September Love

Bliss. That' s what Beth Colby thought of her new life and second throw at love. A widow, at fifty she' d met strong, handsome Doug Colby, and he' d swept her into his arms… and right into the chapel. Now she counted her blessings every day.So when another blessing– three-year-old Adam, Doug' s grandson– suddenly arrived needing a temporary home, she lovingly welcomed him. As the confused but precious tyke' s situation turned dire, Beth knew her love and strength would be tested. With the Lord' s help, she and her beloved would make sure little Adam received the love he deserved. But was her tranquil September marriage ready for a rambunctious– and permanent– addition?
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September Love


“Mom, you’ve already raised your family. You’ve paid your dues,” Kate said.

   “Not really,” Beth answered quietly, and both her daughters glanced at her sharply, on the point of arguing, but she spoke again.

   “I’m married to Doug. I’m his wife. My ‘dues,’ as you call them, include helping my husband if he needs my help. And this time he does. And so does his precious three-year-old grandson. No. Don’t say anything. Just pause a second and think about that. I talked to our pastor when he was in the hospital, and he reminded me of one important fact.”

   “But, Mom—”

   “He said, ‘When you do it for the least of these, you do it for Me.’ Just think about that,” Beth said, hoping she sounded decisive.

VIRGINIA MYERS

   has been writing stories since childhood. She has published ten novels, historical and contemporary, for the general book market. A few years ago she decided to write novels reflecting her growing religious faith. She has now written four faith-based novels.

   Virginia has taught the art of novel writing in several Washington colleges, and a number of her students are now published novelists. She has lectured, participated in panel discussion and conducted workshops at several writers’ conferences and is a faithful worker in her church.

   Having lived most of her life so far in a series of big cities, Virginia has now settled happily in the small town of Longview, Washington. This is the only town that has built a special bridge for squirrels from tree to tree over the street so they won’t get run over by cars.

September Love Virginia Myers


   

   When you do it for the least of these,

    you do it for Me.

   —Matthew 25:40

   To those many people

    who raise their children’s children. They go so much, much farther than the extra mile.

   Dear Reader,

   I hope you enjoyed reading September Love, a story I’ve wanted to write for a long time. Today in America there are more than three million children living with their grandparents. For whatever the causes—drugs, drinking, the general collapse of our moral structure—a whole generation of young people have simply abandoned their children to their parents to raise.

   Then the grandparents, instead of living a leisurely retirement, must start all over—booster shots, PTA meetings, managing college tuition—during a time of life when they are less able to do it. These are the silent, unsung heroes of our turbulent time. I wanted to tell you a story about them. This is it. So the next time you see a harried grandparent coping with an energetic three-year-old, take a moment for a smile and a cheerful word. They deserve it.

   Blessings,


Contents

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

   Chapter Fourteen

Chapter One

   At first Beth thought the thin blond girl was going to ask her for spare change. She had the look of a street kid, with her long, unkempt hair and her odd assortment of clothes. She wore a long, very faded, green-and-white print dress, topped by a man’s brown jacket, worn and much too big. On her bare feet were old floppy sandals. But street kids didn’t come into residential neighborhoods. They stayed in Seattle’s various business districts.

   Beth sighed. If only she had come home from her errands a few minutes sooner or later, she might have avoided this. Then, as the girl came closer, she saw the small child, a little blond boy. He clung with grubby desperate hands to the flowing skirt, half hidden by it. She thought, He shouldn’t be barefoot. It’s too cold a spring.

   She was immediately sorry for her rush of impatience. What right did she have to be impatient with this woman and her child? They were obviously destitute. She, in her classic gray spring suit, about to enter her beautiful old home, was blessed far beyond anything she deserved. She paused, beginning to open her handbag. True, the classic suit was in its second spring, and the lovely old home was now a bed-and-breakfast. And it had not been a good day. As her younger daughter, Jill, might have said, it had been a mega-stress day, full of problems and worry—and two new guests were due before five. For just an instant she longed intensely for Doug’s good-humored acceptance of life as it happened. He would bring out his favorite calm-down comment: “Lighten up, Beth my true love. The sky will not fall today.”

   The blond girl, close up, wasn’t a girl. She was a woman of about thirty. When she spoke there was a whine in her tone and she looked exhausted.

   “You must be Beth. You’ve simply got to be Beth. I’m beat. And you look just like my aunt said—dark hair with no gray, dark eyes and dressed like a model. I must say this—you’ve sure kept your looks.”

   Who in the world was this woman? “Yes, I’m Beth,” she said cautiously.

   The woman gave a sigh of relief. Clean, with her hair styled, she would have been pretty. Now, in sudden exasperation, she turned on the little boy and smacked at his grubby clinging hands.

   “Leggo my dress. I’m tired of you hanging on to me.”

   The child, scowling and silent, let go and backed away a step, watching her intently. Then, as if this burst of anger had taken the last of her strength, the woman persisted tiredly. “And you married Douglas Colby?”

   Sudden alarm bells sounded in Beth’s mind. She half knew and dreaded what was coming. Surely, this couldn’t be Kayla, Doug’s daughter. No. Definitely not. Doug had said that Kayla had a child, but that child was a girl who would be about eight. This child was a boy, not more than three or so. But her quick sense of relief was shattered.

   “I’m Kayla, Doug’s daughter,” she said flatly, and Beth saw the little boy’s hands creep toward the flowing skirt and grasp it again, as if it were some sort of lifeline. Now she noticed that both his knees were skinned. Sometime some place today he had fallen and scraped his knees, but no one had cleaned them and put on protective bandages.

   Beth swallowed her disappointment. Well, they didn’t call her “perfect hostess” for nothing. She must do her best for Doug’s daughter.

   “Kayla, how lovely to see you. Doug and I were so sorry you didn’t get to our wedding.” It sounded hollow, but Kayla didn’t seem to notice.

   “Yeah,” she said. “Dad and I have our ups and downs. We’re not what you might call close.” She shivered, seeming to huddle inside the large jacket.

   “Well, come in,” Beth said quickly. “I’m just getting back from some errands. Your little boy must be freezing. This is such a cold spring. Usually by April it begins to warm up a bit.” She fumbled for her key as they went up the steps to the big porch. She longed for the sense of security she always felt when entering the big front door with its heavy oak panels and oval of etched glass. This was the house she had fallen in love with thirty years ago.

   Talk, Beth! Put Kayla at ease.

   “One of the things that first brought your father and me together was the fact that we both had grown daughters, and both had been widowed.” September love, her daughter Kate had called her midlife marriage to Doug Colby.

   Inside the hallway, she remembered Doug’s words after he had met both her daughters, Jill and Kate. “You and your husband did a wonderful job raising your girls. I’m afraid I failed there.” And Doug’s eyes, reflecting some inner sorrow, had seemed to be looking at something in another place and time. “I was away so much. On my job, you know. Whenever Kayla needed me…I wasn’t there for her.” Then quickly, defensively, he had added, “Kayla’s a lovely person, but she’s had…some problems. I blame myself, of course. I… Right now, I don’t even know where she is.” The admission had cost him a lot. They had just come from the big Thanksgiving dinner at Kate’s. He had seen her daughters at their best. Kate, so steady, so competent, so stable. And Jill, so bright and resourceful. And both married to good husbands and raising their own families.

   “Well, now that you’re here, Kayla, you and your dad can catch up.” She knew her voice was too bright, but Kayla didn’t seem to notice. She was looking around the large entry hall.

   “You’ve certainly got a big house,” she said. The child was looking around, too, still frowning slightly, pressing himself against Kayla’s leg.

   “The house is old,” Beth explained. “Built back when architects didn’t mind wasting space. But I never think of it as wasted. I like some space.” She looked around the familiar hall. She had worked for years at the decorating, budgeting carefully to get the very best in antique-designed wallpaper for the large dining room, or the brass andirons for the several fireplaces, or the special paneling for her late-husband Ralph’s study. He had so liked to read in there. In the house’s heyday, before its bed-and-breakfast incarnation, it had been featured in several Gracious Homes of the Northwest tours for charity.

   The grand old house had settled gracefully into its new life as a B and B when she had learned that the pension of a city librarian’s widow wasn’t going to be enough. And she had been determined not to be a burden on her daughters. For the first time in her life she had needed to earn money.

   Not too many changes had been required, just a little remodeling to meet city codes. A small registration desk had been added to the front hallway, plus an attractive rack to hold Seattle postcards, printed recipes of house specialties, along with some tourist leaflets for the guests to take.

   Beth led Kayla and her child into the large living room. “What’s his name, your little boy?” Beth asked.

   “Oh, him? His name’s Adam.”

   At the sound of his name, he looked up expectantly at Kayla and said the first word he had spoken so far. “Hungry.” His voice was somewhat husky, and his frown deepened.

   “What a lovely room. Lovely chairs,” Kayla said, ignoring Adam, a sigh in her voice. “Mind if I just collapse awhile?” She sat down in one of the deep chairs.

   “Hungry,” Adam persisted, standing close to her.

   “Kids are always hungry.” Kayla opened her large satchel-like tote of limp gray vinyl. “You can have the rest of the fries.” She rummaged in the big bag and pulled out a greasy paper bag. “I’ll level with you, Beth. I’ve just about hit bottom again. I guess Bottom is my hometown. But I had enough after bus fare to get us something to eat in a burger place. I tried to make it last awhile, but Adam whined all the way from Phoenix. Kids are bottomless pits. Here.” She handed the greasy bag to Adam.

   To Beth’s dismay, the little boy took it eagerly and sat down on the floor beside Kayla’s feet. Carefully, with deep concentration, he opened the bag, took out a limp string of potato and ate it hungrily. Then he poked his dirty little fingers into the bag again.

   Beth bit back a dozen questions. What could she say to Kayla? This was Doug’s daughter. A daughter who had some problems. She felt a kind of inward weeping. I will help you. I have food. I will feed your child. I will give you a place. I will fix your lovely hair. I will find you something to wear. I will… I will… I will… Unable to speak for a moment, she looked at Kayla.

   “Yeah. I know I’m a mess,” Kayla said dully. Then, as if she had read Beth’s mind, she added, “I don’t suppose you have a place I could wash up. And I’d like to clean Adam up. You know my dad…doesn’t even know he has a grandson—” Her voice broke.

   Beth, unable not to, went to her side and put her arms around the thin shoulders.

   “Of course you can wash up. Adam, too. And why don’t I fix you a snack? It’s a long time until dinner.” She was thinking swiftly. Only three of the bedrooms were taken for tonight. There was that big room at the back, with an adjoining bath. She could put Kayla and Adam in there for the night. It was reserved for tomorrow. Then she would move them to what she called the “bed-sitter.” It was the small, ground-floor room that had served as her sewing room when she had had time to sew. She had made it into a small, extra place for the peak season when everything in Seattle was full and someone called desperately from the airport. There was a sofa bed and no bath. But behind an ornamental screen there was a basin with hot and cold water.

   “Where is your luggage, Kayla?” she asked. Kayla would certainly need a change of clothing, and the child… She glanced again at the little boy. He was digging fruitlessly into the now empty bag. All the limp fries were gone. Determinedly, he began to lick the remaining salt from his grubby fingers.

   “I did have luggage when I started out,” Kayla was saying. “Believe it or not, I did come prepared. But I fell asleep in one of the stopovers and somebody ripped it off. So we came in what we had on. This is it. What you see is what you get.” There was an attempt at bravado that didn’t quite come off. Kayla was embarrassed.

   “I can help out there, I think,” Beth said briskly. “My daughter, Kate, lives only a few blocks from here. She’s collecting for the annual spring rummage sale at church. I happen to know that some very nice things have been donated. I’ll give her a call while you’re cleaning up. You look like you’re Jill’s size. Jill is my younger daughter. I think that she gave her blue challis. It’s lovely.” She noticed how blue Kayla’s eyes were and was filled with sadness. Kayla’s such a lovely person, Doug had said. Doug mustn’t find her like this. And certainly his first sight of his grandson mustn’t break his heart.

   “Come upstairs. My big back bedroom isn’t taken for tonight. You and Adam can have that. It had a large dressing room from when people used dressing rooms. I had it remodeled into the most gorgeous big bathroom you’ve ever seen. And while you’re doing that, I’ll make Adam a snack.”

   “Oh, Beth, that sounds wonderful.” Kayla followed her to the stairs. Adam scrambled up.

   “Mommy!” In a panic he rushed to grab her skirt.

   Kayla turned. “It’s okay. I’m just going to take a bath. Beth will give you something else to eat. It’s okay to go with Beth.” She turned. “Kids this age are a pain. He won’t let me out of his sight.”

   One of the dozens of questions in Beth’s mind popped out. “I thought Doug told me you had a little girl….”

   Kayla’s blue eyes suddenly clouded. “I have. I mean, I had. My Becky. She’s with her father. I…I lost custody when my marriage went haywire.” She sagged against the banister. “I don’t know what Dad has told you about me, but…” She paused a moment and then, as if she were speaking to a group, she said, “My name is Kayla. I’m an alcoholic.” She grimaced. “I’m sorry but that’s the way it is. But I’m going to try again. I’ve got responsibilities. I’ve got Adam to look after. And now you know the worst. Where is that lovely bathroom?”

   “It’s right down this hall,” Beth said in sympathy. “You have a view of the back garden—for today, anyway. Your father painted a picture of the back garden. My daughter, Kate, has it. It’s hanging in her living room.”

   Beth opened the door of the big room, furnished with the antique brass bed with the hand-pieced quilt covering. The marble-topped dresser was catching a thin sunbeam from the nearby window. The vase of old-fashioned roses looked lovely. She heard Kayla sigh softly.

   “And the bath is in there. This is a double, so there are plenty of towels for both you and Adam. I noticed that Adam has skinned knees. I always keep those little colored bandages on hand for when my own grandchildren visit. I’ll get you some of those.”

   “Lovely,” Kayla said, her eyes sweeping the huge bathroom with its deep tub and separate shower. She reached out to touch, almost lovingly, one of the downy aqua-colored towels. Then she turned her attention back to Adam, who was again clinging to her skirt. “Adam’s poor knees are my fault. I was out of money by then and couldn’t even afford bus fare. A nice old guy who was leaving Seattle gave me this street map. I thought we’d never make it. Adam is so slow. I guess sometimes I walked too fast and he couldn’t keep up and he fell a couple of times. Really did mess up his knees.”

   Beth’s throat ached at the thought of the frantic little boy trying to keep up. His lifeline, the green-and-white skirt, getting farther and farther away down the strange street.

   Kayla bent over, talking directly into the small frowning face. “Look, I’m going to take a bath, see? I’m not going anywhere. You go with Beth. She’s got— What have you got to feed him, Beth?”

   “Cookies,” Beth said. “I’ve got cookies, Adam. And milk.” This child needed milk, and lots of it.

   “Okay,” he said after a moment. “Okay. Cookies.” And he held out one dirty little hand.

   Beth took it in hers, clasping it warmly. This is Doug’s grandson. And again she felt a sense of inward weeping. It shouldn’t be like this. Her beloved’s grandson should be happy and healthy and secure. Living in a stable home, with loving parents. She went slowly down the stairs, matching her pace to his short little legs that couldn’t keep up.

   “Adam, do you like peanut butter?” she asked as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “I can make you a peanut butter sandwich, if you like.”

   He stopped, and she glanced down. He was looking up at her, angry and disappointed. “You said cookies!” he accused.

   “Yes. Cookies, too.” How many times had this small child been disappointed? It didn’t bear thinking about.

   In the kitchen she quickly found one of the wood booster seats her son-in-law, Greg, had made for short grandchildren. She put it on a kitchen chair. She lifted Adam up and sat him on the seat, wishing fervently that she could wait just long enough to wash him, but she knew with certainty that her promise of food must come first. And from somewhere in her mind rose the conviction: I will never break a promise to this child.

   She didn’t call Kate until Adam was devouring his small feast with total concentration—the peanut butter sandwich on her delicious home-baked bread, a house specialty, with a stack of three sugar cookies waiting. She even found in the back of the cupboard the two-handled mug she had used when her youngest grandchild, Meggie, had needed two hands to drink her milk. Then she rang Kate from the kitchen phone.

   “Kate, darling, this is Mom. I need a favor.” Some inner caution stemming from a need to save Doug’s pride about his problem daughter made her less than candid. “You remember Doug talking about his daughter? Kayla?”

   “Yes. She didn’t come to your wedding. I remember.”

   “Well, she’s here now, late but welcome. But she had some bad luck. Her luggage is missing. She’s kind of travel-stained, and I was wondering…didn’t Jill donate her blue challis dress for the rummage sale?”

   “Yes. She did. Do you want that for Kayla? It’s clean.”

   “Yes, I do. She wants to tidy up for her father. And wasn’t there some stuff in there that Ben had outgrown? Kayla brought her little boy with her.”

   “I thought Doug said Kayla had a daughter.”

   “She has. But she also has a little boy. About three. His name is Adam.” She glanced over to the kitchen table where Adam was pausing to lick some peanut butter off his hand. He heard his name and, just for an instant, the frown was gone and he gave her a timid smile that she knew she would cherish. Recklessly, she plunged ahead. Kate was such a practical, sensible person.

   “Look, what I really need is a lot of things, well, several things. Kayla is about Jill’s size, but thinner. Will you look through what you’ve got and pick some out? She has nothing but what she’s wearing. See what you can do for Adam, too. Just until she can make other arrangements?”

   Kate’s unquestioning “Okay, will do. What else?” made her wonder again how she could have had two such wonderful daughters.

   “You do most of the pricing at these sales, don’t you?”

   “Yes. You mean you want to buy this stuff?”

   “Right. It’s iffy if Kayla will get her luggage back. So she’d better have something to wear until she can start replacing things.”

   “Okay, Mom. I’ll do it now, and send one of the boys over with the stuff.”

   “Thank you, Katie. This is really a help. I’ve got two guests coming in before five so I’m going to be busy.”

   “Wait. Don’t go yet,” Kate said. “Did you visit the hospital today?” And as Kate said it, the afternoon’s other worries came crowding back. Kayla’s arrival had pushed them aside for the moment.

   “No, but Bessie called me. It’s not good, Kate.” Even as she said it, her voice broke. “I don’t think Cyrus is going to recover soon.” She paused, a thousand and one images welling up in her mind. Their pastor, Cyrus Ledbetter, had always been there for all of them. He had married her to Ralph Bennett years ago. He had baptized both their daughters. He had supported them in joy and in grief. And he and Kate had a special relationship. They had worked so hard together to establish the church school, Gilmartin Academy. The very idea that he might not always be there was unbelievable.

   As they ended their conversation and rang off, Beth recalled the other problem she had pushed aside. Kate was in the midst of her third pregnancy, and things were not going very well for her. Beth had the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach that always came when people she loved were at risk.

   Still standing by the phone, she watched Adam. No longer wolfing down food, he had lain his head on the table and was finishing his cookies, half lying down. He must be exhausted. Did he have regular naps? Did he have regular anything? He was using one grimy hand to slowly break up his last cookie into small pieces, which he put tiredly into his mouth. His eyes were heavy. Any moment now he would simply fall asleep where he was.

   Beth hurried to make a snack for Kayla. She had forgotten to ask what she might want, so she improvised. While she made a quick grilled cheese sandwich and sliced an orange, she watched Adam fall asleep. When she had these and a small pot of tea on a tray ready, she went to him and gently placed her hand on his tousled head. Instantly, he struggled out of sleep.

   “Is it Adam’s nap time?” she asked.

   He sat up quickly. “Mommy?”

   “Mommy’s upstairs taking her bath. Do you want to go up?” she asked reassuringly.

   “Mommy,” he said again, and started to get down, almost falling. Beth caught him and held him close for a moment.

   “Come on. We’ll go up to see Mommy. Let me get this tray.”

   Holding the small tray in one hand, she reached out the other, and Adam confidently put his small hand in hers. It was the beginning of trust. Well, Adam, you can trust me. She was surprised at the fierceness of the thought as it crossed her mind. Then, just as fiercely came another thought. Don’t get too attached to this child.

   Upstairs again, Kayla was glowing. “Beth, you have no idea how good it feels to be clean again. Lucky I keep my hair dryer in my tote, isn’t it?” She started eating hungrily of her snack. “This is so good!”

   Beth brushed aside the idea that the lost luggage was a myth. There had never been any other luggage. The ugly tote was all there was. “I can cut those split ends off for you, if you like. I used to trim my daughters’ hair all the time.”

   “I’d love it if you would, as soon as I finish this. I want to look nice for Dad.”

   “Fine. I’ll put Adam down for a nap. He was falling asleep at the kitchen table.”

   “Okay, but make him go potty first,” Kayla said, taking another bite of her sandwich.

   “Go potty,” Adam said sleepily.

   

   Beth had almost finished styling Kayla’s hair when the doorbell rang. Not the guests so soon, surely. But it was only Kate’s boy, Tommy, with two shopping bags balanced on the carrier of his bike.

   When Beth came back with the clothing, Kayla was looking at her reflection in fascination. “Beth, I can’t thank you enough. I look great.”

   Beth had cut off quite a bit and had used her curling iron to cup the hair under Kayla’s chin line. A middle part had let her draw back both sides and hold the fine, fair hair back with two antique ivory clips. Kayla reminded her of Alice in Wonderland. She looked young and innocent in her slim blond prettiness. Doug would be pleased, and that was what mattered.

   Kayla was elated at the clothing donations.

   “Just until you can start replacing things,” Beth said tactfully as she emptied the shopping bags on the bed next to the sleeping child.

   “Yeah, right. I love this shade of blue.” Kayla picked up Jill’s lovely blue challis dress. “Perfect! I love it!” She was like a happy child at Christmas. “And look at these. Adam’s never had a pair of jeans. He’ll be ecstatic. He’ll think he’s like the big boys now. And look at this!” She held up a small yellow T-shirt with “Mariners” printed across the front.

   Kate had even sent some underwear, and Beth wondered if she had taken things from her own wardrobe. Kate was good at reading between the lines. Well, it was little enough to do for Doug’s daughter.

   “Will you be all right for a while now?” Beth asked. “I have some things I need to do.”

   “Oh, I’ll be fine. Thanks a million. And don’t worry about Adam. I’ll clean him up nice for Dad.”

   Beth held back surging questions. Where is Adam’s father? Where are your first husband and your little girl, Becky? Did you really bring any luggage, or did you just run away from someplace, or something, or someone, in a panic, with no clothing, no money? And why? And, as she was going down the wide stairway, there came the question she really didn’t want to know the answer to: What do you expect of Doug?

   With a sudden feeling of lassitude, Beth wandered back into the kitchen. She’d need to clear the table where Adam had scattered crumbs. She looked vacantly at the small mess he had made and she sat down.

   She and Doug were so happy. By some miracle they had found each other in the autumn of their lives. Never had she loved anyone as she loved him. And she knew that he returned that love. It was as if they had both lived all their lives, carefully going through the motions, faithfully doing all they needed to do, or had committed to do, but marking time. Waiting. For this ultimate happiness. Was there such a thing as a perfect life? If so, she and Doug had found it.

   They had married just after last Thanksgiving. She loved her small B and B business that she had created and he seemed quite willing for her to continue with it. And he, having worked all his life, was not content with just painting his beautiful landscapes. He had found other satisfying work to do. His work in the textbook field had made him a natural for a place on the board of trustees for the church school. He volunteered to teach Kate’s Raymond and Tommy how to play golf, and they were getting quite good at it. And he constantly helped her with the B and B work. Beth, don’t lift that. I’m your heavy-lifting guy.

   She wished intensely that Doug would come home. Now. This minute. She wanted to see his big frame coming through the doorway, the ready smile on his rugged face. She remembered when he had first registered as a guest. She had thought of him as a man who might climb mountains, or wrestle heavy, wet sails on choppy water. She glanced at her watch: four-fifteen. The minutes were sliding by. She had so many things to do. Instead she went to the wall phone and dialed Doug’s cell phone. He answered almost immediately.

   “I’m heading home soon,” he said. She loved the sound of his deep voice. He had been down at the church for a meeting. “I suppose you’re anxious for news. Well, the Elders have appointed an interim pastor to keep things going until Pastor Ledbetter recovers.”

   “Oh? Yes, I had wondered.” She should tell him about Kayla. He shouldn’t come home and just find her here.

   “He’s a nice enough guy,” Doug was saying. “I met him. He’s a bit young for a pastor. I don’t think he’d have been my choice, but I guess the Elders know what they’re doing. Name’s Philip Cooper. He’ll take the service Sunday, so you’ll meet him then. I meant to be home to carry suitcases, but things got busy here.”

   “The new guests haven’t come yet. I don’t expect them until about five. Listen, dear. I want to tell you something, and this is a nice surprise. Your daughter, Kayla, is here. She came in this afternoon. Such a lovely girl.”

   There was dead silence for a moment, then his astounded voice. “Kayla? Here?” The joy in his tone was clear.

   After Beth hung up the receiver she lingered by the wall, feeling oddly indecisive, almost confused. Doug was happy. Her beloved was thrilled that Kayla had come. Why then did she have this strong feeling that something was very wrong? It just didn’t make sense. Get on with your work, Beth.

   Then Adam’s piercing wail cut the air, chilling her.

   “No! Mommy! No!”

Chapter Two

   Beth rushed upstairs, her heart pounding with anxiety for Adam. What now? There was the distinct sound of an open palm smacking bare flesh. Adam and Kayla were in the big bathroom.

   “Kayla! Stop!” Beth grasped Kayla’s uplifted arm. Both Kayla and Adam were crying.

   “But he’s so dumb,” Kayla wailed. “Why can’t he be smart, like Becky is? He’s just plain stupid. He won’t get in. He kicked water on me!”

   “Let me do it,” Beth said, making her voice calm when she wanted to scream. “Kayla, you’re tired. You’re impatient because of it. Let me bathe him. Go back in the bedroom. Lie down awhile. I’ll clean Adam up.”

   Kayla rubbed tears from her face. “Okay,” she muttered. “You do it. He’s too much for me.” She turned, but before she left the bathroom she glared through angry tears at the naked, trembling little boy. “You dumb brat. How can you get clean if you won’t get in the tub? Beth, can you comb my hair again? He messed it up.”

   “Yes,” Beth said evenly. “Just go lie down awhile.”

   She turned to the little boy. He was backed up against the wall like a small animal at bay.

   “Why don’t you want to get into the tub, Adam?” she asked gently, hoping that he remembered that she was his friend, the one who had given him food. The tears had made streaks in the dirt on his face. What went through the mind of a three-year-old child when confronted with big, angry adults?

   “Too hot,” he said finally. Beth reached down to test the water. It was too hot, at least for skinned knees.

   “Would you like some cold water in it?” she asked, and he nodded reluctantly. She turned on the cold tap, cooling the temperature to just barely warm. Cajoling, coaxing and explaining, she persuaded him into the tub and began bathing him. She was getting water all over her lavender silk blouse. At some point she had taken off her jacket. She couldn’t recall where she had left it. The minutes were ticking by. She managed to get Adam washed, including his hair. It was too long and somewhat shaggy, but there wasn’t any time to cut it. Doug would just have to see his grandson with shaggy hair. At least it would be clean.

   When she took Adam, clean and dried, back into the bedroom, Kayla was lying flat on the bed, staring at the ceiling.

   “You know, I’m scared. That’s the whole problem. When Dad and I parted company last, he was pretty fed up with me, with my drinking problem. And it is a big problem. I don’t know what he’s going to think now.”

   Beth glanced at her watch. Almost five. And Kayla showed no inclination of getting up to dress Adam. Maybe it would go more smoothly if she did it herself. Mentally gritting her teeth, and hoping the new guests would be late, Beth hurriedly picked out some clothes intended for Adam.

   “Here, Adam. Would you like to wear these jeans?” She held up the pants. He stared at them, his wide eyes questioning. Then he reached out to touch them. “Adam’s new jeans,” she assured him. Then he lunged past her and grabbed a small pair of red sneakers. He looked at her desperately.

   “Adam’s shoes?” he asked. “My shoes?” He gripped them to his narrow chest. “Mine!”

   She had a sudden need to cry. “Yes, Adam. Your shoes.” And she was rewarded by his sudden, radiant smile.

   “Mine!” he said exultantly. “Mine!”

   She managed to dress him, although he kept trying to hold the red shoes, which made it awkward. As soon as she had Adam dressed, she got Kayla back to the dressing table for another combing session. She tried not to keep looking at her watch. How long was this going to last? She had a business to run. She made herself speak kindly.

   “Don’t worry about your dad, Kayla. He was delighted when I told him you were here. He’s coming home as soon as he can.”

   “He was? When did you talk to him?”

   “Right after you came upstairs. I called to let him know you’d come. He was very pleased,” she said firmly. Well, he had been pleased. Fair was fair.

   Kayla was looking at her reflection with satisfaction. “That sounds hopeful. The right clip is pulling a bit.”

   Beth loosened the clip. “Is that better?”

   “Fine. You see, Dad doesn’t know that I got married again.”

   “But he knew you were divorced from Becky’s father, didn’t he?” Beth wanted to ask about Adam’s father. Maybe Kayla would tell her without being asked.

   Kayla continued to gaze at her reflection. “Yeah, he knew that. You sure do have a way with hairstyling. I look great. Thank you, Beth. You’re an amazing woman.”

   All right. She would ask. “Why didn’t Adam’s father come with you?” That was blunt enough. She put down the comb and got a glimpse of herself in the glass. She was positively disheveled! Bathing small children was something she hadn’t done in a long time.

   “Mitch died,” Kayla said almost accusingly. “He was… Well, he got into some trouble about a DWI. And he was sent into rehab. Being sent is a lot different than going in on your own. He wasn’t ready, see. But he had to go. It was that or a jail sentence.” She was staring angrily into the mirror. “He was fighting it, see? And I guess he drank the wrong stuff. It’s hard to get anything decent to drink in rehab. They thought…afterward…that he’d drunk something like maybe rubbing alcohol. Anyhow he…died. And he left me with Adam to take care of. Just on my own. That’s why I’ve really got to get squared away. And the last time Dad and I were together he said if I ever really meant to get dry he would help me. But I really had to mean it. Well, I mean it now. I got to. No ifs, ands or buts. This is it.”

   Beth’s heart sank. “Of course he will help you,” she made herself say. This was Doug’s daughter. She tried to sound sympathetic. Poor, desperate Kayla, fighting her demons and trying so ineptly to care for a small child at the same time. She was thankful her own daughters didn’t have such difficulties.

   Kayla’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. “Thank you, Beth. You can’t know how much I appreciate this.”

   Then Beth felt guilty. She really had no right to judge Doug’s daughter. Her own life had been so good.

   Beth was about to say something comforting when the front door chimes rang out. The new guests! Without thinking, she hurried out into the hall and down the stairs as the chimes rang out again. Almost at the door she remembered that she hadn’t combed her own hair, and she noticed that her gray skirt as well as her blouse was liberally splashed with water. Well, so be it. She pasted on her perfect hostess smile and opened the door.

   “Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll,” she said brightly. They were a stocky middle-aged couple. Mr. Driscoll smiled but Mrs. Driscoll didn’t.

   “Yep. We got here and only got lost once, finding the place.” Mr. Driscoll dropped the big suitcase onto the porch.

   “Come in,” Beth said, smiling. “Everybody gets lost at least once finding this place. Didn’t you get the little map I sent?”

   “He lost it,” Mrs. Driscoll snapped. She was looking at Beth’s wet skirt intently as they went into the entry hall. Mr. Driscoll had picked up the big bag again and dropped it inside the hall. It sounded heavy.

   “If you’ll just register here…” Beth said, indicating the registration cards on the small neat desk. “And feel free while you’re here to take postcards and things as you need them. We have some good views of Seattle.” She was going automatically into her welcome-the-new guests routine. But she wished fervently that Doug would walk through the door. She had to at least offer to carry the big bag upstairs.

   As Mr. Driscoll registered, Mrs. Driscoll finally said what was on her mind.

   “Do you know there’s water all over your clothes?”

   “Yes, I know it,” Beth said, laughing. “I was bathing our little grandson. I forgot how small children splash about. I’m going to change in a minute.”

   Mrs. Driscoll’s face went dark and forbidding. “Are there children here? The bed-and-breakfast directory said there were no children here.”

   “Th-there aren’t, actually,” Beth stammered. “I mean, he doesn’t live here. He’s just visiting.” As soon as she said it she thought, But he does, at least for a while. Was this going to be a problem?

   Mrs. Driscoll was still worried. “Does he cry at night? I have a sleep disorder. I’m a very light sleeper. Anything—even the drop of a pin—wakes me up. Oh, dear, I really must get my rest. Is our room near his at all?”

   “No, it isn’t,” Beth said quickly, instantly rearranging the room assignments in her head. She would put the Driscolls in the very front bedroom. And when Mr. Bryant arrived later, she would put him in the room next to Kayla and Adam. Justin Bryant was a regular who came up every spring from San Francisco to look for “collectibles” for his antique shop. He was a pleasant, good-natured man. He wouldn’t care about not getting his regular room for once.

   “Well, we’ll just hope for the best,” Mrs. Driscoll said wearily, as if the weight of the world rested on her thick shoulders.

   

   Beth reached the top of the stairs, out of breath from carrying the Driscolls’ suitcase. What did they have in it—lead weights? There were guests and then there were guests. She huffed her way to the very front bedroom, wondering what Mrs. Driscoll would find wrong with it. Mrs. Driscoll let her know immediately.

   “Oh, dear, this bed has a canopy,” she said with a worried glance around the lovely room. “Canopies are pretty but they are dust catchers. I have several allergies. Dust is just deadly for me.”

   “I don’t think you’ll find any dust in here,” Beth said briskly. “My cleaning service vacuums everything, including all fabrics, draperies, upholstered furniture and canopies. I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable here.”

   “Well, we’ll just hope for the best,” Mrs. Driscoll said with weary patience.

   Mr. Driscoll tried to help. “Oh, come on, Myrtle. This is a lovely old mansion. Be glad the lady opens it to the public.”

   Whereupon Mrs. Driscoll turned to Beth and said with woman-to-woman frankness. “Actually, Bert is the one who likes these bed-and-breakfast places. I’d much rather have the anonymity of a motel—so much more privacy.”

   Beth’s perfect hostess smile remained fixed while she wondered who in the world could possibly dream of invading this woman’s privacy. She indicated the small desk.

   “You’ll find house stationery in there and postcards with a picture of the house on them. There’s also a city map and a what-to-see leaflet. Mrs. Driscoll, are your allergies food related, too? Our breakfast menu offers a fairly wide variety. Both for low-cholesterol people and high-cholesterol people. We have eggs, any style, with sausage or bacon. Plus a wide selection of muffins or home-baked bread. The muffins are small, two-bite sized, so you can have different kinds. Then, for those who need to eat more carefully, we have muesli, nonfat milk and, of course, lots of fruit and juices.”

   “You’re very kind,” Mrs. Driscoll said sadly. “I’m sure I can find something.” And Mr. Driscoll patted her shoulder in a comforting manner.

   Beth escaped into the hallway with a suppressed sigh as she heard Doug enter the front door. As always, her heart lifted and all fatigue vanished. She ran down the stairs like a teenager.

   “Doug!” She flew into his arms and was held for a moment against his strong body, raising her face for a kiss.

   “Where’s Kayla?” he asked anxiously, glancing around.

   Beth drew back, letting her hands linger on his arms. “Upstairs resting a bit. She was tired from her trip.” Should she tell him about Adam? No. Let that come from Kayla. Presenting Doug with a grandson might be part of Kayla’s fence-mending with her father.

   “Did I get here in time to carry suitcases?” Belatedly he kissed her, but it landed on her temple as she was drawing away from him.

   “No. I did it all, and I’ll have you know it weighed a ton. Their name is Driscoll. Mrs. Driscoll requires pampering, so I put them in the front bedroom.”

   He frowned. “Isn’t that Justin Bryant’s regular room? Isn’t he coming tonight?”

   “I’ll explain later, darling. Why don’t you go up and see your daughter? They—she’s in the back bedroom. You two have a lot to catch up on and I have to change.”

   “You’re all wet,” he said, suddenly noticing, and just then the doorbell chimed again.

   “Go on up. I’ll get that. It’s probably Justin Bryant,” Beth said, touching the side of his face briefly. She found herself listening intently to Doug’s steps as he went up the stairs. She had an odd little sense of dread, which she quickly brushed aside as she hurried to open the front door. She knew Justin Bryant well and was ready to welcome him on his spring foraging among the collectibles of Seattle.

   “Come in,” she said eagerly. “And yes, I know my clothes are wet. I was just about to change. I’ll show you up this time. I’m sorry, Justin, but I had to put you in a different room. I hope that’s all right.”

   “Oh, I can’t stand that,” he said in mock despair. “You know how set in our ways we middle-aged guys get. Well, how many kinds of muffins will I get for breakfast? Maybe that will make it right.”

   “Four kinds,” Beth assured him, and, as they mounted the stairs, she explained tactfully about Mrs. Driscoll’s sleep disorder.

   As she spoke she couldn’t help but look toward the back bedroom, but the door was shut. Would Doug be shocked at finding a grandson he had never been told about?

   Justin Bryant was still talking. “…and I intend to beat Doug at Scrabble this time. I have a new dictionary. Who else is here besides the fragile lady who took my bedroom?”

   Beth found herself telling him about the sudden arrival of Doug’s daughter and the other two guests who were arriving tomorrow.

   “Oh, good. Full house,” Justin said. “You can always find somebody interesting in a full house.”

   

   After she left Justin, she finally managed to change into an at-home outfit, one of Doug’s favorites. A soft heather jersey with a swishy draped skirt. Doug was trying to paint a picture of her in it. He had made dozens of sketches but he wasn’t satisfied.

   “I guess what talent I’ve got is for landscapes,” he had said. “Trees. Rocks. Hills. Sea. Those I can do. Why can’t I capture your beautiful face?”

   She went into the kitchen to start dinner and realized she was still listening intently for some sound from upstairs. Twice she couldn’t resist going to the bottom of the stairway for a moment. When would they ever come down? Would Doug really be happy? Was he as pleased as he had sounded on the phone? From the kitchen she heard the Driscolls leaving, and the murmur of Mrs. Driscoll’s voice, sounding plaintive. She hoped they wouldn’t come back early, but they probably would. Then, a few minutes later, she heard Justin Bryant bounding down the stairs. He had friends in Seattle, so he would probably be back late.

   Finally. Beth heard Doug and Kayla coming toward the kitchen. Oh, please, God, let Doug be happy. Let this be right for Doug. Then, belatedly, she prayed, And let it be good for Kayla, too. She breathed a sigh of relief at Doug’s wide grin. He was carrying Adam. The little boy wasn’t frowning, but his small face was dead serious.

   “Ah, something smells wonderful. And I’m famished. Why didn’t you tell me my grandson had arrived?” He leaned over to kiss Beth, and she felt herself flushing like a schoolgirl on her first date.

   “I wanted Kayla to tell you,” Beth said. She couldn’t help but smile, too. Kayla looked radiant, so the reunion must have gone well. She was a pretty woman.

   “Everything’s almost ready,” Beth said happily. “Just go in and sit down. I’ll bring in the food.” She had set the dining room table with her best china and silver in Kayla’s honor. There was a low centerpiece of early white crocus. She had put the wooden booster seat on one of the chairs for Adam. As the three seated themselves, Beth began serving. The London broil marinade had tenderized the meat so it could be cut with a fork. The roasted red-skinned potato wedges were perfectly done. Beth sprinkled grated cheese over them, knowing it would melt by the time it reached the table. Then she quickly filled the chilled salad bowls with greens. She took everything in on the big silver tray because she didn’t want to get up from the table again until dessert, and because she knew Doug would leap up to help her. Let me take, Beth, it’s too heavy for you.

   

   It was a lovely, comfortable meal, enriched with talk and laughter. Kayla’s tension was gone. She was relaxed, pleasant and sometimes quite funny. Adam tucked into his food with sober concentration, as if he hadn’t had a peanut butter sandwich and cookies in midafternoon. Kayla ate hungrily, too, with little approving comments. “Oh, Beth, this is so good.”

   Looking at Adam fondly, Doug said, “I had a bit of trouble getting acquainted with the little guy, but he loosened up after a while.”

   “Adam’s kind of quirky,” Kayla said. “He’ll probably end up like his daddy. Mitch was a loner. I don’t think he ever had any real friends.”

   Beth met Doug’s eyes across the table in time to see the quick look of rejection. She could almost feel his thought: No. Not Adam. Somehow, some way, life must be better for Adam. And again, Beth felt the sense of uneasiness.

   Kayla’s energy didn’t last long after dinner, and Adam had already fallen asleep, curled up on the floor beside Kayla’s feet, soon after they had gone into the living room.

   “Why don’t you go to bed, sweetheart?” Doug asked her. “I know you’re beat. Traveling does that.”

   Kayla hid a yawn behind a slender hand. “I think I will, Daddy—if that’s all right with you, Beth. Tomorrow I’ll be a new woman. And I intend to be some help. I’m a pretty good house cleaner when I get going. Daddy, will you carry Adam up for me?”

   Beth went back into the dining room and cleared the table. She was putting the last things into the dishwasher when Doug came into the kitchen. He sat down at the kitchen table and she joined him. Both reached out and clasped hands as they often did. Doug was looking at her intently.

   “Thank you for what you did, my love.”

   “What? I don’t—”

   “For Kayla. For Adam.” His voice was unsteady for a moment.

   “What do you mean?”

   “I know Kayla. I’m her father, remember? I know how grungy she can be when she reaches the point of going back on the wagon again. And I recognized Jill’s blue dress.”

   “Oh, that,” Beth said in sudden embarrassment. “I… She lost her luggage and she needed—”

   “And if anybody needs, you fly to the rescue. I love you, Beth. I hope I deserve you.” He tightened his hold on her hands. “And it salvaged Kayla’s pride a bit, too, not having to face me looking like a ragamuffin. I know she must have been.”

   “How…how did things come out?”

   He released her hands and got up. “Pretty well, I guess. With Kayla I’m never sure. But this time I think she really means it. Endicott’s death got to her, I believe.”

   “Who’s Endicott?”

   “Adam’s father. Mitch Endicott.” He went over to the refrigerator. “I’ll start the breakfast preparations while I tell you. No, don’t get up. You’ve done enough today.” He took the melons out of the fridge and put them on the long drain board.

   Beth sat back as he took things out of cupboards and drawers and rolled up his sleeves. She loved to watch his big hands working. The big hands that could saw logs for the fireplaces or wield a tiny paintbrush to put sunlight on leaves or, as now, use the small scoop to create melon balls for breakfast.

   “Kayla wants to go back into rehab. This time for the complete cure. She knows it won’t be easy, mainly because she’s tried before and failed. The rehab treatment takes about three months and will cost the earth. But I can afford it—though my emergency fund is taking a bit hit.”

   “But if she really means it and is successful, won’t it be worth it?” Beth felt a surge of relief. She had a quick mental image of Kayla, not an alcoholic. Kayla not depending on Doug, but competent, successful. Kayla taking her little boy and going away.

   “More than worth it. But she wants us to take care of Adam while she’s away. She can’t take a three-year-old with her into rehab.” He turned from the sink, the melon baller held loosely in one hand. “What do you think about that?”

   “Of course we can take care of Adam,” she heard herself saying firmly. What am I thinking of? I have a business to run! And at the same time she had a recollection of Adam clutching the red sneakers to his chest. Mine. Well, Doug was worth it. If he wanted Adam to stay here for three months, so be it.

   “I didn’t doubt it, love. I know you too well for that. And when I saw Kayla in Jill’s blue outfit, I figured it was practically a done deal. And, you know, I believe it will come out right this time. I feel sure it will. She’ll stick with it. She means it. I don’t know if you can understand this or not…how much this means to me. Your girls, Kate and Jill, don’t seem to have any problems at all. They seem so right with life. I want that for Kayla, too.” His voice was unsteady again.

   “Kayla’s life is screwed up because of me. Don’t shake your head, Beth. I know what I know. You may have wondered why I’ve never talked about my first marriage, but it wasn’t…very good. My fault, too, I guess. I did have a good, solid live-at-home job, lecturing on economics at our local college. But I didn’t like academia. I didn’t like…my marriage. I wanted out. At the time I was thinking of no one but myself. I couldn’t walk out on the marriage commitment, but I got a job as a textbook representative because it demanded that I travel. It got me away. It set me free. When Kayla needed me—and she did—I was never there for her.”

   He worked silently for a time. Beth didn’t know what to say. When he finished with the melons he put down the scoop and began gathering up the rinds for the disposal. The kitchen was filled with the drone of the grinding. Beth stared at the large platter of melon balls. The bright orange cantaloupe, the red watermelon, the pale green honeydew. It looked like a picture and would be tempting on the buffet in the morning. She watched as Doug carefully covered it with plastic and put it in the refrigerator. Then he took the two bun warmers out of the cupboard and put them near the electrical outlets so she could fill them with Kate’s tiny, home-baked muffins in the morning. At last the grinding noise stopped.

   Doug had never talked to her before about his first marriage. Nor had she talked to him about her long marriage to Ralph Bennett. Nor her guilt because she had never loved Ralph as he had loved her. Perhaps everyone felt guilty about some things—things done wrong, or things not done when they should have been done. She got up and went to him, taking his big hands and raising them briefly to her lips. Her heart ached for him. She knew what it was like to feel guilty.

   “Beth, are you sure about this? I’ll help out more than I have been doing, but running a busy B and B and looking after a three-year-old kid won’t be a piece of cake.”

   Beth put her fingers over his lips. “Don’t worry. We can do it. We will do it.” But even as she said it, there was that sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. How ridiculous. Really ridiculous. Of course they could do it. It was only for three months. So why wouldn’t the sickness go away?

Chapter Three

   Mrs. Driscoll was happy with her muesli and nonfat milk breakfast because of the melon balls and the “little tastes” of this and that from Bert’s overloaded breakfast choices. He had scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages and a large collection of muffins, heavily buttered.

   “My doctor told me to cut way back on fat, but those little sausages looked so good. Bert, let me have a little taste of yours.” Whereupon Bert would move three or four of his sausages from his plate to hers.

   “Bert, those scrambled eggs look so fluffy…”

   Breakfast at Beth’s B and B was a time of pleasant confusion, much talk and laughter, and comings and goings. Beth enjoyed this fully. It was a nice feeling to give people a good breakfast and send them off in happy anticipation of their day’s adventures in a new city—and one of the things she enjoyed most about her work.

   Kayla, true to her word, was up early, having dressed Adam and brought him downstairs. Then she helped in the kitchen. Relaxed and at ease, she was a happy addition to the group, getting up quickly now and then to refill the coffee carafe or fetch more muffins from the kitchen. Beth could sense how pleased Doug was at Kayla’s efforts. Please, God, let this be right for Doug. And let it be right for Kayla, too. Soon.

   Justin Bryant was the last to leave. Beth hurried to the kitchen to get the two sack lunches she had prepared. She sometimes did this for guests who wanted to eat on the run. He and an associate were going out of town on business for the day. He had told them all with great gusto of his hopeful plans. They would go out to the country to see an attic full of “old things.”

   “Every antique dealer’s dream come true,” he said. “A granddaughter is getting rid of her late granny’s stuff—and estate matter. We’re hoping to see an attic full of priceless antiques that the granddaughter thinks are junk, that we can pick up for pennies. But it will probably be an attic full of junk granddaughter thinks are priceless antiques. Wish us luck.”

   Beth laughed and handed him the two sack lunches, for which he always paid generously. “Roast beef,” she said. “The sack with the B on it is the one with barbecue sauce. I remember you said your friend can’t eat anything spicy.”

   When the guests had gone for the day, she, Doug and Kayla settled down with comfortable sighs and Adam came back to the table. He had stolidly disposed of the large breakfast Kayla had placed before him. But he had a habit of sliding down from his place and wandering off for a while. Then he would come back, let Doug help him back up on the booster seat to resume his meal. Later, tactfully, Beth thought she’d better persuade him out of this habit. Since he ate much of his food with his fingers there was the matter of greasy fingermarks on walls and furniture. Now she watched his sober efforts. He was immaculately clean, neatly clothed, well-fed and safe. Doug must be happy about that.

   As they were leisurely drinking second cups of coffee, the kitchen phone rang and Doug got up to answer it. She and Kayla could hear him talking and laughing, and when he came back he was still smiling.

   “That was Jill,” he said, sitting down. “They’re both coming over for lunch. But they’re bringing it.” He turned to Kayla. “Jill and Kate are Beth’s daughters. You’ll like them. They’re a lot of fun.”

   “I know I will,” Kayla said, smiling warmly, but Beth happened to be looking at Kayla’s expressive eyes. She sensed Kayla’s instant withdrawal. How difficult would it be for Kayla to meet women of her own age who had solved their problems as they arose and hadn’t made the mistakes she had? Was this going to be another difficulty? Both girls had accepted her marriage to Doug and liked him very much.

   “Are they bringing their children?” Beth asked. “They have three each,” she added for Kayla’s benefit, “and Kate will have another in a few months.”

   “Three each,” Kayla said. “I have trouble taking care of one.” She made a move to leave the table. “You wanted to change our room,” she reminded Beth.

   “Right,” Beth said quickly, sensing that Kayla suddenly wanted to escape. “We’d better get on with it.”

   “Mommy!” Adam said in panic as Kayla left. He slid down from his place. He followed closely behind them as they went upstairs to strip the bed and put on fresh linen for the guests tonight.

   Beth could hear Doug whistling and the clatter of dishes as he cleared the table.

   

   Kayla turned out to be an excellent helper, scouring the tub and shower, working quickly and efficiently. When Beth commented admiringly, Kayla answered, wringing out the cleaning cloth, “I had a job once as a maid in a motel. I learned a lot about cleaning fast.”

   She frowned slightly, and Beth wondered about Kayla’s hectic and uncertain existence. What a way to live.

   “Incidentally,” Kayla added. “I’ve never mentioned to Dad some of the jobs I’ve had, so this is just between us, okay?”

   “Fine,” Beth agreed. “Past history is past history.”

   Beth’s cleaning service came once a week for vacuuming, mopping, polishing—all the heavy work—but the daily bed making, bath cleaning and tidying up, Beth did, and today she found Kayla a real help. They finished in half the time and began to move Kayla’s and Adam’s things into the small downstairs bed-sitter.

   Adam fell in love with the bed-sitter on sight, especially when she and Kayla opened the queen-size sofa bed to put on the sheets and blanket.

   “Izziz our house now?” he asked, looking around the small room. There was the made-up sofa bed, a small chest of drawers, a pretty chair and the wide window seat that magically opened up to reveal the big empty space below the seat. He had already discovered the basin with running water behind the folding screen. He was standing in the center of the room, legs spread out, hands on hips, like a tiny lord of the manor. Beth had to admit he was kind of cute.

   Kayla laughed at him. “This is our house for the time being. You know, I told you this morning that I had to go away for a while, but just a little while. Beth’s going to take care of you. Remember what I told you. Don’t play dumb now.”

   Because suddenly the little lord of the manor was scowling fiercely.

   “It’s just for a little while,” Kayla repeated placatingly. “I’ll be back. You know when I leave I always come back.”

   Beth wondered how many times Kayla had left him “for a little while.” With whom had she left him? How well had he been cared for? It took an effort to remain silent. Kayla wouldn’t be gone for a little while. She’d be gone for three months in rehab. Three months would be forever to a small child. Well, somehow she would have to deal with it. Anything was possible…for Doug.

   When they finished in the bed-sitter, Doug remembered the box of toys Beth kept for grandchildren’s visits. He brought it into the room. Adam was fascinated. Had he never had toys of his own? Beth wondered. Doug sat down on the floor to show him how to connect the bits of yellow plastic with which Ben, Jill’s little boy, built and dismantled wonderful structures when he was here.

   They had almost finished in the bed-sitter when the doorbell chimed twice in quick succession. Eleven-thirty. That would be Jill, Beth thought. She always pushed the bell twice. Hard. Please, God, let this work out.

   There was an interval of happy chaos as Beth and Doug introduced everyone. She watched carefully, hoping that Kayla would not be intimidated by her daughters. Jill, tall and beautiful, with her striking dark hair and eyes. And Kate, only five feet tall and to anyone but a mother probably rather plain, and very pregnant.

   They came in carrying plastic and foil-wrapped containers, which Doug took charge of and carried to the kitchen for their lunch later.

   “Everything in plastic goes in the fridge,” Kate called after him. “The big box has tomorrow’s muffins for the B and B folks.” Then they all settled in the large living room. Adam, suddenly surrounded by strangers, stayed close to Kayla’s legs, looking at everyone with a steady frown. A sudden thought popped into Beth’s mind. What had made this little boy suspicious of the whole world?

   “I should have brought Meggie,” Jill said, smiling graciously at Kayla. “Then Adam would have someone to play with. She’s four. But I left her with my support group. We all help each other out with baby-sitting now and then. We’re all former career women who have put our work on hold until our kids are grown.”

   Kayla looked at her blankly, and Doug intervened to explain that Jill had been a successful restaurant owner early in her marriage.

   Beth mentally sighed. It wasn’t working. Lunch was going to be a disaster. Both her girls were trying too hard to be nice to Kayla, and Kayla was trying to respond, her little boy pressed against her legs looking like a small thunder-cloud. Neither Jill nor Kate could forget that Kayla hadn’t shown up for the wedding and—clearly—her arrival now had been a complete surprise to Doug. Kayla was tense and on guard, obviously feeling inferior to all these people and their successful lives, and resenting it deeply. I’d better talk to the girls about this, Beth thought. But what can I say to them? Each daughter, in her own way, was doing her best in an awkward situation.

   What would Cyrus say? Suddenly she was thinking of her pastor. Dear God, help Cyrus get well soon. Cyrus had always been there for them, all of them. If only she could call Cyrus’s well-known number, knowing he would pick up the phone at the other end. Ah, Beth, how can I help you, my dear? Then she could pour out her worries to him, counting on his kindness, his loving knowledge of the predicaments human beings got themselves into, his willingness to advise, to guide, to help. By sheer willpower she shut out thoughts of Cyrus and made herself pay attention to the here and now.

   They labored through lunch. She could sense Doug’s discomfort. Jill, whose talent for working with people of all sorts in her business, was still being too cordial. And Kate, who couldn’t hide her obvious growing irritation as Adam ate his own lunch in installments. He kept getting down, wandering away, then coming back to the table. Each time, Doug had to get up to lift him back onto the booster seat on his chair. Kate’s children were better rule-obeyers than Jill’s, or anyone else’s, for that matter, and she managed to do it in such a way that her children didn’t seem to resent the discipline.

   Lunch ended on a rather contentious note. Doug had looked at his watch for perhaps the fifth time.

   “We’ve got to cut out, love,” he said to Beth. “Kayla and I have an appointment. We’re going to have to leave the clearing up to you.”

   “That’s all right,” Beth said quickly, trying not to sound relieved. “We’ll make out fine.” She stopped herself from asking about the appointment, but Kayla spoke out, more loudly than necessary. There was defiance in her tone.

   “My dad and I have an appointment at a rehab clinic.” She turned to Jill and Kate, adding deliberately, “I have a drinking problem. I don’t know if Dad has mentioned it to you or not.” Then, as if this hadn’t been enough to startle both Jill and Kate, she added coldly, “I’m a drunk.”

   “Oh, come now,” Beth said weakly, as she saw the stunned expressions on her daughters’ faces. Doug had never actually explained to them what Kayla’s problems were.

   Jill, always the quickest in the Bennett family, tried to rescue the situation. “Good,” she said decisively. “If you think it’s become a problem, then treatment is probably your best course. Good for you.” She reached over and patted Kayla’s hand.

   “It’s a preliminary interview,” Doug said uncomfortably. “We’ll be back later, but we need to make arrangements and so on.”

   Kate had recovered her poise. “How long will it take, Kayla?” she asked politely.

   “The brochure said three months,” Kayla answered, and then added with a hint of venom. “Beth’s going to take care of Adam while I’m gone.”

   “We’d better get going,” Doug said hurriedly, getting up.

   But as Adam realized that Kayla and Doug were leaving without him, he began to cry. He had to be pulled away from Kayla.

   After they had gone and Adam had quieted down—Jill was very good with small children—Beth prepared herself to answer questions. They came immediately.

   “Did she call? Write? Give you any notice at all? Did she just show up? What kind of person just shows up?”

   “Mom, those rehab places are expensive! Doug’s not rich by any means.”

   “If Kayla’s reduced to wearing rummage sale castoffs—and yes, we noticed the dress—who is going to pay for three months in a rehab facility?”

   “How are you going to care for a three-year-old child and run a B and B? Moth-er!”

   Beth recognized the exasperation in the “Moth-er” and spoke commandingly. “All right! Let’s clear away this stuff. I’ll explain everything.” She did her best to downplay the inconvenience and explain how important it was to Doug to help Kayla, that Kayla was a widow now, that Adam’s father had died. And that Kayla was serious and intended to recover. This was important. She omitted how and where Mitch had died for the moment.

   “It’s only three months, after all,” she ended, but neither daughter was satisfied. They had always been a close family, and protective of one another. They were both worried about her now, and wondered how she would cope. They knew how happy she had been with her new marriage, how well she and Doug got along. They calmed down, but with an obvious effort.

   Fortunately, Adam then became sleepy by his toy box. It was Jill who went looking for him and put him down on the sofa bed for a nap. While she tended to Adam, Beth and Kate were left alone in the kitchen.

   “How have you been doing?” Beth asked. Kate hadn’t been much help with the clearing up, which was unusual for her. She seemed tired and lethargic. Her baby wasn’t due for another three months, and Kate had gotten easily through her previous pregnancies.

   “Okay, I guess,” Kate said. “I was lucky before. Maybe I’m really too old now, but Ian and I—” She shrugged, adding, “I wish—”

   “Probably the same thing I do,” Beth said, turning from the dishwasher. Now was a good chance to change the subject. “I’d give a pretty penny to talk to Cyrus today. Have you heard how he is?”

   “Yes. I call the hospital every day. He’s stable and as well as can be expected. He had a good night. You know how it is. Depends on who you talk to. They’ve sent—” She paused because her voice was suddenly unsteady. “They’ve sent for his son and daughter.”

   “Oh, no! Not really! Is it that serious?” Then immediately, she added, “Where will they stay?”

   “I told Bess down at the church office that we have a spare bedroom. Several other people have volunteered, too. Or they could just stay at the rectory, I guess.”

   “I can’t offer,” Beth said. “The B and B is booked solid through the whole summer. People tend to come back. Probably because of your muffins, Katie.”

   That got a wan smile.

   “I’ve met the substitute pastor. Flip Cooper.” Kate’s tone was decidedly sour.

   “Flip? His name is Flip? Are you kidding me?”

   “It’s a contraction of Philip, which is a perfectly good name for a pastor. But I think he thinks ‘Flip” is clever. He seems awfully, uh…young for a pastor.”

   Beth had to laugh. “Kate, you sound absolutely testy.” And Kate laughed with her.

   “I guess the poor guy has a hard path to walk here, coming in to substitute for Cyrus. Everybody loves Cyrus. We all go back so far together.”

   “When did you meet this, uh, Flip?”

   “I’m still going down Thursdays to help with the food bank stuff. He was there. You won’t believe what he wears for casual clothes.”

   “Maybe you’d better not tell me. Not until I get used to calling my pastor ‘Flip,”’ Beth said.

   Then Jill came back into the kitchen. “Adam’s off in dreamland,” she said. “How long does he sleep—about an hour?”

   “About that, I think. Now, listen, girls. I want this to work. I know you both have reservations, but your mother can be very resourceful when the need arises. So bear with me. He is Doug’s grandson, don’t forget. That’s important to me. Doug adores that little guy.”

   Jill said softly, “He’d be hard not to love. Poor little mite. If I…can help in any way, Mom, anytime.”

   “Me, too, Mom. You know that.” Kate reached out to her and they suddenly clasped hands. Then Kate, who had always been “Daddy’s girl” while Ralph was alive and had been so devastated when he died, surprised her, adding, “I know how much Doug means to you. And the more I know him, I get the oddest feeling that he and Dad would have been good friends. I mean, if Dad had known him.”

   Deeply touched, Beth turned away. She didn’t want to be reminded of Ralph—good, kind, faithful, loving, grateful Ralph. He was at peace now. Let him rest.

   “Thank you, Kate. I agree. I think they would have talked books until the small hours of the morning.”

   “That’s right,” Kate said, smiling. “Doug spent his work life among books, too. I’d forgotten that. He looks like such an outdoors type.”

   

   Her daughters left soon after lunch. They had accomplished what they had come for. They had met Kayla. Beth sat down at the kitchen table, trying to quell her uneasiness. Neither daughter had liked Kayla, although they had tactfully tried to hide it. And both of them were worried now about how she would cope with the situation.

   But she would. For Doug’s sake.

   The silence now in the large house had an eerie quality, and she felt a sense of foreboding. Will I be able to handle it? I’ve already raised my children. I haven’t had the care of a small child for years. Can I keep up with a lively three-year-old boy with all my other duties? And a problem child at that, a child already filled with deep anger at a world he has come into and found hostile, and far too young to understand why?

   Oh, dear God, let me be able to do this.

   The front door chimes rang out. What now? She got up quickly, hoping whoever it was wouldn’t ring again and wake Adam up. But of course the person did ring again, just as she reached the front hall. It couldn’t be guests this early. She opened the door.

   He was young, tall and rangy, with an unruly mop of reddish blond hair and clear, very light brown eyes. He was dressed in a once-white T-shirt that had seen better days and old, limp jeans that had been cut off at the knees. His bare muscular lower legs ended in the oldest, dirtiest running shoes she had ever seen. Propped against the porch railing was a battered bike, apparently his mode of transportation.

   “Yes?” she inquired politely.

   “Hi. Is Mr. Colby in? Doug? I wanted to catch him down at the church but I missed him. I’m Flip Cooper, uh, Pastor Cooper. I need to talk to Doug about new ninth grade science books. I’m told he knows all there is to know about textbooks.” He ended on a questioning note, as if he wasn’t quite sure of his welcome.

   “Of course,” Beth said, hoping her surprised expression hadn’t intimidated him. This is our new pastor? Unbelievable! She opened the door wider. “Please come in. I’m afraid you missed Doug again. He and Kayla—that’s his daughter—he and Kayla have gone out. But they’ll be back soon. Would you like to wait?” She hoped that he wouldn’t and that he hadn’t heard it in her tone. Put on your perfect hostess smile, Beth. What a contrast he was to Cyrus. What had the Elders been thinking of? He was just a kid, not more than twenty-five surely. Well, he’d have to be older than that, to have gotten through college and seminary. He must be at least thirty. Don’t ask the pastor how old he is. “Or, if you’re busy,” she continued, “you can just leave a message with me and he can call you.”

   “That might be a better idea,” he agreed, strolling on through the hall into the large living room. “I’ve met your daughter, Kate. Lovely woman. Very generous with her time. And I’ve met Doug, of course. This is certainly a beautiful old house,” he added, looking around appreciatively.

   “Thank you. It’s a bed-and-breakfast now. I started a small business after my first husband passed away. Won’t you sit down?” No, don’t sit down. Just go away. How in the world can you hope to take Cyrus’s place?

   “No, thanks. I know you’re busy. I won’t stay. Just tell Doug to give me a call. I’ll be at the church—I guess you know the number.” Suddenly he smiled and there was laughter in his eyes.

   Beth felt herself flushing, wondering if he sensed her disapproval. If he had, he didn’t seem to care much whether she approved of him or not. It made her feel defensive. He really shouldn’t run around looking like a grubby teenager.

   “I stopped at the hospital and saw Cyrus this afternoon,” he said. “He’s been with this congregation so long, I’m sure he’s very important to you all.”

   Beth felt her flush deepen. It was as if he had been reading her mind. “Yes, he is,” she said. “How was he today?”

   He paused a moment before answering, “I’m sorry. I can’t con you by telling you he’s fine when he isn’t. Cyrus is a very sick man. His son and daughter are coming in today. I sent for them at his doctor’s request.”

   Beth said down suddenly and looked up at him. He seemed so tall. “Yes, my daughter told me that,” she said faintly.

   “I’m more sorry than I can say. Can I…get you something?”

   “No, I’m okay. It’s just that— Cyrus has always been here.” How stupid she must sound, she thought.

   “I’m not going to say he won’t recover—somewhat. But I think we must face the fact that he won’t be coming back as your pastor.” There was an odd gentleness in his tone now.

   Maybe he wasn’t so young, after all.

   “It’s going to take some getting used to by all of you,” he added.

   “I know,” Beth said bleakly. Please go away now. You can’t help me. You weren’t there when I was afraid I would die before Jill was born. Cyrus was there. He made me not afraid to die. And Cyrus was there when Ralph died. And it wasn’t you but Cyrus who helped Kate through the difficult early part of her marriage to Ian. And it was Cyrus who guided us all when we worked together to create the church school.

   Beth stood up, embarrassed by the long pause. What must he be thinking of her? He was looking confused and uneasy. She was rescued by the sound of the front door opening. Doug was back. Thank you, God.

   “That must be Doug now.”

   “Oh, good.” There was pure relief in his tone, and he grinned. “As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m better at coaching the kids’ basketball game than some other of my pastoral work. I’ll need to bone up. But take hope. I’m working on it— Hi, Doug,” he said, as Doug and Kayla came into the room.

   Kayla had been crying. She made an effort when Doug made the introductions, but it was an uncomfortable moment.

   “Doug, can I tear you away from your family for a couple of minutes to talk new science books for the ninth graders?” Pastor Cooper asked, his gaze lingering on Kayla.

   How odd. Kayla didn’t look that bad.

   “Sure,” Doug answered. “Come on into the study.” And he led Pastor Cooper out of the room.

   As soon as he had gone, Beth went to Kayla. “What is it? What’s the matter?” she asked. Had something gone wrong?

   “Oh, it’s just me, Beth. I did okay at rehab.” She sat down on the couch, all hunched over, putting her face in her hands. “I’m so embarrassed. Poor Dad. After we made all the arrangements and we were back in the car I…I kind of fell apart. I was so stupid. I know I’ve got to go through with it. I’ve got Adam to take care of. I don’t have a choice, but I’m so…so scared to go in again.” She raised her face and her vivid blue eyes were full of tears. “I’m such a…loser.”

   “No. You’re not a loser,” Beth said firmly, and sat down beside her. “You are doing a sensible thing. And you can do it. When you’ve got this far you know you’ve turned the corner. It’s going to be fine.” This was Doug’s daughter and, somehow, she had to be helped.

   “I know,” Kayla said wearily, her voice low and defeated. “But, Beth, you don’t know how many times I’ve screwed up. Other people don’t seem to—”

   “But think ahead, Kayla. Think of three months from now. All this will be over. It will be behind you. You will have done it. Think about that.” Kayla mustn’t become discouraged. She mustn’t give up.

   Kayla straightened tiredly, as if she were an old, old woman. “Beth, you know, you’re a sweetheart. I’m glad Dad found you. He deserves some happiness. Where did you stash my dumb little kid?”

   “Adam isn’t dumb,” Beth said quickly, surprising herself because she sounded so defensive. “He’s taking a nap. He’s in the bed-sitter.”

   “The bed-sitter sounds pretty good to me, too,” Kayla said. “I think I’ll sack out awhile. Unless you need me to do something,” she added.

   “Not a thing. You just take it easy. You’ve had a rough afternoon. We’ve got guests coming, but not until later.”

   She watched Kayla leave. Kayla was young. She shouldn’t walk like that, as if she was too tired to put one foot in front of the other. A phrase came to her that Doug sometimes used when he was tired from heavy work, like chopping the firewood: Tired to the center of my bones. Kayla shouldn’t look that tired.

   She heard the approaching murmur of men’s voices and knew that Flip Cooper and Doug had finished.

   After Flip left, Doug sat down beside her, reaching for her hand. How good it felt to be here alone with Doug, feeling the strength of his big hand. They didn’t speak for a moment, savoring the privacy and peaceful silence.

   “How did it go at the rehab place?” Beth finally asked.

   Doug sighed. “Good, I think. It’s a nice place. The staff—we met some of them—are competent, well qualified. Kind. Patient.” He sighed again. “But it’s a…facility. It’s a rehab center, just short of a hospital, never mind the decor, the fact that the staff don’t wear uniforms. It’s a rehab. People go there who need help. I can’t imagine being in such a place myself, of being so…controlled. So…confined. Being told what to do, hour by hour. Kayla…” His voice dwindled away.

   “But Kayla needs that kind of help,” Beth said. “She knows that, probably better than we do. It won’t be easy for her. Nothing like that is. But people who need that kind of help are broken people, Doug. Somebody has to…put them back together again.” Doug mustn’t become discouraged about this.

   “I know,” he said sadly.

   “Kayla told me she broke down in the car after the interview.”

   “Yes. She did. I pulled the car over to the side street. I never know what to do in a situation like that. It worried me. There was such a hopelessness about it. It was as if once she started crying she couldn’t stop. And there was nothing I could do. I felt so desperate. Finally, she managed to get control. Or maybe she had just worn herself out. I kept thinking I should be able to…I don’t know. As a father I’m just not…” There was such regret in his voice, it tore Beth’s heart.

   “You were probably better than you thought as a father,” she said. “Raising children is a never-ending challenge. And we all think we should have done better.”

   “Well, I certainly could have done better. Kayla isn’t the only one paying the price. Much as I hate to admit it, she’s way out of her depth in parenting, too. Poor little Adam. He’s being cheated, big time. I guess that’s what it means when it says in the Bible about the sins of the fathers being visited on the second and third generations. On the rare occasions when I was home, I couldn’t wait to get back on the road again. And leaving always meant I was leaving Kayla when she might have needed me. And now, after all this time, I can see the result of my running away. It has become the burden of a little three-year-old kid named Adam—one of the most insecure kids I’ve ever seen, who can’t even begin to understand—”

   “Doug. Don’t do this to yourself. You couldn’t have been that bad a father. Kayla must take some of the responsibility. She’s an adult. Did you mention any of this to Pastor Cooper?”

   “No. It simply didn’t occur to me. He’s a nice enough guy, but, really, I don’t think it would ever dawn on me to take him any personal problems—not the way I would with Cyrus.”

   “Yes,” Beth said, suddenly distracted. “He said he doesn’t think Cyrus can come back as pastor.”

   “I’d heard that from some other people. I guess we’re stuck with Pastor Cooper. Actually, he’s okay, really. You just have to get used to him. And there was another thing,” he added, looking at her keenly. “I got the distinct impression that he could become interested in Kayla. He’s a single guy, isn’t he?”

   “Yes, he’s single.” Beth started to laugh. “And you think he might be looking for a wife? That’s usually a woman’s reaction when she sees a single man.”

   Doug grinned sheepishly. “Well, he’s single. And Kayla is a lovely young woman. He did ask me about her. Rather persistently, I would say. I think he noticed she’d been crying but was too tactful to mention that.”

   “What did you say?”

   “I told him she was a widow. I guess I just let him assume she had reason to cry now and then. I didn’t go into any detail.”

   “That was probably best,” Beth agreed. “At least until we know him better. Kayla is entitled to some privacy,” she added.

   They fell silent as they heard the front door open. It was the Driscolls, coming back from wherever they had been. They could hear Mrs. Driscoll’s plaintive voice and the deep murmur of Mr. Driscoll reassuring her about something.

   Doug raised his eyebrows. “When are they leaving?”

   “Tomorrow,” Beth whispered, as they heard the Driscolls going upstairs. When the sound faded, they settled into silence again.

   Beth finally asked, “When will Kayla go into rehab?”

   “Tomorrow. I take her over tomorrow morning. That was her decision. She was fine during the interview. She said the sooner she got started, the better.”

   “That was sensible. I think—” She paused as someone was coming down the stairs with a heavy tread, loud and purposeful. Both Beth and Doug turned to the hall door as Mrs. Driscoll came majestically in, very obviously upset. Doug stood up as she entered, and after a moment, Beth did, too. What now?

   “Ah, I was hoping to find you both. I don’t understand this!” She gingerly held out a limp, half-eaten piece of old toast. “You said you had a good cleaning service. If so, why in the world would I find this in our room? Really!”

   Beth reached out, and Mrs. Driscoll placed the piece of toast on her palm. “I…I don’t understand it either,” Beth said uncertainly. “Where did you find this?”

   “In our dresser drawer. The bottom one. Bert and I always use the bottom drawer because most people use the top one. I believe that the bottom one is cleaner. This piece of toast was in our bottom drawer.”

   “I don’t…understand,” Beth repeated helplessly.

   “Well, I think I do,” Mrs. Driscoll said portentously. “I think it was that little boy. I saw him in the hall this morning. He had a piece of toast in his hand. I do not approve of children leaving the table carrying food. I’m sure he’s running about in the guest rooms, leaving bits of food here and there.”

   “I’m sorry,” Beth said. “I’m really sorry. I’ll see that it doesn’t happen again.”

   “I should hope not!” Mrs. Driscoll turned and angrily left the room.

   As she left, Beth and Doug turned to each other in confusion. Then, they both saw it at the same time. On a lower shelf of a bookcase in a back corner. Half hidden behind the bookend—unmistakably—was a small cookie.

   “Adam?” Beth said faintly. So that was why Adam wandered away from the table during meals. “Can Adam be hiding bits of food? Why would Adam hide bits of food?” But even as she asked it she knew the answer, and felt a little sick.

   It took an effort but Doug replied. “Because he expects to be hungry, Beth.” His voice was oddly grim, not sounding like Doug at all. He turned away and she couldn’t see his face. “It would seem that my grandson—in his three-year-old wisdom—is trying to provide for his very uncertain future in the only way he knows how. He’s learned a tough lesson. If you have a piece of food today, hang on to it. Because tomorrow you’re going to need it.

   “I did this to him, Beth.”

Chapter Four

   Morning was hectic. Neither one had gotten much sleep the night before. Doug had been miserable about Kayla and Adam, and Beth was miserable because he was miserable. They had talked until very late. Then Seattle’s frequent night rains had found another hole in the roof over the Driscolls’ bedroom, in, of course, the area over the bed canopy. Someday they might recall and laugh about Mrs. Driscoll’s outrage, but not today. Then Doug had had to get Kayla to the rehab center before nine-thirty because she was to begin with a complete physical exam and the rehab doctor was only going to be there until eleven. Kayla and Doug had left before anyone had finished breakfast.

   Kayla’s leaving had resulted in Adam’s near hysterical crying just as the Driscolls wanted to check out. The other guest, Justin Bryant, stepped in and showed remarkable child-consoling ability in calming Adam down while Beth dealt with the Driscolls.

   “They’ll probably never come back,” Beth said resignedly to Justin when she returned to the dining room.

   He glanced up from Adam and grinned. “And that would devastate you, of course?”

   And she had had to laugh.

   “No, I suppose not,” she said, sitting down at the now disordered table. “Are you off antiquing today?”

   “Yeah, as soon as I can leave my little friend, here.”

   Adam seemed content enough now. He sat at his place with his half-eaten breakfast before him. His small face was still flushed and tear-smudged, but he was methodically eating. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, so little, so confused.

   She thought, Where else has he hidden food? Should she find all his carefully saved little scraps and throw them all away? What if more guests find half-eaten fragments in their rooms? What if Adam feels hungry in midafternoon and discovers one of his cherished fragments gone? How is it possible to explain to a three-year-old child that he will not be hungry in this house? Should she gather up all his tidbits and put them in one place for him? Maybe she could secretly throw away any that got too stale. Maybe that would make him feel secure until he had learned he would not be hungry here. She was startled by Justin’s voice.

   “Earth to Beth. Are you out there somewhere?”

   “Oh, Justin. I’m sorry. I was a thousand miles away.”

   “I know.” He was laughing. “I’ve got to go now. We have big business afoot in the world of old stuff, and I’ve only got two more days. Can you take care of my little buddy now?”

   “Yes, I’ll take over.” She got up to see him to the door. “Thanks more than I can say for stepping in. I’m sorry this morning was such a hassle.”

   “Glad to help, Beth. Hassles make life interesting. See you later.”

   She shut the front door behind him. There was one great thing about running a bed-and-breakfast. Wonderful people occasionally came and went in her life—many more than were not so wonderful.

   Then her mind flew to Kayla. What were Kayla and Doug doing now? They would have reached the rehab center half an hour ago. Had Kayla made it through without breaking down again? She wished she had had more time with Kayla this morning. Perhaps she should have encouraged her more. But Kayla had seemed distracted, with a kind of vacancy that had puzzled Beth. She turned and went back into the dining room. The silence of the big, empty house pressed upon her. Adam was still at the table, observing his empty plate. He looked up anxiously, his blue eyes wide with worry. A three-year-old child should not have to worry.

   “Mommy come back?” He had heard the door shut.

   Beth forced herself to speak brightly when all she wanted to do was cry. “Not yet, Adam. It’s too soon. Mommy’s coming back but later. Not today.” She mustn’t get too attached to Adam, she warned herself.

   He gave a small sigh and started to climb down from his booster seat. She hurried forward and caught him before he fell. He never waited to be helped. He wasn’t expecting to be helped. But he should. Little children should expect help. And get it.

   “Toy box,” he said firmly, and Beth felt a surge of relief. He wanted to go to the toy box and perform his version of playing. This meant he would sit there soberly for a while, taking out the toys and looking at them, then putting them back. Now and then he would piece together some of the small yellow plastic pieces to make some oddly shaped creation. He played so differently, not like Jill’s little boy, Ben. Ben was often lost in his own imaginary world, but it was a secure world. He emerged from it now and then to play with other children, and Ben’s laugh was a delight to hear. Would they ever hear Adam laugh? Had Adam ever laughed? What had he to laugh about?

   

   She cleared the table, tidied up the kitchen, and was making beds when Doug came back. She heard him go into the bed-sitter. Could Adam stay in the bed-sitter alone at night? One more question. One more thing to worry about. When would this end? Leaving a half-made bed, she hurried downstairs to talk to Doug.

   “Did everything go all right?” she asked him after she had kissed him.

   “I guess so. She’s in there, anyhow.” He sounded tired. He was watching the little boy intently.

   “I wanted to talk with her this morning,” Beth said. “But there was so much else to do, I couldn’t.”

   “I know, love. I don’t think it would have mattered. I think you’ll probably find an empty vodka bottle in here when you clean up. She’d had a few for courage before we left. Didn’t you notice?”

   “No. Not really. You mean you think she’d been drinking? In the morning?”

   “Beth,” he said gently, “it’s clear you’ve never lived with an alcoholic. Yes, she’d been drinking. One of the first things to learn when dealing with an alcoholic is that the alcoholic will have a stash of booze somewhere. Food? Only a maybe. But booze? Yes. Always. I suspect that ugly big gray tote bag she hangs on to as if it were full of gold bullion is the receptical of choice for our Kayla.”

   “I’m sorry,” Beth said weakly. “Should I have done something?”

   “What? She had already decided on rehab, on giving it another try, but until she actually went into rehab it would have been Kayla just doing her thing. God help her. Let’s just pray that it works this time. That this time she makes it. She was serious about it, I’ll give her that. It takes some guts to admit you’ve screwed up and even more guts to admit you can’t handle it and need help. She’s really trying and…it kind of breaks my heart because…”

   “Because why?” Beth asked softly.

   “Because I’m scared that she’ll fail, I guess.”

   “Oh, Doug, she will succeed this time. I just know it. She’s got to.” She couldn’t stand Doug feeling so defeated, and so guilty.

   He spoke quickly, turning his gaze to the sober little boy. “And if she doesn’t?” he asked.

   “What do you mean?”

   “We’ve got to talk some more about this, consider all the possibilities.” He indicated Adam, without speaking his name. “We must be sure about him. Nothing can change that. If Kayla makes it this time, fine, his place is with his mother. But otherwise…”

   Yes, otherwise. What was Doug thinking? Beth made herself think about the possibilities. She suddenly knew to the bottom of her soul that they couldn’t stand by, if Kayla failed, and watch her leave with Adam. She couldn’t do that to Doug or Adam. She could not stand at the door and watch his little legs trying to keep up with the billowing green skirt going rapidly to—where? To somewhere that didn’t have enough for him to eat? Never again did she want to think of his digging dirty fingers into a limp bag for leftover french fries— But what about the rights of grandparents? What right did Doug have to dictate to Kayla how Adam should be cared for?

   No, they couldn’t forget about otherwise. She had loved being a grandparent. There was so much joy in it. All the fun of welcoming her daughters’ children trooping up the front steps for a visit. None of the commitments of keeping lists of booster shots, of dental appointments, of the sudden edge-of-death illnesses of small children that went away the next day after a sleepless night for the parents. Oh, that otherwise. If worse came to worse and Kayla didn’t make it this time, could she really handle the otherwise again? For this little boy? All the unending problems of parenting?

   Doug was looking at her with a question in his eyes. “That little bundle to take care of now, at this time in our lives, could be a real handful. Or, as they say today, a ‘challenge.”’ He was speaking tentatively, with uncertainty in his voice. She felt an inner chill. He went on. “Our life is good, Beth. You and me. Here. Now. Together. If anything should put it at risk, I don’t think I’m above falling on my knees and howling like a banshee. That’s what I mean when I say we should talk about this more, consider all the possibilities. Even the possibility—make that probability—that Kayla could blow it again.”

   And Adam was already a psychologically abused child, a child with many problems.

   “I agree,” Beth said. “We need to get serious, think about solutions, all the what-ifs, of raising a child.” What am I saying? No way could we take on a child to raise at this wonderful time in our lives.

   “Whatever way it goes with Kayla,” she said carefully, “I think we should try to persuade her to stay in Seattle. So we can be aware of how he’s doing. So we can at least have a, er, monitoring position. For whatever reasons, Kayla has shown herself to be…vulnerable. She’s not as…strong as most people. Even if she recovers completely but some sort of pressure mounts, she might need help again. So I think she should be here. I mean in Seattle. Don’t you think so?” Even as she spoke her reassuring words her mind was silently screaming, I can’t do this!

   “Besides the fact that I would probably agree with anything you say, yes, I think we should try to keep Kayla in Seattle. I’m going to stay vigilant about Adam.”

   Beth felt a little sick. Nothing must ever separate her from Doug. He had sounded uncertain, uneasy. There was one absolute in this wonderful part of her life, this marvelous second chance at love: she must never—for any reason—lose this closeness with Doug. Together, with the operative word being together, they would have to handle this. Somehow.

   “When will we know how Kayla is doing?”

   Doug sighed. “Not for six weeks. At first the patients aren’t allowed to call out or receive incoming calls or visits. It’s a period of orientation, sort of. Training, I guess. Redirecting the person’s mind-set. Broadening the focus off getting that next drink to some sort of realization that there is more to life than getting that next drink. And that life entails responsibility, that other people are out there who need thinking about. They seem to know what they’re doing. Their success rate is quite good, keeping in mind that once a person is an addict—to whatever—that person will always be more vulnerable than someone who has never had a dependency on something. The fact that a person becomes addicted in the first place indicates a cry for help, that the person has—needs help in some way.” He paused. “And isn’t getting it.”

   Beth went into his arms and he held her tightly for a long moment. Oh, Doug, I love you so much. They were both looking somberly at Adam by the toy box. Adam put two pieces of yellow plastic together, struggled with them before they clicked into place together. Then he paused and stared off into the distance.

   “Mommy, come back,” he muttered softly to himself.

   “Yes,” Beth said. “Not right away, Adam. Not today. But she will come back.” And Adam nodded, turning his attention back to the bits of plastic in his small hands, as the phone ringing broke into the pensive mood.

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