanket over her head was there to keep light from assaulting her eyes. He walked back into the kitchen, took two candles from a shelf, lit them, and turned off the rest of the lights in the house. Carrying the candles back into the living room, he set one atop the television cabinet and the other on a table beside the rocking chair.
He sat in the rocking chair and reached over to put his hand on Stephanie’s shoulder. “I’m here, Stephanie. I love you.”
“Sorry,” she murmured. “I can’t do this.” The sobbing had stopped, but she wasn’t yet at peace.
He tucked a few tissues under the blanket by her head. She’d need those when she was ready. “I know. You’re okay.” Skylar thought about the gifts he still needed to bring inside. He would hide hers in the basement. Christmas was still a few days away, and he’d waited as long as he dared to bring it home. Stephanie was forever cleaning. There wasn’t a room in the house where he could hide things. One year he’d thought about using a hotel room, but as soon as he thought of it, he realized that one of the staff members would find it. They’d ask questions at the worst time, too. Right when Stephanie walked into the room.
One thing about Stephanie that drove Skylar absolutely crazy was her insistence that she wasn’t a beautiful woman. She spent hours watching videos to learn how to do her makeup and hair. She said that she hated looking at herself in the mirror for so many years, it was hard to even recognize her own face in the mornings. Stephanie used to cut her own hair, but she’d finally discovered the joy in letting a professional care for her. Her mornings at Mina Dendrade’s salon were now some of her favorite experiences. She was even paying for manicures because of the attention and care they gave her.
He’d found a beautiful vanity. She never complained about the small bathroom they shared, but he wanted her to have her own space, a place where she could spread out and pamper herself when she had time. They’d have to shift a few things around in the bedroom, but there was room. He’d give up his own dresser if necessary. It shouldn’t be necessary. The vanity came with a small set of drawers that would allow her even more storage for her personal items and he’d splurged on a comfortable bench with a back. He wanted her to know how beautiful he thought she was.
Skylar stood to go back to the kitchen for something to drink.
He stopped in his tracks. “I’m right here.”
“I was going to the kitchen. Would you like a glass of water?”
He sat back down and rested his hand on the arm of the sofa. “I’m here.”
“I’m sorry about this.”
“You never need to apologize to me. It’s okay. Did something happen at work?”
Stephanie pulled the blanket away from her face and his heart broke at the sadness that filled her eyes. “Nothing. I’m just tired. Tired of feeling like this. Tired of living in my head.” She tapped at her temple with her index finger.
“I know.” He understood, though he also understood that she didn’t feel like this every day. She didn’t live in the dark place all the time. In fact, the longer they were together, the more she’d been able to set aside the pain. But today it was the only thing present for Stephanie. He was in no hurry for her to feel better or get past this. She’d do it in her own time.
He reached into his pocket and smiled. “I bought you something today.”
“It’s not Christmas.”
“I know. Here.” He set it on the edge of the sofa.
“What?” Stephanie put her hand over the ornament he’d laid there. It was a simple pair of lacy angel wings. Someone had set them on top of the candy in the checkout aisle. The moment he saw them, he knew they were coming home with him. “What?” she asked again.
“You’ll never know how much I love you,” Skylar said. “Those wings are yours. As if they were removed when you were born and showed up right where I’d see them so they’d find you again.”
A hint of a smile crossed her lips and Stephanie cradled the ornament in her hands. “I’m not delicate.”
“And thank goodness for that,” he replied. “The world has tried to break you and you keep getting stronger. But wings are powerful, no matter how delicate they look. Just like you, they ride the air currents, but with a swoop or a twist, they choose where they will go. Wings are strong enough to lift from the ground and sensitive enough to feel each whisper of wind.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. Tears spurted from her eyes, but these weren’t tears of pain and grief. Stephanie reached out and wrapped her arm around his. “Thank you.”
“I love you, Steph.”
“I’ll never understand why you do, but I love you, too.”
That was why he loved her. She loved him back with no strings or expectations. Stephanie would give everything she had for those she loved.
Skylar looked at the Christmas tree, darkened for now. He rubbed the top of the hand she’d laid on his arm. If he could fill the tree with angel wings so she understood the strength he saw in her, he’d do it.
“Merry Christmas,” he said softly.
Stephanie squeezed his arm. The wings lay on the pillow beside her head. She closed her eyes and her breathing deepened as she fell asleep.
“Merry Christmas,” Skylar repeated.