Bobbie giggled as Samantha Evans made another swipe at her daughter’s jacket and missed.
Sam rushed up the stairs in the wake of the almost-four-year-old. How could those little legs move so fast? Sam paused on the top step to suck air into her lungs. She wasn’t out of shape. She climbed the stairs between the main house and her basement apartment a dozen times a day, but rarely at a run.
“Bobbie, don’t...” The beep of the alarm as the front door opened told her that the warning came a breath too late. At least her daughter had a jacket on.
Sam hurried across the living room, dodged the large yellow lab racing out the door to join her daughter, and punched in the code to disarm the alarm before it woke the whole house.
She stepped out onto the porch, her arms folded across her chest in defense of the freezing temperatures. Snow from an early winter storm bordered the walk and the street in dirty mounds. Even now, new flakes drifted to the ground, heavy and wet, from low hanging clouds the color of tarnished silver.
Bobbie tipped her face heavenward and opened her mouth in an attempt to catch one of the fresh flakes.
Nostalgia pulled Sam back to her own childhood. Her lips twitched up in a smile. Iris and I used to do that.
I guess every kid does. If the snow kept up, Sam would set a big bowl on the porch rail and collect enough to introduce her daughter to snow ice cream after dinner this evening.
A shiver yanked her from the daydream and left her teetering on the precarious line between amusement and parental responsibility.
Bobbie’s sneeze shoved her off the fence. “Bobbie Lee Anne Evans, get back inside this house!”
Bobbie turned from her place on the sidewalk, a large, dripping newspaper bundled to her chest. “OK,” she answered, obedient now that her mission was accomplished.
Sam ushered the child and the dog into the house, taking a quick step back when the dog gave a mighty shake to dislodge the moisture from her fur. Thankfully the two early morning delinquents hadn’t been out long enough to get really wet. She closed the door, and looked down at her daughter’s red cheeks and runny nose. She dug a tissue out of her pocket and wiped the chapped little nose.
Bobbie squirmed. “Ow.”
“Baby, I’m sorry. I know it’s tender.” Sam stuffed the used tissue back into her pocket and frowned. “You need to stay inside today. Do you want your cold to get worse?”
Bobbie held up the plastic wrapped newspaper. “G-pa’s paper.”
The frown turned into a grin. Every day God gave Samantha a new reason to be thankful for her father’s return after a ten-year absence. The relationship between granddaughter and grandfather ranked high on that list. “I’m sure G-pa appreciates you going out for his paper, but you need to stay inside for one more day. Do you remember what tomorrow is?”
Bobbie’s face tipped up to hers, scrunched in concentration. She swiped at her nose with her sleeve. “Nope.”
Sam stooped down to look into her daughter’s sapphire-blue eyes. “Tomorrow is the first Saturday in December. We’re going to—”
“Pick out our Chrissom tree!” Bobbie bounced in place. The newspaper fell at her feet as she stretched her arms wide. “Jem and I want a biggest one.”
“Christmas,” Sam corrected, grinning at the mention of her daughter’s newest imaginary friend.
“I’m sure G-pa will be happy to fix that for you, but you won’t be able to help if you’re still so stuffy.”
“OK.” Bobbie shrugged out of the jacket and held it up to her mother. Without further argument, she retrieved the paper and turned towards the stairs.
Hampered by the bulky roll of newsprint and flanked by the dog, she hoisted her short, chubby legs up the steps to her grandfather’s office.
Sam watched her daughter’s careful progress and let her heart swell with maternal pride and gratitude. Bobbie was growing into such a beautiful little girl with her blue eyes and dark brown hair. The color of Bobbie’s hair matched Sam’s, but while Sam’s hair was board straight and hung below her shoulders, Bobbie’s framed her face in a tangle of natural curls inherited from her father. Louis Cantrell. Samantha shuddered, a sigh of relief coming from the farthest corners of her heart. Thank heavens the curls seemed to be all Bobbie had taken from his gene pool.
Thank you, Father, for blessing me so much. I don’t deserve the child or the life you’ve given me. Thank you so much that Louis Cantrell will never be a part of my child’s life.

Louis Cantrell watched the sprawling blue house from his car, which was parked across the street and three doors down. He blew a breath through the weave of his woolen gloves in an attempt to warm his frozen fingers, cursing under his breath when the resulting fog succeeded only in clouding the windows. The weather seemed to conspire against his surveillance in a combination of frigid temperatures and the wet snow coating his windshield. An occasional swipe of the wipers became a necessity, but the heater was a risk he refused to take. A quiet car at the curb could go unnoticed. A car with the engine running, generating clouds of exhaust, not so much.
The sun climbed over the trees, a fuzzy blur of light in the cloudy sky. If there was a God in heaven, warmth would follow. The worn vinyl seat crackled under his weight as he reached for his battered thermos. After a quick shake, he tossed the empty container into the floorboard already layered in unpaid bills and fast food burger wrappers. Just as well. He needed a bathroom, now, and the cold didn’t help that either.
He burrowed further into his jacket and allowed his thoughts to wander while the morning dragged on. Five years ago he’d been working in a filthy auto repair shop, a job so beneath him it still brought him shame, when fate finally dealt him a winning hand in the form of Samantha Evans and her kid sister, Iris.
Their names brought a greedy smile to his face. Poor little lost girls. Deserted by their father, mother dead, struggling to make it on their own, and way too trusting for their own good. Winning their confidence had been a piece of cake and the money in their two savings accounts the hefty brass ring. But once Samantha told him she was pregnant, his plans to empty both accounts went south, and he’d gone west. He’d cleaned out Samantha’s bank account and split for a sunnier climate without a backward glance, putting closed to that chapter of his life.
His fond dream of a high-rolling life in Las Vegas had since become a harsh reality. Thirty thousand dollars didn’t go very far in today’s world, not if you liked the noise and lights of the casinos. What he’d stolen from Samantha hadn’t lasted through the first year. There’d been other cons as the years passed, more bad luck than good. He’d never known when to quit. Now he owed a serious amount of money to some very ugly people. A debt his silver tongue couldn’t talk him out of. It was only a matter of time before they came to collect.
Seeing Sam on television with her rich writer daddy a few years ago had been like a big neon sign pointing him back to greener pastures. Knowledge he could put away for a rainy day. Well, it was drizzling, and Louis needed an umbrella. He’d been able to scrape together just enough cash to make the story he wanted to sell sound legit. If this con failed, his life wouldn’t be worth the cost of a cup of hot coffee.
The white front door of the house opened. He grabbed a rag from his floorboard and wiped a patch of windshield free of condensation so he could have a better view. His patience was rewarded as a child skipped out of the house and down the two steps to the sidewalk. He squinted through the glass. My daughter? Hard to tell. He searched his heart for any twinge of fatherly feeling or recognition—and came up empty. No big surprise there. Louis had no use for kids, apparently even his own.
He picked up a book from the seat next to him, comparing the child on the sidewalk to the infant in the picture. Didn’t really look the same, but knowing his sister’s kids, he knew how much the brats could change over time. Kids...he shuddered. Except for the obvious pleasure involved in making them, he just didn’t see the point. Why would anyone bring such a long-term complication into her life? Louis had the answer for any woman dumb enough to get herself knocked up. Cryogenics. Freeze the little brats at birth, feed ‘em with a tube, educate them subliminally, thaw them out on their twentieth birthday, and send them on their way to fend for themselves. No muss, no fuss.
He watched the kid while grinning at his own clever idea. Today was the first of December. According to the birth certificate he had in his pocket, the one Samantha had so conveniently put his name on, his daughter would celebrate her fourth birthday in just a couple of weeks. Four years...a comfortable buffer against the three-year statute of limitations on any grand larceny charges Samantha might be tempted to pursue.
The child ran to the curb in a red jacket, her dark curls bouncing with each step. She stopped and turned back to the open door, stooping and clapping her hands, her mouth moving in laughter and words he couldn’t hear. A huge blonde dog bounded from the house after her. The dog received a hug, and together they continued to the curb to collect the morning newspaper. Dog and child looked up suddenly.
Louis cut his eyes back to the door.
Any trouble identifying his daughter did not extend to recognizing the child’s mother, his sweet Samantha. She still wore her dark brown hair in the straight style he remembered, just a little longer. She hugged a baggy sweater around her petite curves. Louis slid lower in the seat. He had fond memories of those curves and her innocent blue eyes. Samantha motioned the child back inside and closed the door.
Louis started his car. He had the right place. After forcing himself to wait a couple of extra minutes to make sure everyone remained tucked inside, he headed back to his cheap hotel room. There were plans to make and a family to reclaim. He hoped they would be as excited to see him as he was to see them.

Sam turned from the stairs and almost knocked her stepmother off her feet. She grabbed Terri by the shoulders and held tight until they both regained their balance. “Mom. I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you come up behind me. Are you OK?”
Terri nodded, cringing visibly when the baby she held to her shoulder started to cry. “Oh man, I just got her back to sleep.” She rubbed the back of the fussy child. “I’ve been up all night. Seth had a nightmare about a ‘big bue monster,’ so no more Aladdin for him for a while. His crying woke up Lilly, and her new teeth kept her up.” Terri sighed and shifted the whimpering baby to her other shoulder. “Between my cold, a terrified two-year-old, and a teething one-year-old, I may never sleep again.”
“Bless your heart.” Sam peered over Terri’s shoulder into the living room. “Where’s Seth? Did you get him back to sleep?”
“Yes, or rather your dad did. He took him back upstairs a little while ago while I tried to pacify Lilly. I saw your father go into his office a bit ago. He was alone, so I’m guessing he got Seth back to sleep. I was trying to sneak up the stairs to put the baby back to bed so I could catch a nap before they both woke up again.”
Sam held out her hands for the dark haired little girl. “Give her to me.”
“Thanks.” Terri’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “But she won’t stay with anyone. She even rejected her daddy earlier, and she never does that.”
“Yes, but I’m her big sister. Sisters have special powers.” Sam plucked the one-year-old from Terri’s arms and shooed her away when the baby began to wail. “Go get some rest. She’ll be fine as soon as you’re out of sight.”
Terri held up a hand. “Ah...ah...” She turned her head and sneezed into the sleeve of her robe, then brushed short dark hair from her face as she straightened. Her bloodshot eyes focused on Samantha. “Are you sure? I just need two hours.”
Samantha transferred her little sister to her shoulder, rubbing the fretful child’s back. “Disappear. I’ll give Lilly a cooking lesson while you catch a nap.”
Terri yawned through a second sneeze. “Bless you.”
Sam didn’t answer. Ignoring the baby’s efforts to reach for her mother, Sam took Lilly into the kitchen. She strapped the one-year-old into the highchair and gave her a cup of juice and a cold carrot from the crisper drawer.
Lilly focused militant blue eyes on her sister and swiped both items to the floor. She watched them fall before looking back to Sam with round eyes framed with spiky, wet lashes. Her bottom lip jutted out in a pout and the tiny chin quivered.
Sam sighed. “Those puppy dog eyes don’t work on me. You’re forgetting that I have one just like you.” She retrieved the cup, washed off the carrot, and put both back on the tray, barely catching them before they hit the floor a second time. Hands fisted on her slender hips, Sam faced her baby sister. “Look, squirt, I’m bigger than you, I’m meaner than you, and I’m way more stubborn than you.”
Lilly glared, hands poised to clear the tray a third time.
“Don’t even think about it.”
The baby’s face lit with a sudden mischievous grin. “Luf Sam.”
Battle of wills decided in her favor, Sam ruffled the baby’s black curls. “I love you, too. Now let’s cook breakfast.”
Iris shuffled through the doorway with a loud yawn. “What are you two fighting about now?”
Sam singled out a cookbook with barely a glance for her fifteen-year-old sister. “Fighting implies an equal competition. The brat-ling never had a chance.”
Iris pushed away from the doorframe and made her way to the refrigerator, pausing to drop a kiss on the baby’s head. “Don’t let her bully you, little sister. She’s always been bossy.” Iris poured a glass of milk, stirred in a healthy squeeze of chocolate syrup, and plopped down in a chair. With her elbow on the table, she placed her chin in her cupped hand and frowned at Sam.
Sam caught her sister’s stare, looked down at her feet, and brushed at the hem of her tunic sweater. Finding nothing out of place, she again fisted her hands on her hips and faced Iris. “What?”
“What are you doing up, and dressed up, so early on a snow day? Did you forget about classes being canceled?”
Sam shook her head. “I didn’t forget anything. I’m making brunch. We have just enough Thanksgiving turkey left in the freezer for a new quiche recipe I want to try. Patrick’s coming over to play guinea pig.” Sam turned away and measured flour and butter into a bowl. She bent to the task of combining the two ingredients into a suitable piecrust.
“They’re back?”
“Late last night.”
“That explains it.” Iris made kissy sounds behind Sam’s back.
Sam ignored her, frowning at the resistant lump of goo in her bowl. The useless pastry cutter clattered into the sink. There had to be a better way. She dusted the countertop with flour, dumped the dough from the bowl, and began to knead. “Ohhh...” She held up her dough-encrusted fingers. “Iris, come get this ring and rinse it off for me.”
Iris joined Sam at the counter, slipped the chunky class ring off Sam’s right index finger, and held it under the water. “You’re the only girl I know who wears her boyfriend’s class ring. It’s so out dated.”
Samantha glanced at her sister. “Not out dated, old fashioned and romantic.”
Iris shrugged. “If you say so. Still, I’m not sure why you wear it if you won’t wear it properly.”
Sam continued to knead her dough. “I don’t wear it properly because Patrick and I have an understanding. I won’t be officially involved with him until he makes a commitment to Christ. We’re both searching for our futures, and I think those futures will intersect down the road, so instead of the promise ring he wanted to buy, I agreed to wear his class ring on my right hand.”
Iris shook off the water, slipped the ring onto her own finger, and held her hand up to the light. “What did you say he called it?”
The mound of dough received a satisfied pat. “It’s an ‘I love you, I’m not seeing anyone else, call it what you want’ ring. Right now I’m calling it a friendship ring.”
Iris rested her elbows on the counter, her chin on her fisted hands. “Can I borrow your car?”
Sam continued to knead her dough, frowning sideways at her sister. “Why?”
Iris’s voice was dreamy. “I’m gonna go cruise the Sonic and see if I can find a hunky guy to run over.”
Sam snorted.
“Hey, it worked for you. It could happen twice.”
“In the first place, you’re too young to drive. In the second place, I didn’t run over him, I just tapped his bumper with mine.”
“Still...” Iris tilted her head, her bottom lip between her teeth. “Can I ask you a question?”
Sam shrugged as she bent over her dough with a rolling pin.
“Has it been really hard?”
Sam needed no clarification. Her deal with—and feelings for—Patrick Wheeler were common knowledge. She supposed Iris’s fifteen-year-old curiosity was common, too.
Still, Sam sighed when she turned to look at her sister. “Iris, sticking with my convictions this year has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. As much as I love him, Patrick needs to have a relationship with Christ. He’s been faithful to his church attendance over the last year. But I’m going to keep things locked in friendship mode until he makes a decision. I know God is dealing with his heart. I can see it on his face in every service.”
Sam straightened from the perfectly shaped pastry crust, washed her hands, and retrieved her ring. She stared at it for a second before slipping it back on her finger. “I want a future with Patrick, but I have to consider Bobbie’s future too. She’ll benefit more from the Christian father I know Patrick can be, than just the good guy father he wants to be now.”
Iris’s eyes went round. “Father? He proposed? You won’t even let him kiss you.”
“Yeah, I know.” Her mind flitted back to a single kiss shared on a shadowed porch swing. Even after almost thirteen months, the remembered feel of his lips on hers made her stomach churn with longing. “Trust me, I know. And no, he hasn’t asked, but we have talked about it. We both want the same thing, but…”
Sam studied her sister’s face. “I’ve made so many mistakes in my life. I just really want to do this right, you know? If I’m going to do that, I have to stick to my guns and trust God to bring things together in His time.” She returned to her recipe but gave Iris a hip bump before she continued. “I’ve got plenty to keep me busy while I wait. God’s given me more blessings than I deserve. It’s a full time job taking care of what I already have.”
“Do you ever worry?”
“That maybe Patrick won’t change in the way you want him too. I mean, it’s been a year. What if he never accepts Jesus into his heart? As much as you say you love him, could you really walk away?”
Sam considered Iris’s question in silence for a few seconds. She’d worked so hard to guard their physical relationship, but she had to be honest with herself.  Her heart was long gone. What if an emotional involvement was just as bad as a physical one? Her heart pounded wildly at the possibility. “Iris, I don’t even want to think about that. Let’s just keep praying, OK?”
As if to remind the older girls of her presence, Lilly threw her cup and it clattered on the floor.
Sam began the delicate task of transferring the crust to a pie plate. She spared the baby a quick glance. “Sis, I just sent Terri and her cold back to bed. Since you’re up, can you look after Lilly?”
Iris didn’t even answer. She held her arms out to the baby. “Let’s get out of here before the slave driver puts us to work.”
Lilly placed a loud, wet kiss on Iris’s cheek. “Luf Ris.”
Iris held her baby sister over her head and gave a quick twirl. “You’re a smelly pain in my backside, but I guess I love you, too.” She lowered the baby, holding her as far away as possible with stiff arms. “Very smelly...Sam?”
“Not on your life, girlfriend. I’m making breakfast.”
“Oh, man.” Iris continued to hold Lilly at arm’s length. “You knew,” she accused.
Samantha sketched an X across her heart. “Not a clue, but since she’s in your hands, not mine...y’all have fun.”
Iris looked from Lilly, to Sam, and back to Lilly with a sigh of resignation. “Come on, kiddo. We’ll get your bath while we’re at it. I don’t think baby powder’s gonna cover that up.”

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