Lou couldn't sleep - but then she never could on Christmas Eve. She hated to leave the warm, comfy confines of bed but she couldn't just lie there anymore. There was plenty to do for tomorrow. She could go downstairs, start on the dinner rolls, give them ample time to rise before baking, and maybe then she would be exhausted enough to actually sleep. She moved in slow motion, peeling back the covers, trying not to shiver as the chilled air hit her. She glanced over her shoulder at her husband. He was dead to the world, snoring softly, but she knew from experience that he could be wide awake in a moment and she didn't want to disturb him. Out of bed at last, she just barely avoided gasping when her feet touched the cold floor and she crept to the door and out to the hallway, praying no floorboard would creak and give her away. She did not relax even in the hallway for the boys' room was next. Last she had checked they had finally worn themselves out with excitement and had been sleeping soundly enough for her to fill the stockings at the foot of their bed with nuts and licorice. She hoped she didn't wake them as she stole quietly down the stairs.
Once downstairs she lit a lamp in the parlor and stood for a moment admiring the Christmas tree. The whole room looked lovely with evergreen bows hanging in sprays down the walls, tied with red ribbon. The boys had strung more than enough popcorn and it was draped across the mantel and over the window casings as well as around the tree. Lou could imagine the room as it would look tomorrow after the dinner guests had arrived. The whole house would smell of spiced cider and the room would be loud with laughter and voices. It would be the first time since the end of the express eight years ago that everyone would be together again for the holidays.
Lou took a moment to look at the framed picture on the mantel and the young faces that peered out of it. She hadn't seen some of them once in those eight years and she couldn't help but feel worried to see them know. There was a time, though it seemed hard to remember it now, when she hadn't known which of those handsome, dashing, young men held her heart; now there was no question that she'd made the right decision, but she knew how close she came to making a mistake.
When she came in from that last run, she had been confused and fearful. She knew she had to hurt one of them and make a choice, but she didn't relish breaking anyone's heart. She was grumpy and frustrated as she groomed Lightning but thankfully when she at last emerged from the stable the station was quiet and mostly empty. Almost everyone was helping Rachel paint the school house, but he had just returned from a ride that morning and had stayed behind. He was sitting on the porch, re-braiding a bit of rope and watching the sun set. Lou sighed in relief. She flopped down on the stairs next to him with a grunt and squinted at the bright copper light flooding the horizon. It wasn't an unusually beautiful sunset, but for a moment it turned the usually dun brown landscape gold and bronze and yellow.
He didn't say anything. He was preoccupied with his own thoughts, she assumed, as she was with hers. She leaned against him and for a moment closed her eyes and let the last bits of sun warm her face through the dust and grime of the trail. He was steady beneath her weight and she thought contentedly that no matter her choice she would always have him; he did not care who she picked, so long as she was happy.
The sun dipped lower, too low to give much light. The others returned and Lou went to wash up, and he put away the mended rope and joked and laughed with the others. The day ended like any other and she had trouble sleeping, feeling as indecisive as ever, not knowing her mind had been made up when the sun set. A month passed before she realized it, though everyone else had known much sooner.
"Thinking you picked the wrong one?" His voice startled her and she jumped but relaxed again as his arms snaked around her waist and pulled her back against his chest. His voice was rough and he swayed a little on his feet - he was still half asleep she guessed.
She knew he was only teasing but she answered him anyway. "No. Just glad I figured it out eventually."
"What finally made you pick me?" he asked drowsily.
"We could be quiet together."
He laughed "That's it? I'm glad no one else realized how easy it was to get you."
She sighed and closing her eyes leaned back against him. "It wouldn't have been easy for anyone else."
For awhile they stayed there in each other's arms, the lamp glowing steadily, the snow falling outside, the only sound in the house the steady ticking of the clock in the hall.
Written for the 2011 Title Challenge - Original Title given by: Miss Raye