Jennifer Ward finds the holidays painful, and she argues with a client, Russell, when he tells her to do his store window over because he does not like her attempt at humor. Jennifer grows angry and frustrated and tells the shocked man that she would rather be run over by a Mac truck. She storms outside, upset, and ignores Russell’s cries to stop. A Mac truck hits Jennifer, and she dies to the life she’s known, only to wake up in Wyoming in the year 1873.
Dragon Reynolds is grieving for his sweet wife who died having their youngest daughter. He is even more snarly than normal, and his family is worried sick about him and his three children. When Will finds Jennifer lying on the ground, wearing men’s clothing, their Ma, Nora, is positive that she was sent by God to help her eldest son. Will isn’t as sure as his Ma, and he does everything in his power to find her family, or someone who is looking for the redhead. When he returns it is to find his eldest brother whaling away on Jenny’s backside. Nora worries that it will take something drastic to bring the two together after they got off on the wrong foot, so she meddles and learns she isn’t above a trip over his knee, either!
Jennifer heard Russell’s prayer for her at the end of her life, and wonders if it is truly possible for her to find holiday magic in this new beginning.
“This window does not suit me, Ms. Ward. There is no sparkle, no magic! We want to celebrate Thanksgiving, not remind people that turkeys are raised and slaughtered in order to put food on our tables. There should be something whimsical, a family sitting around a large table, smiles on their faces. Little Peter should be telling everyone that he is thankful for his mommy and his daddy. That is what people want to see, not turkeys milling about in uniform, carrying weapons to shoot anyone who dares to try and cook them!” The sixty-year-old store manager was growing more and more agitated by the second. He was waving his hands and looking distraught.
“Perhaps you should decorate the window, Mr. Percil?” Jennifer said quietly. She hated this time of year. From Halloween through New Year’s Eve, she simply wanted to crawl into a hole and hide from the world. The holidays weren’t for people like her. They just reminded her that she was all alone in the world, and that no one loved her, not even the ones who should love her because of the blood running through their veins. No, she hated the holidays, and she wasn’t going to do the traditional, sappy windows that people like Russell Percil expected. Hell, he had a loving family to celebrate with and he just didn’t understand what it was like to be alone!
“You are the one who is paid to decorate our store windows, Ms. Ward. I suggest you take down this offensive nonsense and come in here tomorrow morning with a different attitude. People want to feel the magic of the holidays, and you will supply it, do you hear me?” The manager’s voice had risen with his agitation.
“I heard you, mister. Your voice is all funny. Mommy says you are gay. Is that true?” a nearby little boy asked curiously.
“Yes, young man, I am gay; very proud of it in fact, and I have a husband. Does your mommy have anything to say about that?” Russell asked, clearly offended.
“She says she wishes she was gay so she wouldn’t have to take us kids everywhere with her,” the child answered honestly, as his mother came running, grabbed him, and put her hand over his big mouth.
“I am so sorry!” she apologized, her face a bright red.
Mr. Percil bit back the comment he wanted to make. He managed the store and he couldn’t afford to offend customers, no matter how rude and offensive they were. He purposely gentled his voice and smiled. “I understand. Go along now and finish your shopping.” Russell waved his hand, and then blushed when he heard another man snicker. “Get back to work, Quillen,” he said sharply.
The young man returned to his stocking duty, but it was clear he was eavesdropping on the conversation.
“I must repeat myself, Ms. Ward. Are you prepared to come in tomorrow morning and redo this window in an acceptable manner?”
It was obvious to Jennifer that Russell was sure of her answer.
“I have already done the window in a humorous manner. I think it is much better than doing a sappy display that means nothing. At least people will get a kick out of this one.” The redhead refused to back down.
“You are overwrought this afternoon. Take down your display, and think about things tonight. You will feel differently in the morning.”
“I would rather get hit by a Mack truck!” she declared. Jennifer grabbed her coat, picked up her handbag, and stomped out of the store.
“Oh my,” Russell sighed, and then took off his suit jacket and started taking down the props Jennifer had used. He glanced out the large window, hoping that he would see the young woman returning, but to his dismay, she was upset as she started to cross the street and didn’t see the large semi rig coming right at her! “No! Stop, Jennifer! Stop!” he yelled loudly, even as he ran out the doors and tried to reach her in time to save her.
Jennifer heard Russell yelling, but ignored him as she walked faster toward her car. She hurriedly stepped into the street to cross to the other side, and that is when she heard the squealing tires and brakes. She looked up and felt the impact of the truck on her tiny body.
“Oh no! Jennifer!” Russell knelt beside her and took her hand. “Someone call 9-1-1!” he ordered firmly to the shocked crowd. “Try to stay calm, Jennifer. Help is on the way, my dear.”
“Don’t cry, Russell. You tried to save me.”
“I did not want this to happen,” he whispered, tears in his serious blue eyes. “I am so sorry.”
“It isn’t your fault,” she insisted. “People like me don’t have holiday magic.” She looked at him solemnly. “Thank you for coming to be with me, Russell. I want you to know that I truly do like you, and I am so proud of you for being yourself. You haven’t had it easy either, and you deserve happiness with Robert.”
“You deserve happiness, too, Jennifer,” he said softly, but she was already gone. He bowed his head and prayed out loud, “Dear God of us all, please give Jennifer a magical holiday on the other side. She deserves some love and kindness.”
The ambulance arrived, but even though the EMTs tried valiantly, they were unable to bring Jennifer back to life. Russell told the police what happened, and he absolved the trucker of any wrongdoing in her death.
“A lot of people get upset over the holidays,” one of the officers said in an attempt to console Russell.
Someone inside the store had called Robert, and soon he appeared at Russell’s side to offer him comfort and share in his grief. “Honey, we will try very hard this year to do something special for children in Jennifer’s memory. We won’t let this happen to another child.”
“Thank you, Robert. I feel Jennifer would like that.”
“Do you have contact information, Mr. Percil? We need to notify Ms. Ward’s next of kin.” The police officer was trying to maintain a professional presence, but he could see the store manager was truly grieving for the young woman who had occasionally worked for him.
“We’ll go into my office,” Russell said. “I have a file on Jennifer.”
“You are shivering, Russell. We need to get you inside anyway,” Robert said, taking off his own coat and putting it around the shaking man.
When they were in his office, Russell pulled up the information file, but there was no one listed on the line for ‘in case of emergency.’
“Russell and I will take responsibility and make arrangements, Officer. I am sure it will help Russell to feel better.”
“Yes, it will. Thank you, Robert. I am not able to think at this moment.”
“You don’t need to; I am right here and I will take care of you.”
Only a handful of people showed up at the viewing and the funeral, but the ones who were there shared stories of Jennifer’s generosity to children who were orphaned or abandoned by parents who didn’t want them. It was sad, but also uplifting, and Russell announced that he and Robert were starting a charity in Jennifer’s name that would try to make the holidays special and magical for children in sad circumstances. To Russell’s surprise, the young woman had a sizable estate to fund the charity. He prayed that Jennifer would approve.
* * *
November 3, 1873
“Wake up, lady. You can’t lie here in the middle of the road. You’ll freeze to death. It’s durn cold for this time of year.”
“Leave me alone!” Jennifer mumbled, fighting waking up and the terrible pain that was floating just above the surface. It hurt to get hit by a Mack truck and gave a whole new meaning to the words “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it!”
“I am not going to leave you alone. What I am going to do is turn you over and wallop your hind if you don’t listen to me.”
“I’ve been hit by a truck and you want to beat on me? Go away! Where’s Russell? I like him better than you.”
“Is Russell your husband?” the male voice asked, and Jennifer wondered why he seemed so irritated.
“No, of course not. His husband is Robert; they are a wonderful couple.”
“All right, lady. You are rambling and talking bad stuff. I’m going to take you to my ma. She’ll know what to do. Hold on now and I’ll pick you up. Why are you dressed in men’s britches?”
“I’m not. This is an expensive suit, I’ll have you know!”
“Women don’t wear suits. You just lie still; you must have hit your head on a rock.” He gently picked her up and Jennifer was amazed that it didn’t seem to hurt. Was she paralyzed? She wouldn’t feel pain if she was paralyzed, would she? She allowed herself to drift to sleep once more.
“Poor little thing,” the cowboy murmured, carefully mounting his horse and sitting so he could balance her on his lap. He would take her to his mother, and she would know what to do.
* * *
“Did you see a wagon anywhere about, son?” Nora Reynolds asked as she settled the young woman in the comfortable bed in the guest room of the large ranch house. The room was very nice, and kept solely for the occasional guests who came a distance and needed a bed for the night.
“No, ma’am. I was more concerned with keeping her warm and getting her here to you so’s you could help her.”
“You did fine, Will, but I think you should gather a few of the men and ride out that way and scout for her man, or her folks. Someone has to be lookin’ for this one. She’s mighty young to be out in the middle of nowhere by herself. With Thanksgiving coming, we’ve got to find her family so they have a good reason to be thankful. I know how I would feel if she was mine.”
“Ma, forgive me for bein’ indelicate. Could she have been taken from town, or from a wagon train, used wrongly, and then left out there to die?” Will’s face was solemn and Nora saw her husband’s stern face on her son. Will was a fine young man, and he would protect any woman who needed protecting.
“Her clothing, manly as it is, is all intact. She wasn’t wronged, son.”
“Probably visiting around here for the holidays, went for a ride, got tossed and hit her head on a rock or on the ground,” he concluded.
“I’ll get right on lookin’ for her folks. She ain’t wearing a wedding ring. Ma?” he suddenly asked. “If we can’t find anyone to claim her, I say we give ‘er to Dragon.”
“What?” Not much surprised Nora, but that certainly did. “I’m sure you don’t mean that!”
“Well, not the way it sounded,” Will sheepishly admitted. “Dragon needs a woman’s help. It would be the perfect solution and give them both something to be thankful for come Thanksgiving. He gives her a roof over her head, food in her belly, and in return, she looks after the little ones, cooks, and cleans. She would have her own room, and some spending money, even if I have to pay her myself,” he offered.
“We can discuss that when we know more of where she comes from. Now, are you going to go and find her folks, or do I need to saddle up?”
“I’m on my way, Ma. Keep a sharp eye, and your gun handy. We don’t know who might be lookin’ for her.”
“I can take care of myself,” Nora said, exasperated. “Who do you think took care of the likes of you when you were younger? I stood off ten Sioux by myself until your pa heard the shots and came riding fast as he could to help me.”
“Yes, ma’am. I surely do remember that day. It was right after Thanksgiving that year. They came riding in, screaming their heads off. Me and Dragon and Charlie were all scared, but you were brave as could be. That’s why I want you to have a care; I love you more than life, Ma.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek, then left the room to do what she’d asked him to do.
Nora sat in the rocking chair by the window and looked outside smiling. Of her three boys, Will was the charmer. Charlie tended to brood about things, and Dragon was a shadow of his former self. Since losing Kay in childbirth, nothing mattered to him. Dragon had loved Kay with everything he had in him. Losing her was like losing a part of himself. Nora looked at the tiny redhead and wondered if God was answering her prayers by sending the girl to help out. She then bowed her head and asked God to give her some sort of answer to her prayer. If He had sent the girl, then she would accept her and make her welcome. In the meantime, she had mending she could work on. The pile was huge because it was always the last chore she got to.
Will and the men returned some time later. “Ma, there isn’t a sign of anyone out there. We checked with all the neighbors too. They didn’t recall seeing anyone passing through in the last week or so. Drifters must have kidnapped her from town, or maybe the Sioux took her captive and somehow she managed to escape.”
“I don’t think that is likely. She’d be in much worse shape.” As if cued, Jennifer moaned and put a hand to her head. Nora stood up and walked to her side. “Does your head hurt, miss?”
“Yes! Of course it hurts!” Jennifer snapped.
“Don’t take that tone of voice with my ma, young lady. Aching head or no, I’ll put a bar of soap in your mouth if you address her like that again.” Will didn’t get angry often, but when he did, he was a force to be reckoned with, just like his father.
Jennifer opened her green eyes and blinked. “Where is Russell?” she asked agitatedly. “I am afraid. Where am I?”
“You are on the Circle R Ranch; I am Nora Reynolds and this is my youngest son, Will Reynolds. There is no need to be afraid; no one will harm you here.”
“How did I get here? I thought I was dead. The truck hit me full on and it hurt inside my body something awful.”
“You aren’t dead, miss. You are very much alive.” Will tried to reassure her.
“I can’t be alive!” Jennifer started crying.
“You are alive, and other than the bump on your head, the rest of you is fine. Not a scratch anywhere.” Nora spoke calmly, placing a hand on the redhead’s shoulder.
“But… I don’t understand. I was in so much pain, and Russell held my hand. He was crying, and I knew he truly cared that I was dying. How did I get here?” she asked, thoroughly confused.
“I found you lying on the ground. You didn’t even have on a coat,” Will explained. “I brought you here to Ma so she could doctor you some. Are you married to this Russell?”
“You asked me that before.” Jennifer suddenly remembered. “Russell prefers men, and his partner’s name is Robert. They truly love each other and I am proud of them.”
“Why, that is shameful talk!” Nora was shocked. “Young women should not speak of such things, especially in mixed company!”
“Oh no!” Jennifer moaned, looking around the room, and seeing the antique furnishings. Then she looked at Nora and Will, who appeared ready to throttle her, and took in what they were wearing, and she suddenly knew she wasn’t in her world any longer. “Please, this is important; where am I and what is the date?”
“You are in Wyoming, on the Circle R. This is Monday, November 3, 1873.”
The news was a huge shock to the redhead. She allowed the lingering darkness to claim her and promptly fainted.
“Ma, what do you make of her?”
“I don’t know. She seemed terrified, yet she spoke of something that isn’t discussed at all.”
“I can’t believe this Russell is so open about having a male lover. The people around here would tar and feather him, then run him off!”
“That is just plain wrong, William Reynolds. We are all of us created in God’s image, and that includes men like Russell. You remember that.”
“Yes, ma’am. What are we gonna to do with this one?” he whispered.
“Treat her with charity, son, just like we would any other poor soul who was lost and wandered onto the ranch. She needs our help.”
“I say we give her to Dragon. He needs her.”
“I believe you may be right. I prayed for divine help, and you found this young woman. God works in mysterious ways. It might be that she needs help more than our Dragon does.”
* * *
It was dark when Jennifer woke again. The woman was gone, but the young cowboy was sitting in a rocking chair, dozing. He was kind of cute, she decided. Was she in some form of Heaven? Or was she in Hell? She knew one thing was certain; she was dead to her world. Was there some mistake made? Or was she sent here for a reason? “November 3, 1873,” she whispered softly. “How can this be?” What should she do? Jennifer silently questioned herself.
“You’re awake. Should I get Ma? I won’t hurt you, but I don’t want you to be afraid because we are alone in a bedroom.”
Jennifer giggled; she simply couldn’t help it. Things were so different in this time period. She needed to remember that, and watch her big mouth. “I am not afraid of you, Will Reynolds. Thank you for bringing me here and for trying to help me. It is very nice of you.”
“Do you know your name?” Will asked, impressed that she had remembered his.
“Yes. I am Jennifer Ward.”
“Do you have family, Miss Ward? I would be happy to notify them where you are.”
“I have no one; I am all alone.”
“Tell me, how did you get out here in the middle of nowhere? There was no horse, no buggy, and you had to be freezing without a coat. Where do you belong?”
“It’s a long story, and I’m not sure you would believe me.”
“Are you hungry?” he asked. Food always helped a body.
“Yes, I am,” Jennifer replied.
“Ma is just about done making us some stew. She’s a great cook.”
“I feel like I haven’t eaten in a week!” Jennifer admitted, and her stomach growled as if to give proof that she was telling the truth. “Where are my clothes? I can get dressed and eat at the table.”
“You are going to stay right there in that bed until Ma says different,” Will firmly stated, and Jennifer immediately bristled.
“You are not my boss, mister. If I want to get out of this bed, then I will get out of this bed, and there is nothing you can say or do to change it.”
“You just try to get up and see what it gets you, Miss Sassy Mouth.”
The look in his blue eyes let her know that he was looking forward to showing her what would happen. Jennifer suddenly decided to be prudent. “Seriously, where are my clothes?”
“Ma burned them. They weren’t proper to wear. Ma will see that you are properly clothed when she lets you out of bed in a few days. Do you like children?” he asked abruptly, changing the subject.
“Depends on the kids; some of them are spoiled rotten like their parents. Other kids are sweet as can be. Why do you want to know? Is there an opening for a schoolteacher? I could do that.”
“There is a teacher in town, but folks out here teach their own kids. My brother could use you. He’s got three little ones.”
“What about his wife?”
“She died birthing the baby. Dragon loved Kay, but he is taking his pain too far. He needs a kick in the pants and someone to clean up that pigsty of a house. The kids need a woman’s care too. They might as well be orphans for all the love he shows them.”
Will didn’t know that he’d touched a nerve with her, but he had, and Jennifer was suddenly choking on sobs. “What the heck! What did I say wrong?” he asked. “Ma! Can you come here?” He raised his voice to call out, and then he sat on the bed and clumsily hugged Jennifer and patted her on the back, treating her like he would a sister if he’d had one. “I’m real sorry I upset you, Miss Ward.”
“What did you do, young man?” Nora demanded as she stepped into the room.
“I don’t know, Ma. I was telling Miss Ward about Dragon and the kids, and she started crying like I’d turned her backside up for a spanking.
“Jennifer, you don’t need to worry. We won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do,” Nora promised. “Don’t cry now.”
“Will didn’t say anything wrong, ma’am. He was telling me about your son and your grandchildren. The story is very familiar to me because I grew up like that. It was terrible. My father drank too much, and finally, he took me to a church and just left me there. He disappeared and never asked after me again. When I grew up I tried to find him and learned that he had a new family and children, but none of them wanted me around. My father claimed that it hurt him too much to look at me; my siblings didn’t want another sister. I left and never went back. They didn’t call or write, either.”
She looked intensely into Nora’s eyes. “Your little ones need you and your love, especially during the holidays. This is the most painful time of year, and children can’t help but see what loving families are like, and then realize they aren’t a part of that special time. Please show them all the love you can. I have so many painful memories of Thanksgivings and Christmases.”
“I think God sent you to us, honey. I think God sent you in answer to my prayers.” Nora smiled then, and patted Jennifer’s tear stained cheek. “Things are going to be all right. God works in mysterious ways. Dry your eyes and try to be calm. You are safe with us, honey. You will have Thanksgiving with our family this year and we will be very happy to have you with us.”
“Speaking of food, Ma, is supper ready? Jennifer’s tummy was growling as loud as mine a minute ago!” Will teased, trying to lighten the mood.
It seemed to work. Nora laughed, and Jennifer stopped crying and smiled. Will pulled a table from the other side of the room close to the bed, and Nora brought in steaming bowls and platters of food, also plates and utensils for them to use. Jennifer knew better than to pick up her fork or start serving herself even though she felt she was starving to death. These were the type of people who would say grace before their meal. She quickly learned that she was right, and was touched that Nora included her in the prayer, thanking God for Jennifer’s presence, and for sending her to help Dragon. Jennifer didn’t know about helping Dragon, but she was positive those children needed her help and her intervention in their lives.
“This is delicious food, Mrs. Reynolds,” Jennifer truthfully stated. “Thank you so much for including me at your table.”
“Of course I would include you, Jennifer, and I would prefer it if you were to call me Nora. We don’t stand on formality here.”
“Thank you, Nora, this is delicious.”
“It’s just a plain beef stew with some vegetables from my garden,” Nora said, blushing, and Jennifer suspected that she didn’t often get praised for her cooking.
“There is nothing plain about it; I would love to be able to cook like this.”
“You can’t cook?” Will asked accusingly.
“William Reynolds!” Nora scolded.
“Not something this great,” Jennifer told him. “I never had anyone to teach me when I was younger, and when I got older, I was too busy earning a living to learn how. I had it on my list of things to learn how to do.”
“I will teach you,” Nora promised. “After all, Thanksgiving is coming, and I am sure you are going to want to fix a wonderful meal.”
Jennifer smiled. The offer made her feel very special, even if the woman didn’t mean it, and even though she didn’t have anyone to cook a big meal for.
“We will start in the morning, once you are well rested and recovered from your ordeal. Do you recall what happened?” Nora asked.
Will shook his head at his mother, trying to warn her not to begin that conversation right then. “I think we need to let Jennifer rest tonight, Ma.”