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Docia Kent considered the landscape they were passing through once again. Gray. Gray clouds, gray mist, gray fence posts, gray gravel. Even the snow was gray, although that could have been the effect of the late afternoon light. Or the lack of it. Iowa in December was the most depressing place she’d ever seen. The sun hadn’t shone once since they’d come back to Cal’s parents’ house for Christmas. For all she knew, the sun never shone in Iowa.
That was, of course, grossly unfair. There were cloudy days in Texas too. Lots of them. There was, however, no snow in Konigsburg.
She snuggled more deeply into her down coat. Cal had offered to turn up the heater in the SUV, but she preferred to keep her coat on—less of a nasty shock when she stepped outside into the arctic wastes that surrounded Cal’s boyhood home.
Assuming they ever found said arctic wastes again. At the moment they seemed to be lost. “Calthorpe, I swear I’ve seen that tree before. Are we going in circles?”
Cal sighed, keeping his gaze fixed on the miles of bumpy gravel road ahead. “We are not going in circles. You have not seen that same tree. A very similar tree maybe, but not that exact same tree.”
Docia sighed too. She didn’t really care whether it was the same desolate black tree or a different desolate black tree. She just wanted to stop seeing desolate black trees. At this point, she’d really like to see a nopal cactus. Or possibly a live oak. Anything that would signal they were back in the Texas Hill Country rather than stumbling through the backest part of back country Iowa.
“Where are we going?” she asked for what was probably the fifteenth time.
“I’ll tell you when we get there.” He still hadn’t taken his gaze off the horizon.
The fact that Cal was being weird only added to her general sense of dislocation. Dislocation? Please. You’re homesick. Amazingly enough, that was true. She wanted Texas. She wanted her bookstore. She wanted, God help her, Konigsburg.
And she wanted Cal. Only she wanted the Cal she had in Texas. The sweet, funny, Paul Bunyan type veterinarian. The man she lived with. The man she might, someday, marry. Maybe. Possibly. Probably.
She tried to ignore the clenching in her stomach. She loved him. She knew it. But love and marriage didn’t exactly work out as planned in the Kent family. Her daddy and mama loved each other and that hadn’t stopped Daddy from being photographed with Miss Texas in his lap. And her own track record wasn’t all that great when it came to romance. Maybe Cal wasn’t like Donnie Branscombe, her former fiancé who’d been a lot more interested in her daddy’s bank balance than in Docia’s charms. But that didn’t mean marriage was a great idea. Living together worked just fine. Didn’t it?
Cal turned the SUV onto an even bumpier track. Had he deliberately sought out the worst roads in Iowa? Or was this supposed to be an example of Midwestern road maintenance?
The Iowa Cal made her nervous. He seemed to have transformed overnight from the sweet funny lover she was used to into this silent, serious über-alpha.
The SUV hit a stretch of washboard followed by a particularly vicious pothole. Docia closed her eyes. This was so not the way she wanted to spend Christmas Eve.
Cal piloted the SUV through the worst of the road, pulling to a stop at the top of the rise. The view across the valley was impressive normally. Grant Wood country. Of course right now the valley was choked with white winter fog, so the view wasn’t exactly at its best.
Still, he’d chosen the spot carefully, after a lot of thought. He might have chosen wrong—in fact that was looking more and more likely given Docia’s increasingly glum silence over the last half hour. But he was committed. This was where he was going to do it.
Docia squinted at the landscape outside the SUV. “What’s this?”
He took a deep breath. “The Toleffson family farm. Or what’s left of it.” The remains of the barn glimmered through the mist, along with a venerable elm tree.
She looked around with a little more animation than she’d shown for the past twenty minutes. “No kidding? This is your family farm? Did you come here when you were a kid?”
“Just to hunt for mushrooms. Nobody’s lived here for a couple of generations. We’ve got people who lease the fields.”
Docia frowned. “And you brought me here?”
He nodded. “Normally, it’s a really nice place. You can see into the next county—lots of trees and meadows. On a good day, it’s something.”
She glanced around at the billowing fog that covered any hint of a view. “Oh.”
“I was hoping we could get above the fog. I guess we can’t.”
“Doesn’t look like it.”
Cal’s jaw set. He could always turn around and head back to the highway. Count it as a failed side trip. Except he wouldn’t do that. He’d been planning this trip for a couple of months. This was it. Do it, Calthorpe.
“It’s really interesting.” Docia gave him a smile that was breathtaking in its insincerity.
“I wanted to bring you here when it was beautiful, but even like this it’s a place that means something to me. It’s where the family came from. If I’ve got any roots, they’re here.” He dug his fingers into his pocket to pull out the box. It had been biting into his thigh every time they hit a bump. At least, for better or worse, he’d have it out now.
Docia’s eyes widened to saucers. She dived toward the backseat.
For a moment, he thought she was going to hide back there, which was probably the most horrifying reaction to his marriage proposal he could imagine, although vomiting would have been close. But then she emerged with a large gift-wrapped package in her hands.
“I want to give this to you now,” she stammered. “I can’t wait anymore. Merry Christmas, sweetheart!” She thrust the package in his direction.
Cal narrowed his eyes. They weren’t opening presents. He was proposing marriage. He was still going to propose marriage, but it appeared he was opening a present first. He ripped the wrapping paper off, lifting the lid of the box inside.
To reveal a sweater. Sort of dingy gray with a large white blob in the center. It reminded him slightly of the fog.
Docia was smiling relentlessly, but her eyes were nervous all of a sudden. “Do you like it?”
“Sure,” he said, stretching his lips in his own version of an insincere smile. He studied the white blob. There seemed to be a small black dot at the upper corner. “It’s a sheep, right?” Or an amoeba involved in arcane sexual activity. But calling it a sheep seemed safe.
Docia’s brow furrowed as she studied the sweater. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” Cal allowed himself a slight frown of his own. “You’re not sure?”
“This is the first time I’ve seen it. It’s one of Carly Obermeier’s handmade sweaters. She spins and dyes the yarn herself. She said she’d do a Christmas one. I didn’t get to see it before we left Texas. She wrapped it for me.”
He stared back at the sweater again. It really was amazingly ugly. On the other hand… “I’ll try it on.”
“You don’t have to,” she began.
He shrugged. “I want to. I want to wear it.”
He shrugged out of his jacket, then unbuttoned his flannel shirt. Given that Docia liked having the heater turned to low, it was going to get chilly in here as soon as he took it off. But maybe he needed to cool down. It seemed like Docia had.
He pulled on the sweater, ignoring the numb feeling in his gut.
Docia narrowed her eyes. “It fits. Sort of.”
“It’s fine.” He moved his arms, making sure he wouldn’t rip out the sleeves if he did. The fit seemed a bit snug. “It feels good.” It did, actually. Very soft wool.
Docia’s eyes stayed narrow. Then, to his horror, they glistened with tears. “It’s awful. I’m sorry. I thought it would be so cool. And it’s just horrible.”
Cal shook his head quickly. “It’s not horrible. It’s unusual. I like it. Come on, Dosh. It’s fine.” Do not cry. Jesus, do not cry!
“I just wanted to give you something…special,” she sniffled. “It’s our first Christmas.”
“It is.” He nodded. “I like it, really. It’s special. It’s great.”
“It isn’t.” Her lower lip wobbled.
“It is.” This time he said it more firmly. “You gave it to me. I will love anything you give me because it comes from you. I love you, Dosh.”
Unfortunately, this statement only seemed to make her tears stream down faster. “Oh, geez, Cal. I just…oh, geez.”
He managed to put his arms around her, although the center console was in the way. He probably should have considered that when he decided to propose at the old home place. Doing anything more than kissing her was going to require athletic ability he didn’t have.
He took a deep breath. Might as well go for it. He pulled the box out of his pocket, opening it quickly. “This is my present for you.”
Docia stared down at the diamond. It wasn’t very big—it would probably fit as a guard stone to her mama’s current diamond. Donnie Branscombe had offered her one roughly three times that size when he’d proposed. But big wasn’t the point. At least as far as diamonds went.
“It’s my great great grandmother’s,” Cal said slowly. “She rode a wagon to Iowa from Ohio to marry my great great grandpa. The ring was pretty hot stuff then. He bought it to show her how successful he was.” Cal gestured toward the mist-covered landscape. “This place belonged to him. It was a hell of a farm in its day. He brought her up here to show her the place when he gave her the ring.”
Docia stared fixedly at the diamond. Her heart was beating so hard she was afraid she might be having a coronary. “It’s gorgeous.”
He shrugged. “It’s not, really. The setting is nice, but the diamond’s too small. It’s just a family ring. But I hope you’ll wear it anyway.”
She took a deep breath, trying not to pant. Her pulse was still thundering in her ears. This is it, kid. Fold or play. Fold or play.
She glanced at Cal. At the hideous gray sweater. The color of the snow. The white blob looked like a mashed potato catastrophe. But he was wearing it. A little grimly, but he was wearing it. Oh for Pete’s sake, of course you’ll marry him. Why did you make him wait so long, you dumbass?
She picked up the ring and handed it to him. “You’re supposed to put it on my finger.”
He blinked. “Huh?”
“When you ask a girl to marry you, you’re supposed to put the ring on her finger.” His gaze caught hers. She couldn’t have looked away if she’d tried.
After a moment, he nodded slowly, taking the ring out of its ancient box. “I guess I am.” Fortunately for them both, it slid on easily. The sweater represented enough comedy for now. “So you’re okay with this?” He raised an eyebrow.
She stared back at him, eyes wide. “You gave it to me. I will love anything you give me because it comes from you. I love you, Cal.”
His lips were trembling. “That sounds a little like you’re equating our marriage to a Christmas sweater.”
“Christ no!” Docia blinked, teetering between hysterical giggles or hysterical sobs. Giggles won. She rested her forehead on Cal’s shoulder feeling him snort with suppressed snickers. Finally, she caught her breath. “It’s an awful sweater.”
He leaned back, grinning. “I will wear it proudly. And I will cherish it as a memory of this day.”
“And after today you will never put it on again,” she finished.
He raised an eyebrow. “I won’t?”
“You won’t.” She held her hand out, studying the ring. “We’ve got a much better thing to cherish.”
He glanced down at the sweater again. “I don’t know, Dosh. I kind of like it. It grows on you.”
“So does Spanish moss if you sit still long enough. That doesn’t mean you have to wear it.”
He gave her one more fond smile, then put the car in gear. “It’s better than Spanish moss.”
“Not by much.” She gazed at the billowing fog in front of her. “We’ll have to come back here when the weather’s better.”
“And I’ll wear the sweater.” He nodded. “It goes with the place.”
“Maybe.” Docia watched the fog form and dissipate as they drove back down the miserable road. She was thinking August would be a good time for a revisit. If her hubs wanted to wear a wool sweater then, it would be up to him. She held up her hand to study the ring again.
On the other hand, maybe she could order some moths from Amazon.
To read more about Cal and Docia's wedding, see Wedding Bell Blues, Konigsburg, Texas #2