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Authors: Jillian Hart,Victoria Bylin

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BOOK: In a Mother’s Arms
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What thinking! She blushed, heat racing to her
cheeks and making her nose strawberry red. Afraid he would notice, she spun away to retrieve her sunbonnet from the peg by the door. Her heels rang loudly, punctuating the silence between them.

“I’ve offended you?” His question came low and flat, as if without emotion.

But she could see some of the layers of this man, the granite outside, the tender father inside. The scholar, the physician, the widower, the brokenhearted man. Layers that lured her feelings like the moon on the tides, pulling at waves within her, layers of herself she tried to hide.

“No.” She shook out the bonnet’s ties. “Your daughters are wonderful. If I were you, I would love them as they are. They will grow into more ladylike interests when God wishes them to. Trust me.”

“I wish I could.”

“You are not a trusting man, are you?” She watched his reserve deepen, taking over. The faint ring of joyful laughter drifted in through the window. “Trust me anyway. I was not so different. I loved climbing trees and riding my pony bareback and helping my pa with the livestock. I managed to learn needlework and become fairly ladylike. They will, too.”

“I’m not reassured.” He jammed his fists into his pockets, hesitating as if caught between coming closer and staying away. “You are almost as bad as they are.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“You do have a calming effect on them.” He strolled her way. “If they happen into your yard again, would it be too much to show them a stitch or two? Let them see what you are sewing?”

“I would be happy to. Even if Sukie makes another appearance.”

“Let’s pray she doesn’t break anything else.” He opened the door to the pleasant breezes. The low slanting sunlight felt welcoming, and the dancing leaves and busy birds almost reminded him there was more to life than work and responsibility. More to living than clinging to the plan and patterns that had gotten him through his grief and raising two small children alone.

“The new vase is safely out of the window’s reach,” she reassured him.

“Unless Sukie comes in the door.”

“Goodness!” She sidled through the threshold, taking care to leave plenty of space between them. As if she didn’t want to risk coming too close to him, to the curmudgeon unwilling to trust any female too much. To the man captivated by her wholesome charm and whimsical sweetness completely against his will and better sense.

She passed ahead of him on the brick pathway, her skirts swishing against the overgrown flowers and shrubs. It seemed to him as if the dappled sunlight followed her, and the lark song grew more cheerful as she passed by the apple tree. Lilacs rustled, casting out a handful of tiny purple petals to float behind her on the wind.

You’re seeing her with your heart, man. He tried to stop it, to force his mind to see the world as it really was—she, as she really was. Impossible. The squeak of the garden gate did not bring him back to reality. The crunch of his shoe in the grass, the whisper of the breeze
against his face or his iron-strong will. Nothing could change the beautiful way he saw her, like first light come to a new world, as she glided through the long pearled rays of the sinking sun, laughing at something he could not see.

“What are you two doing? You are going to spoil my mare even more than she already is.” Molly swirled to face him, her movements a graceful waltz. “Ruth loves apple crisp.”

Surely he hadn’t heard right. “Apple crisp can’t be good for her digestion.”

“She’s used to sweets. I feed them to her all the time.”

Why wasn’t he surprised? The evening felt surreal as she danced away from him, the music of her alto joining the high sugary notes of his daughter’s voices. Dimly he saw the girls and Sukie at the trough, one twin feeding the mare, the other the cow.

“I’m gonna tell Mrs. Finley to make lots more.” Finished, Penny washed the stickiness from her hands in the cool trough.

“That way we can come visit Ruth.” Prudy stroked Ruth’s brown nose with adoration. “She’s awful nice.”

“Real nice.” Penny wiped her hands on her skirt. “It must be
real
fun to have your own horse.”


Awful
fun.”

There was no mistaking the poignant longing in the girls’ tones. He wisely chose to remain silent. Not that he could trust his voice with Molly so close. He held out his hand to help her up into the cart. When her long, slender fingers wrapped around his, tenderness flared
through him like a comet in the night sky. She may as well have taken hold of his heart.

“Thank you for supper, Sam.” Her voice was the loveliest melody he’d ever heard. She settled on the board seat and brushed her skirts into place with no less grace than a goodly princess taking her throne. “I had the most unusual time. I’m sorry to say I had no positive effect on your daughters.”

“I’m not even going to ask you to mention the sewing baskets.” She had enthralled his daughters and enraptured him. Hardly the steadying, sensible influence he had hoped for. Undeniable proof she wasn’t the right woman for him. He released the knot in the rope tethering the old mare. The horse primly nodded as if in ladylike thanks before she stepped forward, drawing the cart with Molly in it.

“Goodbye, girls. Thank you for the vase,” she called as she rolled past.

“Goodbye!” The twins sidled up to him, each taking one of his hands. They were so small, frail, clinging to him with unmistakable need.

“I sure like her.” Penelope sighed, as if making a wish on the first twilight star.

“I like her, too.” Prudence leaned against him, a dear weight at his side.

Together they watched Molly drive down the road, growing farther and farther away from them, taking with her the beauty and the light.

Chapter Five

S
pring thunder boomed high above town like cannon fire, startling the horses tethered at the hitching post in front of the dress shop. Molly held tight to her poke bonnet as a gust of wind twisted her skirts and puffed her back a few steps. Enormous raindrops pelted her like buckshot.

What weather! When she had started off to the bakery at fifteen minutes before five this morning, the day had been serene, the wind calm with not a cloud in the pastel sky. Spring was her favorite season, full of temperamental sunshine and exciting storms.

Lightning cracked overhead and she lifted her face toward the sky. Rain patted her cheeks and blurred her vision, but she caught sight of the last tail of a lightning bolt snaking across the turbulent charcoal clouds. Magnificent. She swiped the rain from her face, circled around the agitated horses and bounded up the steps to the boardwalk.

And felt a trickling sensation at the back of her neck. Most peculiar, as she had never felt that exact sensation before. A horse’s whinny drew her around and there, veiled by gray rain and the transparent rubber sheets of his buggy, was Dr. Samuel Frost.

The explosion of thunder became silent when Sam’s gaze met hers. The rain continued to fall but went mute. The horses neighing and sidestepping at the post made not a single noise. All she could hear was her pulse thump-thumping in her ears.

Sam looked equally as surprised to see her. He remained frozen on his seat, his eyes following her as his buggy sped closer. One moment became eternity as she felt her soul shift.

The rain’s fury increased, stealing him from her sight. His black buggy sped on, time leaped back into rhythm and the symphony of rainfall returned.

What just happened? Puzzled, she tripped through the door, dripping as she went. The bell above her jingled, the warmth radiating from the stove wrapped around her like a favorite wool blanket, and she stared out at the street where Sam’s buggy had been.

Had he felt the same jolt? She had not experienced anything of that magnitude and importance when she’d been in his house, or during the handful of days since when her thoughts had drifted to him more often than she would have liked to admit. Remembering his sense of humor and his tenderness with his daughters had made her wish he was a different kind of man. The sort to believe in true love.

But she feared true love was the last reason a busy
doctor with two rambunctious children would want to marry anyone, especially her. She caught her reflection in the glass window. While she had never been a beauty, time and hardship had stolen the first blush from her face. The man certainly wasn’t interested in her looks.

No, Sam had different hopes. He had hoped she would have a settling impact on his twins. That was important to him. If he chose to remarry, he would probably look for a hardworking and sensible wife, a convenient woman to mother his girls. Love would not be part of the bargain.

In her experience, marriage was far too precious to be anything short of true love. Her life had been one long string of disappointments with Fred, a man she had married hoping deep affection would come later.

She had been terribly wrong.

“Come in and warm up by the stove.” Cora Sims, the owner of the dress shop and Molly’s boss, set down the pencil she’d been using on the account books and rose from the small table at the far end of the tasteful store. “Why, you are drenched through. That storm is shaking the glass in the panes. There it goes again.”

Lightning flashed as if directly overhead, accompanied by thunder. The floorboards beneath Molly’s soggy shoes shook while the windows shuddered in their wood casings. The stove lid rattled when a gust of wind sent smoke back down the pipe. Molly peeled off her raincoat and hurried, dripping, toward the back room.

“You’ll get a chill back there.” Cora held out a dainty tea cup, steaming with freshly poured tea. “I’ll hang that up. You sit by the stove. Was that Dr. Frost I saw passing by?”

She took the china cup, surprised that it rattled in its saucer at the mention of Sam’s name. “Yes.”

“My Holly goes to school with his little girls.” Cora tapped through the shop, weaving around the notions display case and the summer silks table in the center of the store. “Am I right in thinking the Frosts live across the main road from you?”

Her cup rattled violently a second time. Goodness, how could one rather reserved man bring forth such a response in her? She hardly knew him. She wasn’t sure if she would see him again, or even if she wanted to. Why, then, did it feel as if the storm was raging within her as well?

Because you like him. That terrible truth took the rest of the strength from her knees, so she slipped into one of the wingback chairs positioned comfortably near the stove.

Cora hung up the raincoat and returned with a second tea cup, watching her curiously.

“The Frost property borders my cousin’s land, yes.” She tried to answer as if she wasn’t in turmoil. As if she hadn’t just discovered she liked a man who, according to his daughters, didn’t believe in love.

“Rumor has it that you had dinner with the doctor and his children the other evening.” Cora settled into the neighboring chair, her cup steaming and curiosity sparkling in her eyes. Her smile seemed all-knowing. “Samuel Frost is strikingly handsome, don’t you think? Holly came down with a sore throat in March, and he was wonderful. Courteous, brilliant, and kind. I wonder why he has never remarried.”

“It is a mystery,” Molly agreed, the tea in her cup sloshing over the brim. She did her best to steady her hand. “A widower almost always remarries right away if there are children to raise. That’s my observation, anyway.”

“I’ve noticed the same. Dr. Frost hasn’t been in any rush to find his daughters a new mother. I believe he’s been widowed many years. Five, perhaps more.” Cora sipped her tea, leaving a silence between them.

Five years was a goodly length to remain alone with two small daughters. Molly leaned back in the chair, the bracing crisp scent of the tea steaming her face while her mind traveled backwards to the evening spent with Sam. She’d gotten a glimpse of his good humor and tenderness, and how much he wanted what was best for his daughters.

The man had a compassionate heart. Perhaps that was why she liked him. Why her hand trembled and her soul noticed when his eyes had locked on hers. Yes, she liked him more than she should. Much more than was smart.

“I’m nearly finished with the basting work you sent home with me.” She firmly changed the subject, took a sip of tea and ignored the regret within her for a wish that could never be.

 

If only he could get the image of the woman out of his head. Sam paced down the dark hall, restless and unsettled, unable to erase the image of Molly lifting her face to the rain, watching the roiling storm with the kind of joy and wonder he hadn’t felt since he was a boy. As
a little guy, he remembered spinning with both arms out as the rain pelted over him and thunder crashed overhead. That is, until his mother had called out for him to come in and be sensible.

Why was he remembering such things? There was more—the cave in the hillside he had claimed as his fort, the pony who had been his best friend, his anticipation as Ma and his sister Sara finished the supper dishes while Pa lit his pipe and paged through the big volume of Shakespeare’s plays.

Life was not a story. He fisted his hands, arriving at the girls’ room, where the lamplight framed them as if with an angel’s touch. He froze in place outside the doorway, love creeping endlessly into every place, every fracture, every shadow in his soul. The girls in matching white flowered nightgowns and caps knelt beside their double bed, heads bowed and hands clasped in prayer.

Maybe, he conceded. Just maybe part of life was as fanciful and as captivating as anything made up. His daughters certainly were.

“…and please bless Miss Molly, cuz she’s awful nice and pretty and has a horse—”

“—and she said she’d take us in a heartbeat—”

“—an’ no one ever says that about us. Amen.”

“Amen.”

The suspicion that the twins knew he was there was confirmed when both girls opened their eyes and shared unspoken looks. A floorboard squeaked beneath his boot as he shifted his weight. Yep, those two were nothing but trouble, but he was very fond of trouble.

“Into bed, both of you.”

“Hi, Pa.” Synchronized, they hopped onto their feet, hems swishing.

“Maybe you could put Miss Molly in your prayers, too,” Penelope began as she climbed beneath the covers.

“Because we like her,” Prudence finished as she dashed around to her side of the bed and jumped into it with a creak of bed ropes.

Molly. She was emblazoned in his mind, an image of purity and elegance standing in the rain. A dream he could not let himself believe in.

“Good night, dear ones.” He tucked the covers beneath their chins, brimming over with emotion too tender to measure. “Sleep tight.”

He blew out the lamp, sorry when the flame died for it stole his little girls from his sight. As he shut the door behind him, he heard their whispers and a single shared giggle. Emptiness followed him down the stairs to the parlor where the day’s newspaper and his Bible awaited him. The fire in the hearth snapped and crackled, echoing in the stillness. He could not deny that his thoughts went to Molly, who was also alone in her house and lonely in her life.

He wished he could keep his thoughts from her, but he could not.

 

The best thing about a storm was that it did not last. Molly drew back the curtains from her window and took delight in the soft light before dawn. A clear sky turned lavender at the horizon and promised a fair morning. Flowers nodded reverently in the calm breeze
and birds sang gloriously in anticipation of the sun rising.

Behind her the morning dishes dried in the drainer and the fire was banked in the cook stove. She swallowed the last of her tea, doing her best to ignore the silence surrounding her and the emptiness. Gone were the mornings filled with a gurgling baby girl chewing on her baked biscuits while Molly hurried to get breakfast on the table. Gone were the sweet times when Merry had beat pots against the floor while Molly had baked bread, or accompanied her to town to shop for groceries, or played with her toes in the clean grass while Molly knelt nearby at the washboard.

God knew best in taking little Merry. That Molly had to trust. But nothing had been able to fill the empty mornings or the hole in her heart. She longed to love again, but would it ever be? There would be no more babies and that meant gone was her only chance for a family.

What a blessing the job at the bakery was. There was no more time to remember. She grabbed her shawl from the row of wooden pegs by the door, slung it over her shoulders and threw open the door.

The shadows and half light greeted her. A lark on the ground gave her a shocked look before taking flight. Something dark on the top step caught her attention. She stopped short, staring at the bouquet of freshly picked flowers, the buds closed tightly. The soft fragrance of lilacs made her smile.

Lilacs. She thought of the garden outside Sam Frost’s kitchen door.

Could these be from Sam? She knelt down to gather the long stems. Who else would have given her flowers? The bouquet had been tied with a ribbon. She ran her fingertip over the stems. The leaves felt like dried velvet, the delicate cones of blooms like the finest French silk. Memories assailed her, the lilac bushes outside her childhood home making the house smell luxuriously for most of May, planting a lilac bush outside her shanty with new little baby Merry watching, bundled safely in her basket. The scent of the blossoms reminded her of home, of love, and most of all, of hope.

Sam Frost had left these for her? Tears lumped in her throat and scalded her eyes. The man hardly liked her. She’d seen the look on his face when she’d told him about her long-ago fort. While he hadn’t been horrified and she hadn’t known quite how to label his confused countenance, she was certain of one thing. Sam Frost had sorely regretted inviting to dinner a woman who knew how to climb trees and fend off pretend bandits.

For a moment, just one long moment as she found a tall jar and filled it with water from the pitcher, she dreamed. What if Sam had been smitten by her? What if he’d cut these flowers with love? What if he’d left them here, hoping it would make her smile? That his regard would brighten her day and lighten her load? That when he gazed upon her, endless love filled him up, real love, the incandescent, perfect kind?

But wasn’t that just a wish? Molly set the jar on the counter, closed the door behind her and hurried through the pre-dawn shadows. Sam didn’t love her. He had brought his offering to delight her, sure, but because he
had decided his girls needed a mother. It was a practical decision on his part, nothing more.

If her disappointment felt as large as the sky and as shadowed as the ground at her feet, she did her best to ignore it. She hurried through sleeping wildflowers and whispering grasses to the barn, blind to the beauty as dawn came.

 

Sam stumbled into the kitchen, blinking against the too bright light. He felt one hundred years old and soul-weary as he dropped his medical bag on the bench by the door and shucked off his coat. The sun was well up. He had no notion as to the time. Bless Kathleen for the fresh pot of coffee on the stove and the scent of bacon in the air. Must be a breakfast plate for him in the warmer.

“There you are.” Kathleen bustled into the kitchen with a broom in hand. “I thought I heard the door close. You’ve been up since the wee hours.”

“Mr. Markus is going to make it. His heart gave him a scare.” Sam wrapped his fingers around the back rung of his chair. Maybe it was a trick of the mid-morning light, or his weary mind, but a shaft of sunlight sliced through the window and landed directly on the extra chair at the table, the one Molly had used the other night.

Molly. Thinking of her stirred up all kinds of tender feelings and all sorts of sensible reasons not to acknowledge those feelings. He didn’t like her. He wasn’t going to like her. He intended to stay in absolute control of his emotions.

BOOK: In a Mother’s Arms
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