Authors: Jillian Hart,Victoria Bylin
“Not that old, Pa. You don’t have gray hair yet.”
So sincere. He tried again. “Sure, but I’m hardly handsome. Molly might not want to marry an almost-homely man.”
“Nun-uh. Your nose isn’t
“And you have all your teeth.”
“That I do.” He bit his lip. His adorable girls. “I’m sure Molly wants to marry someone with all his teeth. But you know I tend to be surly.”
“You don’t scowl nearly as much, Pa.”
“You only got cross once today.”
“But I work all the time. A lot of nice ladies don’t like that in a husband. They want them around to have supper with and to read alongside in the evenings.”
“You could find another doctor to help you, Pa.”
“That way you could have more suppers at the table.”
“You girls have this all figured out, don’t you?”
“We’ve got a list, Pa.”
“Not just for us, but for you, too.”
A list. He should have expected that. They had always been precocious for their age. Perhaps he would leave the rest of the argument for another time. “I’m going out to help Abner with the barn work. You girls want to come—”
He didn’t get to finish his question. A cow mooed behind him near the fence, perhaps announcing a newcomer. The squeak of a wheel and the clop of horse
hooves brought him to his feet. He was already striding through the garden without thought, expectation filling him. The rising dust obscured the driver from his sight, but he didn’t need to see her face to know it was Molly. He knew because of the rise of emotion moving through him like the tide through the ocean.
“Miss Molly!” The girls clamored behind him through the garden gate and onto the lawn. Sukie rushed up, charging on all four feet, mooing in delight. The excitement was nothing compared to the riot of feelings within his heart for the woman who gave her first smile of greeting to him.
iss Molly! You came!” In unison, footfalls padded against grass. With Sukie tailing them, Penelope and Prudence hurried toward the cart, bright and shining.
“I had to come see how you were, Penelope.” Molly didn’t bother to hide her delight as she eased Ruth to a stop in the Frosts’ driveway. “How’s your hand?”
“Lots better. I can’t believe we get to see you twice—”
“—all in the same day!” Prudence finished breathlessly, wrapping her fingers along the top rail of the cart. “Did you come to see me, too?”
“Absolutely. I can’t adore one of you without adoring the other.” Molly laughed when Sukie skidded to a halt behind the girls, and Ruth gave a low nicker of disapproval. What decorum! She patted Ruth’s flank reassuringly. “It’s very good to see you, too, Sukie.”
The bovine lowed, lifting her head to sniff and gaze dotingly at the bakery box on the seat. Smart girl.
“You smell cinnamon and apples, don’t you?” Aware of Sam staying back against the white garden fence, she handed the bakery box to Prudence. “I made this during my lunchtime just for you all.”
Penelope leaned against the cart, careful of her bandaged hand. “Apple crisp. I can smell it.”
“It smells good.” Prudence carefully took the box. “Thank you, Miss Molly.”
“Do we have to wait for dessert time—”
“—or can we open it now?”
“It’s up to your pa.” She allowed her gaze to find him and to linger, and offered a small smile. He clung to the shadows against the house, looking stoic and reserved and handsome. Decidedly handsome. Without a hat, his thick black hair swirled over his forehead to fall at his collar. His pensive look made his angled face appear stronger and deeply masculine. Gone was the morning’s stubble, and his smooth jaw was set as if in stone. Her fingertips tingled with the urge to trail the cut of his jaw line.
You are not going to fall for this man, remember? She steeled her spine, determined to be strong. Just because her emotions for him had changed and her regard for him deepened did not mean she had to be sweet on the man. She did not intend to set her cap for him. She could hold back her need to be a part of a family again, to love and the hope to be loved.
“You girls take that into the kitchen first, so you don’t spill whatever it is.”
“Pa, we’ll be careful.”
“Sure, but look at what happened this morning. Calamity strikes when you two are near.” He stepped into the fall of sunlight, coming closer. “Go to the kitchen and have Mrs. Finley help you.”
“Yes, sir.” The two trotted off the way they came, and Sukie trailed them through the garden gate and disappeared from sight.
“Is she going to follow the girls into the house?”
“It’s been known to happen.” He held out his hand to help her down. “When Sukie was a calf, I would find her in the house at least once a day. She would find her way in through a door or a window.”
“She does love your daughters.” Molly placed her fingers on his palm, the lightest of brushes. This time it felt significant, like a bolt of lightning in a blue sky. As she swung off the seat, the sensation jolted through her spirit and soul, and for one brief moment she was airborne, buoyed as if by love. Then her shoes touched the ground, Sam withdrew his hand and yet the feeling of lightness remained.
“One morning I came in from a late night call, and there she was, sleeping in the kitchen next to the warm stove.” Sam did not look in the least affected as he walked slowly at her side. “Sukie was curled up looking as pleased as could be with herself, and the cinnamon rolls Kathleen had baked for the morning were gone and the pan on the counter licked clean.”
It took all her discipline to focus on the words of his story. Her hands had gone damp. Her limbs tremulous. Her entire being quaked as if she would never be the same again. “And what was your reaction?”
“I lit the stove, boiled a pot of tea and took the calf outside. She was back in the house by the time Kathleen started breakfast.”
“She was letting herself into the house?”
“A mystery that was never solved.” Sam appeared different. Warmer, less guarded. He stopped at the gate and held it open, but shook his head when she went towards it. A hint of dimples framed his grin. “It’s my theory the calf used the pass-through hatch for the coal. She grew bigger and couldn’t get in anymore. I thought letting the girls get a pet cow would teach them responsibility, but I was wrong. You already knew that, didn’t you?”
“Maybe because I grew up in the country. I’ve had a few pet cows of my own.” Yes, that was it. Concentrate on anything except Sam Frost.
“So, you’ve always lived in the country?”
“No. Scarlet fever took my baby daughter four years ago. Then it took my husband, and I fell sick. My mother came to tend me and she died. After that, I couldn’t keep the farm running by myself. I lost the house and the land, so Ruth and I moved into town. All the hustle and bustle made me forget. It was the noise. I was always reminded I was among other people, that my old life had vanished and things were different. Somehow it made it easier to move on. At least partly.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Molly.” Rich, his words, deeply intimate his tone. His sympathy touched her, as if they shared that in life and more. He moved closer, and not merely physically. “I pray there will be more children for you one day.”
“I had a very hard time having Merry, and my doctor assured me there would be no more babies. Now you know why I think your twins are a blessing. I don’t understand why God chose to take my only child, but in losing my daughter I know the value of a child’s life and the richness of a child’s love.” She changed the subject. “How did you lose your wife?”
“Cancer. I did a similar thing when Paula died. I moved from the town into the country. I worked so much, so I could stay numb from any more pain life had to offer.”
“It’s no way to live. Eventually you have to rise to the challenge of living and loving again, or miss what is greatest in life.”
“Wise words.” He had recently come to understand that.
Kathleen’s voice carried from the open window. “Get out of my kitchen! Shoo! You girls take that cow outside right now.”
“But she loves us, Mrs. Finley—”
“—she wants to be with us.”
“Honestly! Does my kitchen look like a barnyard to you? Shoo!”
Beside him, Molly’s laughter was part amusement, part tears. Was she remembering her losses? He wanted to ask her about what had happened, about her buried child. But he could not hurt her in that way.
“What a good life you have, Sam.” Amusement chased away the traces of sorrow from her lovely face, the loveliest he’d ever seen.
“I know that, too.” She made him different. He
wanted to thank the Lord for sending the lustrous sunlight because when it glowed, it turned her blond hair to pure gold. He wanted to give thanks for the way his heart came to life, full of melody and harmony and notes in between. For the frightening vulnerable feeling of trusting a woman again.
A clatter arose in the flower garden. A lilac bush rustled and Sukie emerged on the path, a daisy hanging from her mouth. Liquid brown eyes twinkled with mischief as she loped just ahead of her little girls. Molly hopped out of the way, bringing her dangerously close to his chest and to his arms. She smelled like sugar cookies and icing and spring. Being near her was like waking up and finding a dream.
The girls dashed past, pink sunbonnets hanging down their backs by the strings, their black braids bouncing with their gaits. “Sukie!”
The heifer, as if eager to play tag, took off into the field, her tail swishing. Penny and Prudy followed, their laughter like merry bells.
“As you can see, neither is worse for the wear. Everything is back to normal.” Everything except him. He sidestepped, resisting the urge to pull her against his chest, to hold her sweetly enfolded in his arms. She definitely appeared more beautiful than when he had last seen her and somehow ever more precious and wholesomely feminine. Stubborn tenderness took root within him, refusing to do anything but flourish.
Don’t love her. That would be an enormous mistake. But what he heard was his daughters’ pleas.
We were praying, too, Pa. So that maybe you would like Miss
Molly. Really like her. So she could be our ma.
What he felt was their unquenchable need. It could not be his own need to love and care for her that made him reach over the picket fence and pluck one long stem of fragrant lilacs.
His voice was raw and gruff when he spoke, his throat oddly aching as he picked another spray. “Was Mrs. Kraus very upset?”
“I believe she will recover once she receives the rest of the payment for the bill she intends to send you.”
“In other words, yes.”
“I’m glad Penelope is feeling well enough to play. It could have been more serious.” She grew radiant, lustrous from the inside out. The sunshine followed her and the wind moved just to caress her hair and rustle her skirt hem. “Your twins are—”
“No. I’m searching for the right word.”
“Perfection.” She almost won his heart with that one pronouncement.
“I think so, too.” He plucked one more cone. Do not fall in love with her. Do not read too much into this. Do not start making a list of all her amazing attributes. No doubt, a woman like Molly wanted more than he could give.
And if a tiny voice within him wanted to argue, he refused to listen. He held the flowers out to her, the lush green leaves, dainty purple flowers and romantic fragrance. “Stay. Come join us for supper.”
“I can’t. I’m expected at my cousin Noelle’s house
within the hour.” Her fingers closed over his, as soft as sun-warmed silk.
“Maybe another evening?”
“Perhaps.” She studied him, as if seeing him for the first time. “Yes, I think I would like that.”
“Excellent.” He drew back his hand but did not step away. “Thank you for the apple crisp. I’m glad you came by.”
“Yes.” She breathed in the lovely aroma, the velvet petals tickling her chin. It seemed to her there was a deeper meaning to his words, a deeper meaning in her feelings for him. She clutched the lilacs in one arm and let him help her into the cart. The door to her affections opened wider, as she placed her hand in his.
You cannot love him, she told herself.
She feared it was too late.
Sam could not sleep. Having a headache hadn’t helped him to drift off, and it didn’t put him in a better temper now. He felt as dark as the night, as troubled as the shadows. The lamp’s single flame tossed a pool of light on the kitchen table as he pored over his Bible. He had need of wisdom, but not one verse he read seemed to guide him in the direction he wanted to go. He flipped the thin pages, stopping in Ecclesiastes.
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.
Molly. She was the reason he had tossed and turned, unable to make his mind calm down. He kept seeing her
everywhere, even on the back of his closed eyelids, her lustrous kindness, her enthralling gentleness, the silken softness of her face. She loved his girls. They loved her. He trusted her, and he believed she trusted him. Wasn’t that enough?
His throat felt scratchy, almost sore and he took another sip of honeyed lemon tea. The tart-sweetness made him grimace, but soothed the discomfort. When it came to Molly, how did he stop seeing her beauty as something lyrical, like a romantic sonnet or a tender hymn? How did he stay sensible, for whenever he looked at her it was with the eyes of his heart?
He drew his finger down the page. Maybe an answer here would guide him.
…how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Fine, so he would try another book. He thumbed back a few of pages and pressed the book open.
Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.
That wasn’t reassuring him. He rubbed his forehead, aching from too much thought and worry. Was Molly the right woman for his girls? He believed she was. He could make a list a mile long of all the ways she would be good to his daughters and for them. He could make another equally long list of all the qualities Molly possessed that would make her a good wife. She was hardworking, honest, fair, compassionate and loyal. She was also the only woman who could make him fall in love with her, completely, totally.
How did he keep that from happening? Could he be strong enough? And if she was good for his daughters…
What do I do, Lord?
He bowed his head, reaching out for the right answer, for leading he desperately needed.
Show me Your purpose in all this. It can’t be to lead me back to an unhappy marriage, can it? Or is my girls’ happiness of far more importance?
No answer came in the still of the night. Just a panicked knock at the kitchen door. Work, always work. Wearily he pushed away from the table, leaving his troubles for another time. When he saw Mr. Gornecke on his doorstep, he grabbed his bag without a word and expected the worst.
“Aiden, stop the surrey.” Cousin Joanna touched her husband’s arm and stood to get a better look through the tall grasses. “Molly, I believe there is something on your doorstep.”
“Oh?” She resisted every urge to leap to her feet and see. Had Sam left another bouquet of flowers? And why was she so blissfully happy about it? A woman ought to be wary of a widower’s motives, especially when he had young girls needing a mother. He might be starting this courtship because he needed a wife, not because he was in love with her. Although, last night did make her hope.
Maybe there was a good chance Sam loved her. The spark of his touch was as if to her soul, and—
“Molly, perhaps you would like to be left off here.” Joanna’s voice interrupted.