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Authors: Jillian Hart,Victoria Bylin

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BOOK: In a Mother’s Arms
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Kathleen set a cup of hot coffee in front of him and the plate from the warmer.

“Bless you.” He surely appreciated his housekeeper. He felt less exhausted basking in the aroma of crisp bacon, scrambled eggs and blueberry pancakes. “Where are the girls?”

“Out weeding the garden like I told them. They have that vase to work off, although it’s my opinion—” Kathleen took a deep breath like a general preparing for battle. “I don’t think it’s right they work off the vase.”

“Their cow broke the vase. They need to learn responsibility.”

“Yes, I agree. But it might not look right from Miss Molly’s view.” Kathleen set the small pitcher of maple syrup and the butter dish on the table. “You just think about that. There hasn’t been one woman in these parts brave enough to have supper with you. Those twins are a blessing, but a passel of trouble, too. A wise man wouldn’t ask questions. He wouldn’t hesitate. He wouldn’t look left or right. He would marry that woman. Because if you don’t, it might well be an eternity before another woman comes along who’s partial to your girls.”

Yes, that was exactly what he needed right now. Now, when he was too tired to think straight. He was seeing double. He blinked again. Maybe triple. “I don’t want to get married.”

“You might consider those young ones. Out there trying to impress you and Miss Molly. They need a mother’s love.”

He reached for the sugar jar and tipped it into his
coffee. The fog in his head cleared a tad. “The girls weren’t out in the garden.”

“Sure they were. They were right—” Kathleen peered out the back window where the vegetable garden was visible beyond lawn. “Where did they get off to?”

Not again. Sam pushed away from the table. “Keep that warm for me. No telling how long I’ll be.”

Tired to the bone, he climbed to his feet. A father’s work was never done. If a tiny voice in his head reminded him that Kathleen was right, that his girls obviously needed more than he could provide, he didn’t want to admit it. He had been denying that voice for years.

He stumbled out of the back door and hadn’t gone two feet before he realized something was different. No overgrown branches smacked him as he marched down the walkway. The overgrown lilacs had been trimmed.

Excellent. The girls were showing some improvement, after all. Maybe what they needed was time and firm, loving guidance. Kathleen was wrong.

She had to be.

 

“Miss Molly!”

Startled, she glanced up from her work at the bakery’s front counter, wrapping dinner rolls, bread and a dozen cookies for Mrs. Worthington’s afternoon pickup. She lost count of the cookies. The Frost twins tromped through the doorway, dressed in matching pink calico dresses and innocent faces.
Too
innocent faces. What were the girls up to?

“This is a pleasant surprise,” she greeted. “What are you two doing here?”

“Oh, we got real hungry for a cookie.”

“Real hungry.”

At ten in the morning? Quite unusual. She considered her little customers. “I can’t remember you two coming by the bakery before this.”

“That’s because we didn’t know you.”

“We do now.”

“Uh-huh.” Not that she wasn’t delighted to see her little friends, but she had learned a thing or two about the pair. “What about your pa? Does he know where you are?”

Both girls shook their heads slowly. Puppy dog eyes and downcast faces.

Adorable. She did her best not to let them see her smile. “Did you girls come to town on your own?”

“It wasn’t much of a walk—”

“—it didn’t take much time at all. We can go back—”

“—if you want us to.”

“You don’t, do you?”

What did she do with them? As cute as two peas in a pod and twice as dear. She thought of the flowers at home on her kitchen counter, a gift from their father. A courting man left flowers. No doubt about that. Her stomach tightened, as if filling with too many conflicting emotions. Hope and despair, wishes and reality, faith and fear.

“We were weeding the carrots—”

“—which is really hard.”

“We have to get every single weed in the whole garden—”

“—except we got hungry.”

Was Sam Frost going to come courting her? Why did that question make the children standing on the other side of the counter suddenly more precious to her? Her hand shook as she recounted the cookies in the bakery box and added two more to make a baker’s dozen.

They cannot be your children, Molly. She had to be careful. She had to remember that a child could not fill the void in a marriage when love did not thrive. With a flick of her wrists, she closed the box lid and secured it tightly. “Let me understand this. You two are so hungry you had to walk a quarter of a mile into town instead of going to the cookie jar in your own kitchen?”

“Oops.” Penelope blushed.

Prudence bowed her head. “Maybe we wanted to see you, Miss Molly.”

“Maybe I want to see you, too, but promise me something.” She swept around the counter and brought both chins up to meet her gaze. “You tell Mrs. Finley or your father before you surprise me again. All right?”

“Yes’m.” Both girls smiled, little beauties with hearts of gold.

Okay, so she was sweet on them. She nodded toward the table at the large front window, where the day’s delicious specials were on display. A chocolate layer cake, a pan of cinnamon rolls, fresh loaves of rye bread and big plates of iced cookies. “Now, each of you pick out one thing. It will be my treat.”

“Thanks, Miss Molly.” They chimed together, twice the sweetness as they raced ahead of her. They had
wanted to see her. Enough they had walked all the way here on a Saturday, when they had any number of fun activities to keep them amused at home.

Their question from the first day they met flitted into her thoughts.
Do you want to get married? You could marry Pa. Then he wouldn’t be cross anymore. Or lonely. So, do you want to?

Longing filled her, the longing of a mother who had empty arms and no child to love. The floor felt shaky beneath her feet. She grabbed onto the counter, holding on. It would be so easy to start caring too much. To let her affection for the girls influence how she felt about their father. She wanted a family with all of her soul, so much she ached with it.

More than that, she did not want to make a mistake. To trade the dream of true love and happiness for the reality of uneasy silences and discord.

Do not start loving them, Molly. She willed strength back into her knees and resolve into her heart. Still, it was hard not to adore the girls. Penelope and Prudence in their matching pink dresses and bonnets, their straight black braids and shiny black shoes leaned carefully over the pretty table covered with delicious treats, considering their choices.

The door swung violently open, sending the jingle bell over it ringing with alarm. A man’s dark frame filled the doorway, wearing a black Stetson, black attire and a granite-set look of disapproval. Sam’s gaze collided with hers and she felt the wave of his unhappiness like a sucker punch as he pounded into the bakery, his boots striking angrily on the floor.

“Girls! What did I tell you?” His hazel eyes darkened, a formidable man of steel and cool temper.

Molly watched in horror as the startled twins turned from the table, Penelope’s shoe caught the table leg, she stumbled and there was a deafening crash.

Chapter Six

D
read cascaded through him at the boom of exploding glass. Wood crashed to the floor. A porcelain plate hit the ground with a ring. One sugar cookie rolled like a wheel toward him, hit the counter and broke into three pieces.

His girls—his adorable, troublemaking girls—were in the middle of the shattered glass, splintered wood and ruined baked goods. Prudence stood with her hands to her face, her eyes round with horror. Penelope was in the rubble down on one knee, cradling one hand with her other. Fresh blood seeped between her fingers.

He didn’t remember crossing the floor. Suddenly he was crunching across the debris, fear driving him.

“We’re real sorry, Pa.” Penelope’s bottom lip trembled.

“We didn’t mean it.” Tears pooled in Prudence’s eyes.

“Don’t move. Not a step.” He lifted Penny from the
rubble, hating the sight of that blood. It didn’t look too bad. With a kiss to her forehead, he set her safely away from the shards of glass. “I’ll be right back, sweetheart. Let me get your sister.”

Penny sniffed and nodded, cradling her cut hand, and he swooped Prudy into his arms. Glass and cookies ground beneath his boots as he turned, and the sight greeting him nearly toppled him. Molly knelt in front of Penelope, examining her injured hand. He lost awareness of everything—the child against his chest, the adrenaline coursing through his veins, fear that his daughter was in pain. He felt weightless, buoyant with emotion.

“It’s not bad at all. I’ll get some water to wash this with.” Pure concern shone like a pearl’s luster as she gently wiped a tear from the girl’s cheek. “Come over here and sit for me, okay, love? It’s going to be all right.”

Penny nodded with another sniffle. “It only hurts a little bit.”

His good girl. Chin set, more tears hovering but not falling, trying so hard to be brave. Vaguely he was aware of lowering Prudence to the floor. Somewhere in his befuddled mind he knew he should be the one to tend to the wound, but for the life of him he could not seem to move. Two things became crystal clear. The gentle tug against his hand as Prudence wrapped her fingers in his, and Molly as she returned with a bowl, pitcher and cloths.

“Come sit over here.” Pure compassion, the woman took Penny’s elbow and guided her the few steps to the
long bench meant for customers. She helped Penelope to sit, her murmur spoken so low, the words were lost to him.

The little girl relaxed, her gaze taking in every detail of the woman’s face. Molly held the little hand to the basin, poured water over the wound and dabbed carefully, checking for bits of glass and debris.

He felt a tug on his hand and met Prudy’s worried face and plea-filled eyes. She hadn’t been harmed by the broken glass, but she was hurting from something different, something harder to see.

“She’s just like our list, Pa.” She whispered, sidling up against him, so it was just the two of them. “She’s nice in every way.”

She certainly is. His windpipe thickened, but it was no medical malady that made it hard to draw in air. It was this woman kneeling before his child, with her delicate golden curls and kindness. There was no pretense. No social decorum. Nothing but concern for the child. Like a mother, she inspected the raw edges of the small cut, speaking soothingly in low tones, trying to tease a smile from the girl to reassure her.

It was almost as if Molly were a mother, for she knew just what to do, how to comfort, how to care.

“You hold that still for me, okay, darling?” Molly took the bloody cloths and rose with a rustle of her skirts. She cradled Penny’s chin with her free hand. “I’ll look to see if Mrs. Kraus has a salve in the medicine cabinet. Then we’ll get that wrapped up good so you can have a cookie. Maybe you had better have two cookies. It will help you heal faster.”

He watched, amazed. As she smiled down at his daughter, she changed in the same way a bud opened into a blossom. The same way dawn became morning. Everything about her bloomed. Her eyes, her face, her spirit. Pure radiance. In that light he saw something kindred, the sorrow he’d read in her before. But this held a joy, too, a memory and a love so powerful, he knew. He knew.

Bless her, Lord. Please look after her, for all she has been through.

Sorrow beat at his carefully controlled will. His resolve not to like or to care about Mrs. Molly McKaslin crumbled like a cookie, leaving strong, vibrant emotion. He wanted to think it was sympathy for her lonesomeness he felt, and that’s what he was going to tell himself. He could not love her. He
would
not love her.

“I’ve got some salve in my medical bag in the buggy.” He moved woodenly toward the door, his emotions oddly disconnected as he grasped the brass knob and bolted into the warm, bright day, refusing to let himself wonder why he was running so fast.

 

As Molly wrapped up two cookies each for the girls, she tried not to watch the girls and their father. The girls sat side by side on the bench while Sam knelt on the floor, bandaging Penelope’s hand.

She gathered up both little packages and by the time she’d circled the end of the front counter, she made sure she had a smile on her face.

“This should make both of you feel a little bit better.” She presented the bundles to Prudence. “Perhaps you could carry this for your sister?”

“Yes’m. Thank you so much, Miss Molly.”

“Yes, thank you.” The intensity of Penelope’s smile had changed.

Everything had changed. Molly swallowed hard, trying to ignore the rawness in her midsection. She gave a tug on each girl’s sunbonnet brim. “It was a pleasure seeing you two, but I hope the rest of your day is less eventful.”

“Me, too. I only got one other hand.” Penelope wiggled her good fingers. “I can’t climb into our fort.”

“Or lasso Sukie if she runs off.”

“Or climb over the rocks at the creek.”

“I guess you two will have to stay home with Kathleen for a few days until this heals up right.” Sam winked at them. “You’ll have to be proper. Maybe learn needlework.”

“My hand, Pa?” Penelope showed him the bandage as a reminder.

“I know. Sewing is out of the question, but a father can have hope. Maybe you can sit with me in the library.”

“You could read the plays to us.” Prudence, hopeful, sidled close to her twin, gazing adoringly at her strong, gentle father. “The one with Viola—”

“—the girl that dresses up like a boy.” Penelope finished, all hope.


Twelfth Night
it is.” Sam rose to his six-foot height. Hard not to be impressed by his dependable shoulders and stalwart kindness. “Molly, thank you for all you’ve done for my daughters.”

He may have been talking about cleaning Penelope’s
cut and comforting the girl, or perhaps sweeping up the mess in front of the window, but she suspected he was thanking her for more. Much more.

She felt a pang of hope in her heart. A hope she could not simply give in to. Maybe there was a chance his courting was sincere. Maybe.

“Helping your girls was my pleasure.” She opened the door. Fresh May sun streamed in like a celebration of life and love. “I hope you feel better, Penelope.”

“I do. Now.” Although the child walked by and did not reach out, her need was like a small hand grasping the strings of Molly’s heart.

“I’m real sorry my shoe got caught on the table leg.”

“I’m real sorry about the cookies.”

Impossible not to love those darling girls just a little bit more. “I’m glad you both are all right.”

“I apologize.” Sam hesitated, taking the weight of the door, close enough that she could see the texture of his morning stubble whiskering his lean jaw. “Calamity finds them.”

“Those two are catastrophes in calico.” And the dearest. She steeled her mother’s need to love those girls, refusing to catch a glimpse of the two through the window, where they waited on the boardwalk for their father.

“If the money I left with you doesn’t cover all the damage, you will have Mrs. Kraus bill me?”

“She isn’t going to be happy about it. Just a warning.” Molly forced her thoughts to the incident, a safe topic, one that would not tear her emotions apart. “I’ll do what I can to calm her.”

“I appreciate it.” Again, it seemed as if he was saying
more as he tipped his hat. “I would hate for the girls to be banned from the bakery.”

“I would, too.” They shared a smile, but it felt like more. It felt like a tender recognition, like two lonely souls finding their match. “Goodbye, Sam.”

“Goodbye, Molly.” When he said her name, his tone deepened, as if with great meaning, with high regard. No longer reserved, no longer frosty, no longer keeping his distance, Sam brushed by her, and she felt the weight of his shadows and the spark of hope.

You will not fall in love with him, she ordered. She closed the door, watching as the man she did not want to love caught each girl by the hand. They walked toward his awaiting horse and buggy together. Their shadows trailed behind them, as if there was nothing but sunshine and good days ahead.

Alone, Molly turned her back, feeling every drop of emptiness in her soul and every impossible wish.

 

The image of Molly kneeling before his daughter and tending her wound stayed with him through the afternoon. So did the picture she had made in the bakery’s window, with her arms wrapped around her middle, forlorn and lost as he’d untethered Stanley from the hitching post.

Sam set two glasses of lemonade on the table next to the back porch swing. It had been a good day. He had read to the girls early on. His afternoon rounds had gone well, and if no one needed a doc for the rest of the day, he would have a quiet evening at home. “Mrs. Finley says that’s all you get before supper.”

“Pa?” Penelope’s toy horse, clutched in her good hand, froze in mid-gallop on the flowered cushion. “Do you know what?”

“We’ve got it all figured out,” Prudence added, all innocence as she trotted her wooden mustang across the arm of the swing.

“I’m afraid to know what you girls have planned now.” He leaned against the porch railing and crossed his arms over his chest, braced for the details of their next scheme. “Does this have to do with the Nevilles’ pony?”

“Well, we would like to have Trigger as our very own—”

“—we surely would.”

“But this is more important.”

“—a
lot
more important.”

More than the Nevilles’ pony? This ought to be good. He braced himself for it. Perhaps it had something to do with how doting they had been to Molly’s mare. Most likely the girls wanted a little more excitement than a placid old pony could bring to their lives. What else could make the girls study one another, as if silently bolstering up their courage to ask? They had never had a problem asking for what they wanted before.

Penelope squirmed, put her horse down and laid her bandaged hand on her lap. She looked vulnerable, as she had after the bakery display table had come crashing down. “Miss Molly was awful nice to us.”

“She didn’t yell.” Prudence swiped the flyaway strands from her braids out of her face with a nervous brush. “Not even once.”

“And when I almost cried, she wiped away my tears. She didn’t even scold, because I’m too big to cry.” Penelope’s voice thinned, and on her dear face showed a world of hurt. Of need. “She’s awful nice, Pa.”

“And she gave us cookies after—”

“—after I wrecked everything.” Tears pooled in Penelope’s eyes.

Prudence’s lower lip trembled.

A terrible feeling gathered behind his solar plexus. A tight coil that would not relent. His daughters were hurting. So little and delicate. “What are you two trying to say?”

“We like her, Pa.”

“A whole bunch.”

“We want you to marry her.”

“With a ring and everything.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, attempting to hold more emotions than he could handle.
Oh, Lord, help me say the right thing. Please guide me now because I’m afraid I will make a mess of this.
His girls, for all their bluster and charm, were frail at heart, as anyone was. Love made everyone vulnerable, especially children. He opened his eyes, trusting that God would help him find a way to make this right.

“We were praying too, Pa.”

“So that maybe you would like Miss Molly.”

“Really like her.”

“So she could be our ma.”

This is where he had always failed before. Sam pushed away from the railing and knelt before his daughters. The wind chose that moment to gust, sending
the most lyrical scent of lilacs, as soothing as any lullaby. A few stray purple petals floated by.

He had spent so much time keeping everyone at an emotional distance. Necessary for a doctor, but it had become his way of coping. First when his marriage felt like a battleground and second when he’d found himself a grieving widower with a pair of three-year-olds to raise. He’d been terrified of failing again. Of letting his girls down. Of not raising them right.

But something had changed. Someone had changed him. He thought of Molly and her loss, the richness of her heart that had known great love and great sorrow. He brushed a tear from Penny’s cheek and a stray curl from Prudy’s face. “I thought you two understood. I’m not likely to get married again.”

“But it’s what Mrs. Finley says you need.”

“She says it all the time.”

He saw right through their words to the needs of two motherless girls. They were the ones who needed him to marry. They were the ones in love with Molly McKaslin. How did he handle that? He couldn’t deny the woman’s beauty and kindness or the fact that he liked her.

Truth be told, he more than liked her. But marriage? The tightness coiling in his gut twisted taut. No, he could not build a marriage on love again. His heart hadn’t recovered from the last attempt.

At a loss, he dug deep for the right answer. He felt the Lord’s reassurance like a touch to his soul, and understood. He gentled his voice, although it remained scratchy, letting his shields down instead of putting
them up, letting the wash of emotions hit him instead of denying them. “Do you really want to do that to Miss Molly? Look at me. I’m old.”

BOOK: In a Mother’s Arms
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