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Authors: Jillian Hart,Victoria Bylin

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BOOK: In a Mother’s Arms
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The wind ruffled his dark hair. He seemed distant. Lost. “How much was the vase worth?”

Without price, but how did she tell him? Perhaps it would be best not to open that door to her heart. “It was simply a vase.”

“No, it was more.” He stared at his hat clutched in both hands. “Was it a gift?”

“No, it was my mother’s.”

“And is she gone?”

“Yes.”

“Then I cannot pay you its true value. I’m sorry.” His gaze met hers with startling intimacy. Perhaps a door was open to his heart as well because sadness tilted his eyes and seemed to cover him like a coat. He looked like a man with many regrets.

She knew well the weight of that burden. “Please, don’t worry about it.”

“The girls will replace it.” His tone brooked no argument, but it wasn’t harsh. “About what my daughters said to you.”

“Do you mean their proposal? Don’t worry. It’s plain to see they are simply children longing for a mother’s love.”

“Thank you for understanding. Not many folks do.”

“Maybe it’s because I know something about longing.” It was a living thing within her always yearning, if she would let it, wishing for dreams that could not come true. “Life never turns out the way you plan it.”

“No. Life can hand you more sorrow than you can carry.” Although he did not move a muscle, he appeared changed. Stronger, somehow. Greater. “I’m sorry the girls troubled you, Miss McKaslin.”

Mrs., but again she didn’t correct him. It was the sorrow she carried that stopped her from it. She preferred to stand in the present with sunlight on her face. “It was a pleasure, Dr. Frost. What blessings you have in those girls.”

“That I know.” He tipped his hat to her, perhaps a nod of respect, and left her alone with the restless wind and the place still open in her heart.

Chapter Two

T
he hot walk on the dusty road beneath the blazing afternoon sun had not put Samuel in a better mood. With every step he took, his emotions strengthened. Even when Miss McKaslin was well out of sight, he could feel the tug of her sadness. One very much like his own.

His feet felt heavy. He had to stop thinking about the woman. She was far too pretty and young for the likes of him. He checked for any signs of traffic on the main road—there were none—and led the horse, his children and their cow across. Dust swirled lazily with the breeze and puffed up in chalky clouds as they went.

“So, Pa.” Penelope sidled up to him, as sweet as sunshine and suspiciously innocent. “Wasn’t Miss Molly pretty? She’s real nice, too. When Sukie almost ran her into bits, she didn’t even yell.”

Before he could even respond, Prudence chimed in. “She makes good cookies, Pa. That’s real important.”

He knew about the list the girls had been making,
cataloguing desirable traits for a future mother and praying over them every night. It tore him apart. Life was about disappointment and loss, and learning how to face both with acceptance and trust in God. He thought of Miss McKaslin and her sad, soul-filled blue eyes and the tendrils of her golden hair framing her delicate face. No wonder the twins had proposed to her.

He hated to do it, but he had to be practical. He had to teach the girls how to face life. These childish daydreams and wishes were going to break their hearts and their spirits if they didn’t stop. He had to do his best to protect them. To teach them how to live. He cleared his throat, to rid his voice of his own turmoil. “What were you girls thinking?”

“Nothing. Not really.” Penny, always the leader, was the first to speak. With the scrunch of her face in adorable lines, she was thinking hard on how to explain her actions. “We didn’t plan it. Honestly. It was Sukie! She’s why we were there. It’s
her
fault we met Miss Molly.”

“That’s true, Pa,” Prudy chimed in. “She’s not in trouble? You won’t punish Sukie, will you?”

“I hardly think sending Sukie to her stall to think about what she’s done will help matters.” Honestly, those girls. They were too tender-hearted. “But you two are the reason she got out of her pen in the first place.”

“She missed us.”

“She loves us. That’s why she got out.”

He bit his lip. Frustration became a burning pressure behind his ribcage. The girls didn’t understand. He didn’t know if they ever would. His head began to
pound, making it harder to figure out what more to say to them.

“It won’t happen again, Pa.”

“Yep, we’ll make sure Sukie doesn’t get out again. We promise.”

The cow was hardly the issue. Sam thought of all the hard words he could say about life and hardship, but he didn’t. The house came into sight along the rutted road. He would have to finish this discussion later. He had responsibilities waiting. “You shut Sukie into her stall this time so she’ll be safe. Since Mrs. Finley is at church this afternoon, you girls will have to come with me. I have a house call to make.”

“No, Pa. We don’t want to go, do we, Prudy?”

“No, Pa.” Prudence joined her sister and their identical voices blended in a chorus of dissent. They could stay here. They could take care of themselves. They would stay up high in the tree until he came back.

None of that was going to work. “You girls need to learn to be sensible. You are too young to stay at home without Mrs. Finley. You take care of your pet and come straight to the buggy. I don’t want any arguments. You hear?”

“Yes, Pa.” The girls’ heads bowed together as if to hide their disappointment.

He knew it couldn’t be fun for them to sit in the buggy for often more than an hour at a time, but it couldn’t be helped. “One more thing. There will be no more talk of Miss Molly. She’s Miss McKaslin to you. That’s the proper way to address her. I won’t have you going across the road to her shanty again. Do you hear me?”

This time there was no answer. The girls merely blew out a quiet sigh. Two identical heads nodded, black braids bobbing up and down. Disappointment hurt, he knew, and he hated it. It was best never to dream. Eventually the girls would figure that out. It was his prayer for them.

He loved his daughters. He wanted what was best for them. And that was a good solid life right here, in this world, with their feet on the ground and their wishes made of practical things, things that had a chance of coming true.

“Don’t be long.” His warning carried after them on the restless wind as they broke off to lead Sukie to the barn.

“We won’t.” Penelope’s promise sounded far too sad for an eight-year-old girl.

He hated that, too. He kept them in sight as he led Stanley to the buggy and backed him between the traces. The placid gelding stood patiently while he hitched him up. Sam worked fast, keeping both ears on the rustling sounds and lilting voices coming from deep inside the barn. Why he thought of Miss McKaslin and her gentle voice, he couldn’t say. He was not a man prone to daydreams of any kind.

“Are you girls ready?” he called out, checking to make sure his medical bag was on the floorboards.

The stampede of their shoes as they came running was answer enough. The little girls, one dressed in green and the other in blue, tumbled into the yard and climbed up onto the bench buggy seat, scooting over to make room for him. He settled down, released the brake
and snapped the reins, his mind firmly back where it belonged. On his girls, on his job and on the ill Mrs. Gornecke in need of his help.

 

Molly tucked the dustpan between her shoes and swept the last of the shards of china off her shanty floor. There. Her last home chore of the day was done. She knelt to retrieve the full pan, and her gaze wandered toward the window. The grass was still slightly trampled from her visitors.

You could marry Pa. Do you want to?
The memory of the little girls’ voices chased away the silence in her shanty.
You could be our ma.

How could she feel both sad and sweet in the same breath? She remembered the girls’ cute faces, shining with hope and possibility. They could not know how she had once been a mother, or how no other child could fill the emptiness. Still, they were precious, those twins. Remembering the alarm on the good doctor’s face when he’d overheard their proposal, she laughed. The poor man! Oh, he’d been friendly enough, but he’d certainly walked away fast as he could. And without a single backward glance as he’d herded the children and the cow down the road.

“Molly! Was that you laughing?” Joanna, her cousin’s new wife, padded into sight through the open doorway. She looked lovely as always with her honey-gold hair neatly coiled up and her sensible tan-colored calico. “Why, you are grinning ear to ear. I can’t believe my eyes. What has you shining like the sun?”

“It’s nothing, nothing at all.” Now she was embar
rassed. To be caught daydreaming! Good thing she’d only been thinking and not doing something more embarrassing like talking to herself! She set the dustpan on the table, intending to dispose of the broken china later, grabbed the package of wrapped cookies and her sewing basket. A glance at the little mantle clock told her it was later than she’d thought. How much time had she wasted thinking of the Frost twins and their father? “I’m sorry I’ve held you up. You had to come looking for me.”

“It’s not like you to be late. You had me worrying. I wanted to make sure you were all right.”

“Oh, I’m as fine as can be.” She shut the door and checked the lock. The grass rustled against her skirt ruffles as she led the way along the path. “I won’t make you wait again, Joanna. I’m grateful for the work and the shanty. I don’t want you to think I’m taking advantage.”

“I told you, I’ve been without a home and a job before. I know how hard it is for a widow alone.” Joanna’s understanding had helped Molly more than she could measure. While Joanna had never buried an infant, she had sympathized gently and wholly. Her compassion had made the first difficult months here much easier to endure, when she had felt so lost. “Am I wrong, or did I see Dr. Frost and his twins at your doorstep?”

“Yes. There was an incident.”

“Oh?” A world of hope knelled in that single word.

Molly’s face seared once again. The blush had returned, and it had doubled in intensity. What if Joanna
realized the reason for her good humor? “It’s not what you think. The girls’ pet cow found the shanty and the newly baked cookies.”

“So, there’s nothing sparking between you and Dr. Frost?”

“Goodness! What a thought.” She pictured him hurrying down the road. “I doubt I will see him again. At least I hope not. I intend to stay in very good health.”

Joanna didn’t say a thing, but Molly feared more comments on the subject could be coming at a future time. Oh, joy. Troubling, yes, but she had more pressing concerns to manage. She worked Saturdays and several afternoons for her other cousin, Thad, and his wife. While she was grateful for the shanty on the family land, her job was at times not an easy one. Cousin Noelle, who was blind, needed help around the house and with their new baby. Taking care of little Graham was a joy, but his sweet weight in her arms could bring up a well of sorrow if she let it.

“If you married, you wouldn’t have to work three jobs to make ends meet. Something to think about.” Joanna was merely being kind, wanting the sort of future for her that Molly wanted for herself. But Joanna didn’t understand—she couldn’t understand—as they crested the final rise of the trail and the main farm house came into sight.

“Ma!” Sweet, platinum-haired Daisy hopped up from the porch steps and ran toward her mother, her baby doll tucked in the crook of her arm. “See? Lottie loves her new dress we made her.”

“I see, precious.”

Molly tucked away her own yearnings. It was enough to see that there was good in the world, that children were treasured, and love reigned. Sometimes the fairy tale came true. Storybook endings were possible in real life.

“You aren’t feeling poorly, are you, Molly?” Cousin Aiden ambled into sight from the other side of the surrey. The hint of a grin on his granite face did nothing to lessen his intimidating presence. “I spotted Doc Frost and his girls on the road a bit earlier. Thought he might be calling on you.”

“Calling on me? Hardly.” Did everyone have marriage on their minds? First the twins, then Joanna and now Aiden. Perhaps it was the beautiful May Day. After a long cold winter, folks were naturally optimistic. She breathed in the sweet, warm spring air, determined to find the good in the day and in the blessings of her life. “I’m a very fussy widow. I’m afraid I won’t settle for just any doctor who happens along on the road.”

That had her cousins laughing as they boarded the stately surrey, and the horse drew them down the driveway, past her little shanty and toward the main road.

She caught herself glancing at the narrow driveway across the way, the one winding through tall new green grasses. She couldn’t stop wondering about the handsome doctor with the shadows in his eyes. And his little girls hungering for a mother’s love the same way she yearned for a daughter’s.

Sometimes there were no ever afters. Sometimes life
fell far short of a storybook ending. She vowed to put the Frost twins and their family on her nightly prayer list. After all, they had a lot in common.

 

“How much longer, doc?” Mrs. Gornecke shifted against her pillows, asked a silent question, one she was probably too afraid to put into words. Hers had been a bad case.

Scarlet fever could be a dangerous illness, that was a sad fact. He’d seen the effects more times than he cared to remember. He snapped his medical bag closed. “I can’t honestly say, Mrs. Gornecke. Your fever has been high and persistent. This is of great concern. I’m not unduly worried, but I mean it when I say you must follow my instructions precisely.”

“I try to, as much as I can. But my little ones—” She fell silent, her gaze trailing toward the open window to where her small children often could be seen playing in the lawn of the backyard. Not today. A mother’s love shone, transforming her. “Are you sure they are safe?”

“Not a single symptom. As long as they stay away at your parents’ place.”

“I can’t help worrying.”

“Of course. If anything changes, I will make sure you know.” He left his shirt sleeves rolled up and snatched his jacket off the arm of the nearby chair. He respected Mrs. Gornecke. She was a devoted wife and mother, one who thought of others first, the kind of woman his wife had not been.

And if a quiet voice at the back of his mind wanted to remind him that there were plenty of women in the
world with Mrs. Gornecke’s integrity and sense of devotion, he refused to listen to that voice. Or the fact that Molly McKaslin came to mind.

“I’ll check on you tomorrow, Mrs. Gornecke.”

“Thank you kindly for coming on Sunday. We were supposed to be at church this afternoon, me and my little girls.”

For the May Day Tea, the Ladies’ Aid put on every year. Paula had been the president of the organization years ago. Samuel nodded, anxious to go before the old sorrow could catch up to him. He wanted to keep moving, for it was the best way to cope with long-standing loss and his personal shortcomings. So he grabbed his bag and gestured to the husband, huddling quietly in the corner. He waited until the door was closed and they were in the parlor of the small three-room house before he gave Mr. Gornecke more medicine and detailed instructions on his wife’s care.

“I’ll do all you say to do, doc.” He held open the door. He looked haggard, torn between his work and the important care of his wife. “About the bill—”

“We’ll discuss that when your wife is better. Right now, I want you to take care. Or you will likely be the next patient I visit.”

Once outside, he rushed down the rickety front steps, hoping his daughters had followed orders and were right where they ought to be. They were in troubled water as it was.

“Pa!” Penelope’s green sunbonnet poked out from between the brackets supporting the buggy top. “We’re right here. Just like you told us.”

BOOK: In a Mother’s Arms
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