Authors: Susan Kirby
Her lashes came down, but not before Trace saw doubt cloud her fine brown eyes. “It’s our best chance, Thomasina. Two heads, two pairs of shoulders to bear the responsibility.”
If she said no, she could be cutting off the opportunity of a lifetime. Someone to help her shoulder a dream that had become too unwieldy. Someone capable. Someone whose abilities bolstered her confidence. But if she said yes…
Dear Lord, why wouldn’t she say yes?
“Yes!” She flung her arms around Trace’s neck. “Yes! Yes!”
He caught a handful of her hair and held it to his cheek. “You’re beautiful, Thomasina.”
She desperately wanted to believe him. But the child of her past spoke with crocodile jaws, taunting warnings that twisted like a knife between her ribs. She pulled away from him.
And he let her go.
has written numerous novels for children, teens and adults. She is a recipient of the Child Study Children’s Book Committee Award, and has received honors from The Friends of American Writers. Her Main Street Series for children, a collection of books that follow one family through four generations of living along the famed highway Route 66, has enjoyed popularity with children and adults alike. With a number of historical novels to her credit, Susan enjoys intermingling writing and research travels with visits to classrooms across the country.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
To Joyce A. Flaherty,
A jewel of an agent, and a dear friend,
For your hard work and many kindnesses.
he Midwestern farmhouse bedroom was decorated in cheery floral wallpaper with a gallery of pictures that spanned sixty years of two lives being lived as one. A dresser, night table and a black-lacquered wardrobe dulled by time and wear gleamed in soft lamplight On a quilt-draped blanket chest at the foot of the bed, the television flashed pictures without sound.
Thomasina Rose had spent bedside vigils in countless such rooms in her young career in home nursing. Hearing her patient stir, she lay her paperback novel aside and got up from her bedside chair.
“Do you need something, Milt?” she asked.
“Kind of stuffy in here, isn’t it?” Milt said.
Thomasina crossed to the window overlooking the garden and propped it open with a complimentary Chambers Lumberyard ruler. The rain had stopped. A cool predawn draft stirred lace curtains and blew the room clean of stuffy air.
“Too breezy?” she asked.
“Not for me.” At eighty-one, Milt Chambers was frail,
but not beaten. He wheezed and coughed and reached for the oxygen lifeline, then inched his legs over the side of the bed. His joints creaked as he shuffled to his feet and made for the window, hissing beneath his breath.
Thomasina pushed the portable oxygen tank closer as he collapsed into the chair she had vacated.
“High octane.” Milt inhaled deeply, grinned at her and smacked his lips. “Hits the spot. Get me some clothes, would you Tommy Rose?”
Thomasina took elastic-banded sweatpants and a T-shirt from the dresser drawer. “Would you like help dressing?” she asked.
“Thanks, but Mary doesn’t like me flashing this fine physique to the hired help.”
Thomasina’s full mouth curved into a smile. “Mary’s a lucky woman. If you weren’t already married, I’d come courting myself.”
A grin split Milt’s seamed face. “If you’re done telling an old man lies, run out to the garden and cut some flowers.”
“For me?” asked Thomasina.
“What do you think?”
Undaunted by his sandpaper growl, Thomasina laughed. “It was worth a try.”
A slow flush spread up Milt’s leathery neck, over his ears to the crown of his bald head. “Put ’em in that knobby vase she likes and tell her they’re from the milkman.”
Thomasina nodded and plucked her purse off the dresser. “I’ll see you later, Milt.”
“No, you won’t,” growled Milt. “I’m giving you time off for good behavior.”
“You keep saying that, and you’ll hurt my feelings,” said Thomasina.
“It was rough seas for a while, Tommy Rose, but I’m
getting stronger every day,” claimed Milt. “I want my wife back where she belongs and you out, no offense.”
“None taken.” Thomasina waved and smiled and went on her way.
She could hear Mary running water in the bathroom. The dairy barn was empty now, but a lifetime of beating the sun out of bed to milk had programmed Mary and Milt’s internal clocks. Thomasina tapped on the door on her way by. “I’m about ready to go, Mary.”
“All right, dear,” Mary called back. “I’ll be out in a minute, and sign your ticket.”
Thomasina left her purse in the kitchen and the ticket book in which she kept track of her hours on the table beside it so Mary could sign her out. Drained by double shifts, out-of-commission air-conditioning, and too-hot-to-rest-comfortably days, she yawned as she let herself out the door.
The stars had dimmed, but the sun had yet to rise. Rainwashed grass was soggy underfoot. Thomasina’s sandals sucked and slapped her weary feet as she trekked over the lawn in her sleeveless blouse and matching white crinklepleated skirt.
The brush of her hem released the cloying fragrance of white clover as she opened the garden gate.
A tangle of baby’s breath and rambling roses spilled over her path to the low stone wall that skirted the graveled drive where the pole lamp burned the brightest. She lowered her face to a lush wet purple umbrella of clustered petals. Heliotrope. Could heaven smell any sweeter?
Elohim. Creator God.
His cool breeze and trilling wrens stirred her weary spirit. Hidden crickets joined in, chirping from the foot-high stone wall enclosing the garden. Thomasina hummed beneath her breath as she picked flowers for Milt’s sweetheart bouquet.
She was about to retrace her path to the house when a pickup truck rattled up the rutted lane.
Shading her eyes against the glare of headlights, she watched as the truck braked on the other side of the stone wall. The lights winked out. The door opened. Long legs reached for the ground. Her gaze climbed from a pair of work boots to the knees, past the yawning mud-splattered truck door to the bare-chested upper torso showing through the open window.
“’Morning,” he called, meeting her wary glance.
He leaned into the truck and reached for something behind the seat. When he returned to her line of vision, he had a shirt in hand. His keys jingled as he slipped his arms through the sleeves and snapped it closed. “Are you the only one up?”
He was lean, long-waisted and broad-shouldered. His hard-muscled frame shrouded in darkness sent her thoughts reeling across the years to a squalid kitchen of her earliest years. “The boys are in the barn, milking.”
He looked toward the barn and arched a brow. “In the dark?”
His dangerous edge melted with his smile. Responding, she relaxed her guard. “Who is it you’re looking for?”
“Will. You must be Tommy.”
“To Milt, I am,” she said.
“Trace Austin.” His eyes held hers. “Pleased to meet you.”
The hand that engulfed hers was nearly as scuffed as the fellow’s work boots. Palms callused, knuckles nicked. Thumbnail black and blue by the light of the overhead pole lamp where moths beat powdery wings against the glass. He turned up his cuffs and drew a hand over a well-shaped jaw as he looked toward the road.
“Will was supposed to meet me here, but I don’t see his car,” he said.
“You’re friends, I take it.”
“A work-intensive proposition, too.” He grinned. “Baled hay, walked beans and milked more cows with him than I care to count.”
“With the lights on, I bet,” said Thomasina.
“Cows don’t care, but it works better that way.” His mouth tipped in response to her thawing. “So are the folks up? Or am I going to wake them if I start on the smaller branches?”
“Branches?” she asked.
“I’m here to take down the oak tree.”
“The one that shades the front side of the house?”
He nodded. “Why? Is there a problem?”
“I’m surprised, is all. Milt and Mary hadn’t mentioned it.” Thomasina turned toward the house, then glanced back when he didn’t follow. “Are you coming?”
“It’s a little early. I think I’ll just wait here. Will should be along shortly.”
Thomasina nodded and watched him stride around to the back of the truck and let the tailgate down. He carried himself well, his gait smooth, his shoulders thrown back. He could use a haircut, though. And a shave. And he might want to think about keeping his shirts somewhere other than behind the truck seat. It had more wrinkles than poor old Milt.
Trace’s mouth twitched as he oiled his chain saw, and checked the rest of the gear. Milt had been so sick, he hadn’t guessed he had any fun left in him. He’d been wrong.
Tommy this and Tommy that.
Deliberately leading him to think he had a male nurse.
And there she was, about as female as they came. Round
and firm in all the right places, swaying a little as she strolled toward the house. Nothing provocative, just graceful and natural, the breeze rippling her skirt and her long dark hair. A sweet scent trailed after her.
In the barn, milking.
He regretted calling her on it. She was right to be careful, for her own sake and Milt and Mary’s, too. It was isolated out this way, and though it was private property, the timber acreage and the creek running through the farm attracted hikers and campers and fishermen and canoers, most of whom were friends and neighbors. But not always.
Trace walked around to the cab of the truck, turned the key and checked the time. He had worked second shift with some overtime tacked on and wanted to get the tree down, go home, get a little shut-eye and make the most of his time before he had to head back in for his next shift.
He leaned against the truck door, shoulders bunched, and caught himself patting down his shirt pockets as he watched the road. He’d quit a month ago, but out of habit now and then reached for cigarettes that weren’t there.
Trace started giving Will the countdown. Sometime after lunch, a prospective renter was stopping by, and he wanted to get the porch painted. The renovation of old houses, squeezed in between shifts at the car plant kept him hopping. But it’d pay off one of these days.
Trace reached inside the truck, turned the key in the ignition and dialed in a country station. He yawned and fought the sandman, and toyed with the idea of starting without Will. But the tree was too close to the house to take any chances. He needed a ground man to guide the branches down. Should have told Will to call him when he was ready. Shoulda-coulda-woulda.
The aroma of perking coffee wafted from the house. It smelled good. Almost as good as Milt’s nurse and her armful of flowers.
offee perked on the stove as Thomasina let herself in. Hand towels with crocheted tops were buttoned to the knobs of floor-to-ceiling bead-board cupboards. The cow salt-and-pepper shakers matched the cookie jar on the red gingham-covered table. Dated and charming, the kitchen, like the rest of the house was as hospitable as Mary Chambers herself.
Thomasina dropped her flowers beside the white enamel sink. She found the milk-glass vase Milt had specified and was cutting the flower stems to size under running water when Mary came in. Her hair was braided and coiled on her head like a silver garland. Her eyes brightened at the sight of the flowers.
“Special delivery for you,” said Thomasina.
“Heliotrope! I could smell it from the living room!” Mary broke into a wrinkled smile. “Thank you, dear.”
“Thank the milkman.”
Mary laughed. “Once a dairy man, always a dairy man. The coffee’s almost ready. Will you have a cup with me?”
“It smells wonderful, but I better not,” said Thomasina.
“I’ll be sweltering once I get home and off to bed. No point in adding caffeine to the mix.”
“Your air-conditioning still isn’t working?” Mary said, “Honey, you’ll have to be more assertive with your landlord if you hope to get any results.”
“I’m taking the pacifist route, and moving,” said Thomasina with a wry grin.
Mary looked up from running water into a copper-bottom sauce pan. “You’ve found something?”
“Maybe. It’s in Liberty Flats.”
“Really? Anyone I know?”
Thomasina wrinkled her nose and admitted, “I didn’t jot his name down, I was so busy asking questions.”
Mary reached for the oatmeal box. “I wonder if he’s married.” She pinched salt into the pan, adding quickly, “Married men make better landlords. They’ve learned how to fix things. On the other hand, if he isn’t married, who knows? He might like to be.”
Thomasina smiled and tucked the last flower into the vase. “You and Milt—the poster kids for matrimonial bliss,” she said, and swept the trimmed stems into the trash.
“You’re a sweetheart,” said Mary, patting her hand. “May you find Mr. Right and live happily ever after.”
“Mr. Right? What’s that got to do with it?”
Mary laughed. “Lord preserve us from Saint Self-Sufficiency!”
“Of course if we’re talking wish trees, I’d adore a man who adored me. So long as he likes kids and has tons of patience, or he’ll be at odds with the other wishes on my tree,” said Thomasina with a cheeky grin. “And speaking of trees, what’s this I hear about the oak in your front yard?”
“The kids think this house needs a deck, and the tree is
in the way.” Mary met Thomasina’s eye over the rim of her coffee cup.
“It’s a beauty, though,” said Thomasina.
“Yes,” agreed Mary. “But a deck will be nice, too. It’ll stretch halfway across the front of the house, and wrap around the corner. There’ll be a sliding glass door off the living room and a second door leading right out of the bedroom. It will link up with the brick path to the garden. Will promised to build a ramp to give Milt easy access.”
Suspecting that Mary’s willingness to let them take the tree down was born of a lifetime of putting her loved one’s needs ahead of her own, Thomasina asked, “Have you asked if there’s a way they could spare the tree?”
“And throw a monkey wrench in the works?”
“Stick up for yourself,” quipped Thomasina. “Isn’t that what you were just telling me about the air-conditioning?”
Mary peered at her over the rims of her glasses. “That’s different.”
“Tell you what, I’ll mention to Milt that you’re attached to that tree, and maybe—”
“Please don’t,” Mary cut in. “Milt’s just beginning to get over the kids hiring nursing care against his wishes. I don’t want him getting his back up over this. Promise me you won’t say anything.”
“All right, then, if you’re sure,” said Thomasina, chagrined at alarming her. “Your tree cutter is waiting, by the way.”
“Trace is outside? Why didn’t he come in?”
“I asked. He declined.”
“He did, did he? We’ll see about that!” Mary angled for the front door.
Thomasina folded the pad of time tickets into her pocketbook, slung the strap over her shoulder and started for the bedroom, the vase of flowers in hand.
“I thought I’d give you the flowers so you can give them to Mary in person,” she said as she breezed into Milt’s bedroom. “You’ll get more brownie points that way.”
Milt spread a lap quilt over his lower torso with a hasty fumbling hand. “You ever hear of knocking?”
“I’m sorry. I’ll go out and come in again.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” said Milt. “Go out and keep going.”
Milt was fully clothed beneath the lap robe, so it wasn’t modesty motivating him. That was pretense, anyway, when she’d spent the past few weeks nursing him.
Milt closed the nightstand drawer with a snap, and met her searching eye, bold as brass. “Well? What’re you waiting for?”
“Compliments,” she said, and set the flowers on his nightstand with a flourish.
“Nice,” he said. “Now beat it.”
The damage was long since done. If he wanted to sneak a smoke, was it any of her business? But the ever-present danger of the oxygen compelled Thomasina to warn him. On the other hand, she didn’t want to accuse him, then find out she was wrong.
Deliberating, Thomasina moved in front of the mirror and freshened her lipstick with one hand while she opened the nightstand drawer with the other. It held a few pencils, a marble, some toothpicks and some matches. No cigarettes. But the odor of tobacco wafted from the drawer. She nudged it closed and glanced at Milt’s lap robe. The sharp edges of a book showed beneath it. Meeting his steely-eyed glare, she sucked in her cheeks and tried to make him laugh, making dimples and duck lips.
He snorted. “Trying out for the talent show?”
“Sure. I thought we’d be a team. What’re you reading?” she asked.
“None of your beeswax,” he said.
Thomasina flipped back the corner of the robe and squinted. “‘Hymns of Praise.’ Are we singing a duet?”
“Who’s we, rose lips? You got a frog in your pocket?”
“Let’s see the book,” said Thomasina.
“I haven’t swiped one of your kissy-face books, if that’s what’s worrying you.”
Overlooking his jab at the paperback poking out of her shoulder bag, she said, “Did I ever mention a boy I once knew who liked to carve the center out of books? I admired his ingenuity, but it made the story lines a little hard to follow.”
“What’re you getting at?”
Thomasina held out her hand in silent entreaty.
Milt coughed and blustered in a half-strangled voice, “How’d a gal with such a suspicious bent get in the nursing business, anyway?”
“The same way an ornery critter like you got a sweet wife like Mary—I bamboozled my way into it,” countered Thomasina.
“Mary’s like God. She looks on the heart.”
“Yes, and she’s going to be disappointed to hear you’re chasing after that old mistress of yours again,” said Thomasina.
“All right, all right!” Milt slapped the book into her outstretched hand. “You’ve got a snakish way of putting things, Tommy Rose. I’ll bet you get put out on your fanny job after job.”
My last case proposed. He was the one with the triple bypass. A real sweetheart of a guy. No complaints from the gent before him, either.” Thomasina slipped the pack of cigarettes from the hollow book into her pocket. “But you’re still my all-time favorite.”
“You’re pulling my leg, right?”
Thomasina smiled. “That’s what I like—your crusty charm.”
“You and Mary.”
“Yep, you and Mary,” chimed Thomasina. “Still on speaking terms after all these years. That’s what makes you my favorite case.”
“Careful, you’re losing your snakish edge,” said Milt, grinning.
“Save your sweet talk. I’m busting you, mister, on your cigarette charades.”
Milt gave a bark of laughter.
Pleased she’d defused the situation without making him mad, Thomasina swung around to go, then pulled up short. Trace Austin stood in the door, two cups of steaming coffee in one hand. She surmised a gleam of admiration in his eye, and she flushed. So did he.
Trace moved to let her pass through the door, and sloshed his coffee doing so. But it wasn’t the brew dripping over his well-shaped hand she noticed so much as his eyes. They were startling blue. Her gaze dropped to his left hand—ringless.
Whatever had made her look for a ring? Thomasina chalked it up to sleep deprivation, returned his nod and called a farewell to Milt on her way out.