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Authors: Jillian Hart,Victoria Bylin

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BOOK: In a Mother’s Arms
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Prudence’s blue bonnet popped out next to the green. “We hardly moved a muscle. That’s what you said to do, and we done it!”

His biggest shortcomings felt enormous when those two pairs of hazel eyes focused on him. He felt their need like the burn of sun on his back. He had failed on his promise to his wife. He could hear the desperate plea of Paula’s voice in memory, the guilt increasing with every step he took toward those little girls.
Promise me you will marry again and soon. I know how you feel, but those girls need a mother, someone who is kind. They are so easy to love. Find a gentle lady who will love them as I do.

Years had passed, and he had yet to keep that promise. He hadn’t even tried to make good on it. He could blame it on his work. He’d been overrun with the demands of his job and of the little ones in his care. There hadn’t been time for courting and marrying, not even for looking for a kindly woman. The truth was, he hadn’t wanted to.

“I’m thrilled to see that you girls behaved for once.” Stern, he set the bag on the floor before climbing up. “I almost thought I was dreaming. I thought those finely behaved young ladies couldn’t possibly be my daughters.”

“But we are, Pa. And we aren’t young ladies. Mrs. Finley says we are wildcats.” Penny sounded quite pleased as she bounced over on the seat to make room for him. “But I like wild cowboys better.”

“Me, too.” Prudy quickly agreed. “All we need is a pony. Can we have one, Pa?”

“You know the answer to that.” He settled on the seat and reached for the reins, where they lay on the dash. With a snap, Stanley stopped drowsing and gave a mighty pull forward. All he needed was for his girls to be riding wild instead of simply running wild. Yes, that would surely make fathering them easier. “Proper young ladies do not ride horses.”

“They do in the dime books.”

Bless Mrs. Finley for reading her adventure novels aloud to the girls. “Books are make-believe, not real life. You two ought to know the difference. Now, no more talk about nonsense. When we get home, I want you both to go count up your pennies and figure out how many extra chores it will take to buy Miss McKaslin a new vase.”

Penelope sighed. “I
knew
you were going to bring that up eventually.”

“Yeah,” Prudence agreed. Both girls were downcast again. “We don’t gotta lotta pennies, Pa.”

“Then I suppose you two have a lot of work ahead of you.” He guided the horse around the bend in the town street, seeing not the road ahead but the image of a blond-haired woman, a vision in a pink calico work dress. For some reason, Molly McKaslin had opened up his emotions and somehow he had to put a stop to them.

“Look at all the pretty things!” The girls’ voices rang out in unison, speaking the same thought and drawing his attention back to the road in front of him.

The church with its spire shone pure white in the sunshine, surrounded by lush trees and deep-emerald grass. Cloths in every color of the rainbow draped a
dozen tables in the dappled shade. Women and their daughters of all ages relaxed in chairs around the tables, feasting on cake and tea, while others milled in groups on the lawn, deep in pleasant-looking conversation.

“I sure wish we had a ma.” Prudy’s whisper was little more than a sigh of longing.

A longing he had to ignore. He willed down his feelings, snapped the reins. Stanley obliged by picking up his pace and taking them swiftly away. The lilting rise and fall of women’s voices and little girls’ laughter carried after them on the wind.

Chapter Three

T
hree days had passed since the Frost incident, as Molly preferred to think of it. Remembering the little girls and their very naughty cow still warmed her with a chuckle or two. She thought of them this time every day as she guided her trusty mare onto the driveway home. She couldn’t see the Frost house from her vantage on the cart seat, and that made her wonder. What sort of trouble were the twins getting into now? Was Sukie securely penned?

There was no sign of girls or heifer as she gave Ruth plenty of rein. The old mare was tender-mouthed and she knew her way home. There was no point in directing her any further. The horse’s gait quickened, anticipating a nice restful evening in the shade of the orchard with cool, lush grass for her supper.

Molly didn’t blame her one bit. The day’s heat was unusual for May, and the hot puff of wind offered not a lick of relief. Wednesday was her toughest day of the
week. She’d started at five in the morning at the bakery, helping Mrs. Klaus mix and knead bread dough for hours. A noon stop at the dress shop to work for a few hours and to drop off the piecework she did in the evenings for Cora, the owner. Then off to her cousin Noelle’s house to help with the baby and the house chores.

Yes, she had been running for the good part of twelve hours. And it wasn’t over yet. She glanced at the two baskets of sewing work she intended to tackle the rest of the week. It would help with the mortgage she had against her dear Ruth, the last of the debt accumulated from her marriage and illnesses. Needless to say, her late husband Fred had not been good with money.

The cart rattled down the lane, bringing her shanty into view. A blur of red and a streak of yellow in the lush green grasses caught her eye. Whatever could that be? She was too far away to see clearly, but it looked like the rounded top of a little girl’s sunbonnet. It looked like—

The Frost twins. That could only mean one thing. Sukie was on the loose again.

“Miss Molly!” In tandem, the girls raced through the wild grasses. One in bright yellow calico, the other in bright red, they burst up the rise and through the wildflowers, panting as if they had run a hundred miles. “You’re not supposed to be here—”

“—cuz it’s supposed to be a surprise—”

“—’cept we had to pick flowers—”

“—and it took longer than we thought.”

Molly reined her mare to a stop and set the brake,
gazing down at the pair of them. How welcome to see their round button faces shining with goodness and life! Their sweetness refreshed her weary spirit, that was for certain. “I’m worrying about Sukie and you girls are picking wildflowers?”

“Oh, we’re not here because of Sukie.” One of the twins—Penelope?—swiped an ebony curl from her eyes. “She decided to stay at home.”

“We’re here because of the surprise.” The other twin skipped in place, apparently too excited to stand still.

“Surprise?” Curious, Molly hopped down from the cart, landing with a swish of her skirts. “What on earth have you girls been up to?”

“All sorts of trouble,” Penelope assured her as she took Molly’s hand.

“Lots of trouble,” Prudence concurred as she took Molly’s other hand.

Was it her imagination that the sun shone more brightly? Or just her lonely mother’s heart delighting in this connection with children—even though they were not hers? Molly felt her loss and loneliness like the shadows cast at her feet, but they were small compared to the great sunlit world around her, shimmering with color. The purple foxglove nodded in greeting along the path, the yellow faces of daisies waved and the buttercups smiled as they skipped by. With small hands tucked in her own, happiness seeped into the cracks of her soul.

“We hope you’re not mad we came.” Penelope smiled up at her, using both dimples.

How on earth could Dr. Frost deny these girls
anything? Molly melted at the sight. “Mad? No, but I am worried about your housekeeper. Does she know you girls are here?”

“She was busy peeling potatoes for supper,” Prudence answered.

“Yeah, so we didn’t want to bother her with asking.”

Molly chuckled; she couldn’t help it. “You two are definitely trouble. You aren’t going to worry the poor lady, are you?”

“Nope.” Penelope stopped skipping, bringing all three of them to a halt. “Mrs. Finley says we have to tell her where we are, and we did. She can’t run after us.”

“She’s got tired bones,” Prudence explained seriously. “But she reads to us and she’s nice.”

“She’s almost like a grandma.”

“We like her a lot.”

“Since we don’t have a ma.”

“We sure would like a ma.”

They walked the last few yards with the grass rustling their hems and crunching beneath their shoes. One question did happen to bother her. Now seemed like a good time to ask the girls. “Why hasn’t your pa remarried?”

“He doesn’t want to disappoint some nice lady.” Penelope’s hand gripped her more tightly.

“It’s because of us,” Prudence confessed. “Nobody wants so much trouble.”

“No, that can’t be. Where did you hear such a thing?” How could anyone say that to a precious child? Anger blurred her vision. Sympathy for the girls ached within her. She knelt, so she was level with the girls.

“We’re a handful. Everybody says it.” Penelope rubbed at her eyes and blew out a brave breath. No tears materialized, but her inner pain showed. “We’re awful lucky Pa loves us.”

“We’re a handful for him, too.” Prudence hiccupped. “We don’t mean to be trouble, Miss Molly.”

“That’s why we brought you the surprise.” Penelope pointed toward the shanty. “So you wouldn’t be mad about the vase.”

“An’ so you wouldn’t think we are a whole lotta trouble.”

Both adorable faces gazed up at her, tremulous with hope amid their sorrows. The wind caressed the stray strands that had escaped their braids, giving them a windblown look, like unloved ragamuffins in need of a home.

Tears bunched in her throat, making her voice raw and thin. “I don’t think you two are trouble, not in the slightest. What did you bring me?”

She must have said the right thing, because their smiles shone more brightly than their sadness. Dimples flashed, and she was tugged the rest of the way to the shanty.

“Come see,” the girls called out in harmony.

There, perched on her top step, was a little vase with a bouquet of hand-picked wildflowers. Daisies bloomed, as if in celebration. What a surprise. “You girls brought me flowers.”

“We thought—”

“—you would like ’em.”

“I do. I love wildflowers.” She willed away the
memory of a curly-haired baby sitting up, proud of her ability to do so, gurgling and grabbing at the bobbing daisies while Molly weeded their vegetable garden.

“Did you like the vase?” Penelope ran ahead through the prairie grasses.

Prudence followed, running equally as fast. “We got the one with the most colors.”

“We thought you would like it best.”

The girls skidded to a halt in front of the bottom step, sunshine kissing them. They vibrated with anticipation. What would it be like to have such energy? Molly felt wobbly as she joined them, hardly able to see for the burn in her eyes. She blinked hard, trying to bring the blur of colors on her step into focus.

“It’s little. It won’t hold lots of flowers,” Penelope explained as she went up on tiptoe. “But it’ll hold some.”

“Just enough,” Prudence nodded her head in agreement, going up on her toes, too. “Do you like it?”

“Do you?”

She could not believe the beauty of the simple glass vase, hand-painted with sprays of sunflowers, foxglove, daisies and roses. Very fine quality indeed. “I’ve never owned anything so nice.”

The twins beamed, hands clasping, joy chasing away their worries.

Charmed, that’s what she was, and utterly sweet on the girls. She blinked until her eyes stopped blurring and lifted the vase with both hands. The glass, warmed from the sun, felt delicate, as if it could be easily broken. She had better not put this on her windowsill, just in case
Sukie paid a return visit. “I love it. Thank you. It’s mighty thoughtful of you girls to replace the one I lost.”

“Pa said to tell you we’re bein’ responsible for Sukie—”

“—and we’re real sorry because it was your ma’s.” Prudence traced a painted rose with the tip of her forefinger. “Our ma died, too. It hurts real bad, doesn’t it?”

“Yes. Very much.” All the protection in the world could not save her from the first knell of emotion. Grief for the twins missing their mother. Grief remembering her ma, who would be sad to think of the way Molly’s life had turned out. “Come and help me find the right place to put this very special vase.”

“It’s special?” the girls asked, tromping behind her into the shanty.

“Sure it is, because you two gave it to me.” Her shanty was hardly large enough for the three of them to stand side by side in a row. Sunlight streamed pleasantly in through both windows, giving the tidy practical home a golden look. “The table or the bookcase?”

“The table.” The two of them trotted over to the small drop leaf table near one window. Two sets of hands reached out to touch the crocheted flowers standing in relief against the lacy runner. “Ooh. It’s so pretty.”

“Put it right here.” Penelope patted the center.

“It’s perfect.” Prudence sighed in satisfaction after Molly had complied.

“We have a lace bureau cover our ma made.” Penelope brushed the petals of the closest daisy. “But that’s all.”

“Our ma liked to sing songs.” Prudence’s lightness faded. “She would always be humming and singing.”

“Hymns,” Penelope clarified, her shoulders hunching with the weight of the memory. “Now all we got is quiet.”

“I know just what you mean.” Wasn’t this the mix of life, the sad and the sweet? “The quiet hurts too, doesn’t it?”

“Uh-huh.” Both girls nodded gravely. Without their cheer and sparkle, it was easy to see the hardship they had been through.

It was a credit to their father that they still had so much sunlight to them. Thinking of Sam made her feelings sharpen, like a surge in her ability to feel. “It’s getting late, girls. Surely you need to be home by supper time?”

“Mostly it’s just Mr. and Mrs. Finley—”

“—and us.” Prudence traced the edging stitches on one side of the runner.

“What about your father?”

“He comes home late always.” Penelope stepped away from the table and out of the bright rays. “He makes sick people better.”

Prudence took one last look at the crochet work. “Miss Molly? If you think you can like us now, do you want to think about being our ma again?”

“—now that we fixed things with the vase?”

Molly held out her hands to each girl. “I’ve never stopped liking you two. I like you both very much.”

“We like you, too—”

“—lots and lots.”

Small fingers clapped her own, and it was a cozy feeling, like a crackling fire on the coldest day. Like
spring after the hardest winter. “You two know why I can’t be your mother, right?”

“Cuz Pa hasn’t given you a ring?”

“We could get you one.”

She laughed, leading them outside. It was the sun tearing her eyes and not the mix of emotions, deeply colored and ranging from bright to dark. “I’m fussy about the man I marry. I want him to love me. That’s the reason I want him to propose to me.”

“Pa doesn’t believe in love.”

“He says it’s not real, just like a story.”

The children’s confession troubled Molly all the way to the cart. She remembered the caring father, aware of his blessings in his daughters. Life was endlessly complicated, and she hoped her prayers for him and the girls would make a difference. She wanted God to especially watch over these broken hearts. Sam Frost might not believe in love’s power, but she did.

 

“You mean they haven’t come home from school
yet?
” Sam’s head was going to explode. He could feel the pressure building in his cerebellum, sending shooting, red-hot pain into his cerebral cortex. Those girls were going to be the ruin of him. He paced the length of the kitchen, his boot heels striking out his anger on the polished wood planks. “It’s after six o’clock. They should have been home hours ago.”

“If you’re going to get all het up, I’ll send Abner out on horseback to look for ’em.” Mrs. Finley patted a spray of silver hair from her eyes, reached for a hot pad and checked on the boiling potatoes. “I expect they’ve
gone off to look at the Nevilles’ pony for sale. They said they weren’t going far. Whoa, there. I hear something outside. Probably those rascals now, bless them.”

I sure wish we had a ma.
Prudy’s words had stuck with him for days, reminding him of all his personal failures. He had been a failure at marriage because he had based the foundation of that union on something as foolish and as impossible as romantic love.

He was going to make certain that his girls did not repeat his mistakes. He strode across the porch, straining to hear their high, merry voices and lilting laughter, but the only sound was the wind whispering through the lilac and rose bushes and the paper-like rustle of the corn stalks in the vegetable garden.

His girls. Other young ladies their ages were stitching samplers and learning to sew. When he’d been on his afternoon rounds, he’d seen several girls doing just that. Tidy and proper, sitting quietly in their parlors, happily practicing their needlework. Wasn’t that what little girls were supposed to want to do?

Years went by in a blink. Before long, Penny and Prudy would be young ladies being escorted home by their beaus. One day, they would become wives and mothers. They would need to know how to run a proper household and sew for their families.

But how was he going to teach them? Kathleen suffered terribly from arthritis so she could not, and he had no wish to replace her with a younger housekeeper. He pushed open the gate.

You could marry again.
He winced, wishing that thought had remained buried in the recesses of his mind.

The clink of shod horse hooves brought him to a dead halt. With the sun nearly blinding him and the rise of chalky dust from the driveway hazing the view, he couldn’t see clearly. His first fear was that the girls had found a way to haggle with the Neville family for their ancient pony. But as he braced his feet on the dirt of the driveway, it was no child he saw but a woman. A beautiful woman dressed all in blue coming toward him, gliding on a yellow sunbeam. Molly McKaslin.

BOOK: In a Mother’s Arms
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