Heartland Cheer

Chapter 1

 

“Do you see Mom?” Arian asked, straining to look through the group of people who had congregated at the edge of the Niagara River, eager to see the fascinating and beautiful light display that was put on every night as the water in the river rushed over the falls, creating one of the most stunning displays of power and of God’s amazing handiwork on the continent.

It might be the beginning of December, but it was unseasonably warm, and Braxton Emerson wore a T-shirt and jeans.

It had been all over the local news about the unseasonably warm fall this area had had.

Being from Iowa, Braxton hadn’t had a clue what the local weather was doing until he arrived earlier this afternoon.

He and Arian had checked into their rented house, then Arian could barely contain herself, wanting to see the falls for the first time in her life.

The first time she could remember.

“She might not be here,” he said. “We’re not supposed to meet until nine o’clock, and that’s at the lobby of the hotel where she’s staying.”

“She’s going to come to our house?” Arian asked, even though she’d already asked that question and he’d answered the same way he was going to answer now.

“I don’t know.”

When she was younger, Arian hadn’t been a big talker, but over the last year or so, there’d been a lot of changes happening, both in her body and her personality.

As a single dad, he hadn’t felt prepared to deal with any of those changes.

Maybe that was part of the reason he’d gone out of his way to meet his wife.

She wasn’t his ex. He’d never wanted a divorce, and she’d never asked for one.

No one had known about their marriage anyway.

Tempted to finger the chain around his neck on which his wedding band hung, he didn’t. It was tucked under his T-shirt, and maybe he was a sentimental fool, but he never took it off.

“The hydroelectric power plant located just upstream was at one time the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world.” The voice of the guide of the tour group standing slightly in front of him droned on.

Braxton wasn’t really paying attention, although he did find the falls fascinating. This wasn’t his first time here, and some of the happiest, and saddest, moments of his life had been spent here.

He hadn’t thought he’d ever come back.

“At this time of year, the Niagara River is already at its lowest seasonal level, and about seventy-five percent of the river is diverted at night to feed the turbines of the power plant.”

After the guide said this, there was murmuring in the group, as people were astonished that so much of the river was diverted. It didn’t really take away from the beauty of the falls nor the power that a person felt as the ground vibrated from the surge beating as the water landed far below.

“How deep is the river now?” one lady asked. Braxton found himself looking over the railing, wondering that himself.

“It’s approximately two feet deep,” the guide said with confidence. “In some places, it’s less, and others more. But don’t let the shallowness fool you. The current is still strong and swift, and moving quite quickly.”

He went on to talk about the speed of the water and the force of the current, and Braxton quit listening, thinking about his daughter and wondering if this was the best thing for her.

He was only spending two weeks here, and he’d be back in Iowa for Christmas. Krista, his wife, had asked for Christmas with her daughter, and he’d compromised by saying that he would come the whole way to Niagara Falls, which made her trip from Toronto short and easy, and she would be able to spend almost all of her break with her daughter.

In return, Christmas would be as it always was for them, at the big old farmhouse in Iowa, with his brothers and grandmother.

Maybe it was selfish of him to want that tradition to be unbroken, but he’d spent five years away from home, and he’d sworn when he went back that he’d never leave it again.

The group moved a little farther away, and the sound of the pounding water drowned out any more of their conversation. He and Arian needed to make their way up as well, since the hotel they were meeting Krista at was farther upriver.

He started to walk, and his daughter fell into step beside him. They went slowly, both of them fascinated by the water and the power it represented.

It was hard to imagine a more beautiful night to be out, although the warmth of the evening probably made it more crowded than it might normally be.

Nervous anticipation curled in his stomach, and he could feel adrenaline pushing through his veins, making him want to run. Whether it would be toward his wife or away from her, he wasn’t sure.

Equal parts of both, probably.

Arian and he had strolled for probably ten minutes, stopping every once in a while when they came to a spot where the railing was clear to step closer and stare at the silent but swiftly moving river.

They were stopped at a random spot when a woman ahead of them caught his eye.

It wasn’t the woman exactly, at first anyway, but it was more the dog she carried.

It looked familiar, and a memory he hadn’t thought of in a decade slammed into him so hard he put a hand on the railing.

“Dad?” Arian said, concern darkening her deep brown eyes.

He shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said, summoning up just a bit of a smile. As the oldest of four brothers, he wasn’t used to showing weakness.

Plus, the one time he allowed his defenses to come down and gave his heart to someone, she’d broken it, quite brutally, and thrown it back at him.

No. Weakness wasn’t something he was good at.

The people around them shifted, and he saw the dog again.

The woman holding it was slender and tall, both of which were emphasized by the long tailored pants she wore and the stylish and snug-fitting sweater.

The dog seemed restless, squirming in her arms, as the woman stood at the rail, turned just enough upriver that he couldn’t see the outline of her features but could watch the wind lifting her hair and blowing it back away from her face.

The dog wriggled again, seeming to squirm almost to get out of her arms, and she shifted, as though she were preoccupied.

He supposed it could be Krista, and the thought made him stop a good hundred feet back.

Surely not.

Back when he knew her, she’d never been early for anything in her life, and it was at least an hour until they were to meet.

The dog…

It reminded him so much of Cricket, the dog he’d bought her as a wedding gift.

Maybe it seemed like a strange gift, but they’d been driving in the Finger Lakes and had stopped at an Amish fruit market to buy some apples. There had been several Amish children running around the yard playing with puppies, adorable and sweet, innocent and cute.

Those puppies happened to be for sale.

Krista had been charmed, and he’d been completely and totally under her spell. He would have said yes to anything, but she hadn’t had to ask.

They’d just looked at each other and known. And they’d spent the rest of their honeymoon with the puppy.

Because of Krista’s upbringing, bouncing from foster care home to foster care home, she’d fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with the dog. Even the birth of their daughter a year later hadn’t dethroned Cricket from her place in Krista’s heart.

It had been one of the things he’d loved about her. Her capacity to love, deeply and without restraint. Freely and beautifully and fearlessly.

The opposite of him, really. The opposite in that Krista loved everything and everyone that way.

Braxton only loved Krista and his family with that kind of dangerous love.

The crowd shifted again, and this time, he spent such an obviously long amount of time staring that Arian turned her head and looked as well.

“That looks like the dog I had when I was little,” she murmured, possibly putting the idea that that could be her mother together in her brain.

She didn’t say. She just let the sentence end abruptly.