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Matthew 17:20, my favorite verse. "... If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you."



Cherished Stranger ch. 1-3


Chapter One

 

 

Lucy Durham gripped the steering wheel and stomped the brake to the floor. St. Louis traffic had come to a dead halt. "Oh, just what I don't need."

Her dry, overworked hand flipped the radio on as she tuned it to the local news channel. "East bound on I-44, a tractor trailer has jack-knifed causing a five-car pile-up . . ." Anxiety mixed with guilt churned her insides. Her guests had never before set foot on American soil, and now she'd be late.

She groaned out loud and slapped the steering wheel. If only one of her cows hadn't caught her hoof in the fence. The barbed wire left a nasty cut requiring stitches, which meant waiting for the vet to arrive. Lucy sighed. If she'd left earlier she wouldn't be stuck in dead traffic.

With her head out the window, she strained to see ahead. No body moved. Another driver, frustrated at their predicament, pressed on his horn. Perhaps he didn't realize what had happened. Rather than give into similar aggravation, she accepted they were better off than those in the pile up. Bowing her head, she prayed for their souls and health, then for the wisdom of the emergency workers.

Two hours later Lucy hurried through the airport. She hoped Dorin and Anika's plane had been delayed. If not, maybe they'd waited for her at the baggage claim, otherwise she had no idea how they'd find each other.

The clopping sound of her boots against tile echoed in the nearly empty corridor. Though usually a busy terminal, the lack of people only emphasized the late hour.

Ripples of excitement coursed through her the closer she drew. Life was about to take a drastic turn, one she couldn't wait to embrace. She rounded the corner and her heart swelled to fill her chest. The only occupants at the baggage claim, a man and a young woman, sat side by side. It had to be them.

"Anika?"

The girl jumped to her feet with a jubilant smile and raced into Lucy's arms. At fifteen, she was as tall as Lucy. Anika pulled back enough to exclaim, "I knew you would come, even though Tata voiced his doubts." Her clear speech made it almost impossible to discern an accent.

Lucy looked at the man Anika called Tata, Romanian for father, and didn't miss the tightening of his jaw. He stood at least a foot taller than her. Sandy blonde curls framed stormy gray eyes that did nothing to hide his discontent. When he spoke, his voice was soft but stern. "I was told you would be here two hours ago."

No smile. No hello.

To say he was intimidating would be an understatement. Her nerves had her tumbling out excuses. "A tractor-trailer jack-knifed on the freeway. It caused a five-car pile-up and all we could do was wait."

"Who is we?" Anika's father looked past Lucy as if expecting someone else.

"We means me and all the other drivers. We all had to wait for . . ." the weary lines around his eyes drew her explanation to a halt. "Never mind. Let's get your bags and go. It's another two hours to home."

Home. The word came easily for her. But for two people who'd just left their native country and all they knew, it probably held little meaning. Still, he had to think it was better than being stuck in the airport.

They both reached for the small bags holding his and Anika's meager possessions. Dorin grabbed them before she could help. "It is a man's job to carry luggage. No?"

His light reprimand made her feel like a child. She fought the urge to roll her eyes and instead turned her attention to Anika.

Although Anika's eyes showed the effects of jet-lag, her weariness didn't slow her conversation as they made their way to the parking garage. In fluid English, taught through three generations of the Comaneci family, she told all about their trip and what it was like to fly. But once seated in the backseat next to her father, she quickly succumbed to sleep.

Lucy accepted their silence. She remembered feeling much the same way when she'd flown to Romania. After four years of saving, she'd signed on with a short-term mission trip to meet her sponsor child. She'd only been eighteen at the time while Anika had been eight. The meeting was everything she'd expected only Anika's father had been absent. His wife's frail health kept her from earning an income. Thus Dorin spent more time away trying to earn a living for his family.

Lucy had often imagined what he would look like. With him being almost twelve years her senior, she'd expected him to look old. Of course, her eldest brother, Ethan, had ten years over her and he didn't look old. She'd stolen glances in his direction while in the airport, knowing it would be too dark to see once they were in the car. Though he was thin, she could tell from their initial meeting he possessed a rugged quality that piqued her interest.

Traffic thickened and provided the light she desired. One look in the rearview mirror reaffirmed her first assessment. He was attractive, and his eyes were definitely his best feature.

He turned his head and their gazes locked. Lucy froze from his intense stare. It seemed in that one small moment he was able to turn the pages of her past, seeing and knowing everything about her. She averted her gaze to break the connection.

Left unnerved by his penetrating stare she returned her attention to the road. What thoughts would cause him to look so intense?

It was probably resentment for being late. Or worse, her sister's prediction about Romanian pride might be true. Maybe his was already bruised.

If so, she was in for a long summer.

She pressed the brake pedal again. "Why is traffic so slow?" Her mumbled concern was answered by a flashing sign. "Road closed. Oh no, this can't be good."

"What do we do?" Dorin's alertness, after such a lengthy flight, surprised her.

"We follow the detour signs." Lucy tried to keep the worry from sounding in her voice, but St. Louis wasn't a place where she wanted to get lost. Following the cars ahead, she veered off the main highway and looped through side streets, trying to keep up with the large orange detour signs and the other vehicles from the highway.

A couple miles later, she hoped the drivers ahead of her knew where they were going, as the street lighting became less and the signs all but disappeared. She chewed a nail until it bled. A nasty habit, but one she wouldn't be quitting under this amount of stress. The car she'd been following turned into a residence and she no longer knew which direction was home.

The streets became less and less maintained until Lucy knew they were nowhere near the highway. Dorin sighed with irritation from the back seat. Anika slept slumped against the door. He leaned forward. "Do you have a map?"

Lucy stopped chewing her nails long enough to answer. "Yes." She pulled into a semi-lit parking lot and fished through her glove box. All the while, she kept a nervous eye on their surroundings. "Here it is. Give me a minute to find where I am."

Dorin leaned over to look and muttered something unintelligible. He opened the door on his side and before Lucy could panic over his actions he was beside her in the front seat. "Give me the map." He tore it from her hands and turned it upside down.

"You have it wrong–"

His look of disgust told her she was the one who'd held the map in error.

She bristled in defense. Who was he to judge her? "I get nervous driving in the city, especially at night."

His voice calm, Dorin replied, "I will direct you. Just drive."

Fine, I'll drive. Isn't that what I was already doing? Lucy chewed another nail and pulled back on the road. The interior light remained on as Dorin studied the map. "Take a left at the next light."

Lucy obediently turned and half hoped he got them lost, too. Then at least they could share the blame. She slowed at the following stop light and held her breath. They were definitely on the wrong side of town. Voices caught her attention from the building beside her. Two people were in a heated argument. Ahead, a man crossed the street and stopped by the open convertible in front of her. Right before their eyes, a packet of white was exchanged for a fold of money.

Lucy's mouth dropped open. Her hand reached for the phone in her cup holder. They were dealing drugs. The police needed to be informed. Suddenly Dorin's hand covered hers. "Do not put the phone to your ear. They will know what you are doing. Keep driving."

She tried to pull away but he tightened his grip. "Please do as I say. My daughter is in this car. Think of her safety."

He was right. She couldn't risk endangering them any further than she already had by getting lost. Dorin's hand relaxed over hers but still he didn't remove it until the convertible turned a different direction. His touch had stirred something inside. Instinctively, she stuck another nail between her teeth to ward off her unsettled feelings.

Dorin reached for her hand again and moved it away from her mouth. "We have much farther to go, no? Stop or you'll eat your finger."

Lucy gave him a sharp look and turned back to the road. He'd been in her presence for less than an hour and he'd already started doling out commands. Men!

"Turn here."

Lucy slowed at another stop, hopeful to find their way to the highway and soon. Rundown housing units closed in on either side. A door banged beside her. She glanced out her window and saw a gang of unruly men toss another man down the steps followed by shouts of obscenities. The man in the lead pulled a gun from under his shirt.

Lucy whispered, "They're going to shoot him." Instinctively, she laid her hand against the horn. The men turned her direction as the victim scrambled to his feet and took off.

Beady eyes peered at her from the man in charge. The aim of his gun followed. Something familiar pricked her memory before Dorin's foot crashed down on hers. The car's tires squealed as they shot through the intersection. Lucy screamed as she tried to pull her foot out from under his.

Dorin released the gas pedal. "Turn. Turn here and do not stop."

Lucy did as told, too shaken to object. Within a couple blocks, the highway came into view. She didn't speak until they were safely on the way home. Then she turned her full attention on him. "Why did you do that? We could've wrecked!"

He turned toward her. A silent anger emanated from his face.


 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

After one stony glance at Lucy, Dorin set his jaw and stared straight ahead. They had traveled all the way from his homeland for this? At least the little woman beside him had quieted. Between her nervous chatter and her constant need to have a finger in her mouth he was ready to take over the driving, license or not. But if what they saw affected her this deeply, perhaps the place she was taking them would be different. For Anika's sake, he hoped so.

"Thank you, God."

He turned at the sound of Lucy's voice and saw her signal. She had done better than him. While he stewed over her obvious inadequacies she had prayed for help. "Do you know your way from here?"

She set her mouth in a tight line. "Yes. Don't worry, we won't get lost again."

It would seem she was upset with him. So be it. He wasn't sorry for stomping her foot. If he hadn't taken action, they would have been shot.

He sighed audibly. The decision to leave Romania had been made in haste. The organization that helped provide for his family encouraged him by saying it was a rare opportunity that wouldn't come again. He knew he needed help. He glanced at his driver. But having help come from this particular individual didn't make it easy to accept.

He turned to the window and relaxed against the headrest. Their journey had tired him more than he'd like to admit. Perhaps rest would ease his building resentments.

***

Lucy woke with a start. The sun barely peaked over the horizon. Who would be banging on her door at this hour? Still foggy headed with sleep she stumbled toward the front door. Already unlocked as usual, she pulled it open and stood, blinking from the daylight, right into a man's chest.

"What work do you have for me?"

Lucy rubbed her eyes and covered a yawn. "Dorin Comaneci?"

"Unless you were expecting someone else, yes."

"Go back to bed. We don't work until after breakfast." Did she actually just say that to a man whose very presence intimidated her to the ninth degree?

"I am here to work." He bent his face toward hers. "Tell me what needs done."

Lucy took a step back. "Fine. Unload the rocks from my truck over by the herb garden." She pointed between the trailer where he and Anika were staying and the barn. "But don't bother me for more work until after breakfast."

She closed the door before he could object. "And coffee," she mumbled.

After last night's events, her body begged to spend the day in bed. Something she could have done before. But that was because life had been lonely, with only herself to care for.

She cast a glance toward a picture that hung over her living room chair. From here she couldn't make out her late husband's expression but she needn't bother. It was etched in her mind. His mouth was usually drawn in a tight line, reflecting his lack of humor.

There had been some good times. He enjoyed fishing and rarely refused her to come along. And they'd worked well together when building the house. Of course, it had been done to suit his style because it was later planned to become his garage, but she'd assured herself he'd have given her lead when the time came to build their home. Though none of it mattered now.

The coolness of the polished concrete flooring tickled her feet, urging her to skate. Sliding along in her socks, she passed the open living room to the kitchen-island separating the two rooms. She grasped the edge of the countertop and swung to a halt.

The coffee pot drew her like a magnet. "Hello, old friend. How can you stimulate me today?"

The different flavors of coffee were kept in the cabinet above the sink. After rummaging through the mess, she chose to stick with a simple Colombian blend. Once she heard the joyful sound of the percolator, she left the kitchen to get dressed.

Lucy stopped at the foot of her bed and stretched. Right in the middle of a huge satisfying yawn, she gasped and drew her arms back to her sides, staring at her reflection. The mirror proved her ignorance. Last night, in a state of exhaustion, she'd peeled off her jeans and climbed into bed. Which meant she'd answered the door in her t-shirt and undies.

Her mind rewound to the scene at the front door. Dorin had seemed agitated, but that could be for several reasons. But he hadn't gawked and he'd kept his attention on her face, or at least he had after she'd cleared the sleep from her eyes.

Oh boy, their first introductions weren't off to a good start.

After a long hot shower, Lucy prepared batter for pancakes. Mixing with unneeded haste, she slopped it onto the counter. What was wrong with her? The shower was supposed to drive her embarrassment away. Evidently it hadn't, because she was certain there was no other reason for the disturbed feelings rattling her senses. In between flipping the cakes in an iron skillet, she set the table for three.

She had just finished arranging the juice carafe and glasses when her senses were offended by the familiar smell of something burning. "Oh no!" Lucy hurried to the skillet, too late to save the few silver dollar cakes she'd made with what remained in the bowl. "Hmm, at least this time I didn't burn the whole batch."

Successful cooking required a longer attention span than she possessed. Though the taste and smell of over-cooked food no longer bothered her, it might her guests. She sprayed air freshener and set the skillet outside to cool, then bounded over to the trailer to see if Anika was awake. She paused mid-way and stared at her herb garden, now bathed in the golden dawn. Changing directions, she strode over to where the rocks had not only been unloaded from her truck but stacked on top of the wall she'd started.



"Are you pleased?" Dorin's voice startled her.

She spun around and met his chest again. He stood too close. She stepped backward and tripped over the wall, throwing herself off-balance and landing on her bottom. "Oof."

She looked up and blew a lock of hair away from her face. He stood proud and unbending, looking down his well-shaped nose. His piercing eyes seemed to assess her too quickly and judging from the way they darkened, she didn't pass with flying colors. Then to her surprise, he held out his hand. No way would she take it. The negative opinion she was sure he'd already formed of her wasn't going to include her pride. She could get up on her own.

With an air of disinterest, he turned toward the corner of the stone wall and straightened the rocks. So much for Romanian chivalry. He could've at least insisted. Lucy pulled herself up and dusted off her backside.

Dorin's quick turn of his head made her wonder if he'd watched or if he was hiding a smug grin. Either way, she could slap him with a pancake. "If Anika's awake, breakfast is ready."

She stomped off toward the house, uncaring whether she'd answered his question or not. Was she pleased? She doubted he'd want her answer now.

The day had just begun and already her disposition had changed three times. Whatever she'd been expecting from Dorin, he wasn't it. Perhaps his daughter would be the stabilizer her personality needed.

Moments later, Anika's sleepy-eyed look made Lucy want to pull her into a big hug. But she needed to move slowly with her affections. Two countries made a world of difference.

"Do you like pancakes?" Lucy held her breath, hoping she'd done something right.

Anika smiled around the forkful she'd just popped in her mouth. Dorin spoke for her. "She likes anything sweet." His eyes held a soft expression toward his daughter.

Lucy noted he only added a small amount of syrup to his. But she'd been warned not to rush their systems as they'd been without proper nutrition for some time. She drained her juice glass and cleared her throat. "I thought we could go to the store today and pick out food you're more used to."

"Oh, fun!" Anika's eyes sparkled with adventure. "I want to do everything. I want to see where you used to work. I want to see the creek, your parents . . ."

Anika listed the various things Lucy had written about. Her memory was faultless.

"Slow down, Anika. We have much time to learn about Lucy and her America."

Lucy cocked her head and peered at Dorin. This was the first time he'd mentioned her by name. He turned his cup in semi-circles, seeming to take an extra interest in her table. He was avoiding her gaze, that much was clear.

Anika broke the building awkwardness. "Lucy, I can't believe we're here with you. I often dreamed of this."

"Really?" Her heart swelled.

"Ever since my mamei joined Jesus." Anika referred to her mother, who had died a year after Lucy's visit.

Dorin rose and stepped toward the door. "I saw your fields are already turned over. What will you plant?"

Lucy took the hint and followed with his daughter. "Soybeans and corn. It's enough to keep us busy. Come on, I'll show you around."

Anika squealed at the sight of goats near the fence. Rising as their protector, Lucy's Great Pyrenees, Goliath, lumbered over to the gate. "Look, Tata. He is like a white bear."

"Goliath is a big baby. If given the chance, I think he'd rather be a lap dog than a goat herder." Lucy shielded her eyes to the eastern sun and pointed to the field it rose over. "I'll plant the soybeans in that field this year, and corn in the other. I rotate each year for better soil."

Dorin nodded but she could tell he was still in want of a list of chores. Her sister Emily had been around the world as a missionary. Her warning seemed to be true. His pride was bruised in coming here. He didn't want to be supported by someone else––especially a woman––and needed to feel he was earning his keep.

He was in the right place. She had plenty of work to share.

She directed them to the barn. "I'll put you in charge of planting, Dorin. I'm trying a new seed this year that's supposed to double the amount of bushels per acre. I'll lend you some material to read so you're as familiar with it as I am."

A couple frisky calves kicked up their heels to meet them at the barn, always anxious for a hand-out of grain. "I still maintain a small herd of cattle. The hay and extra tools are in here."

They followed her into the dilapidated building. She hoped to one day replace it, but until then, pieces of tin nailed over missing boards kept the barn in one piece. They passed what used to be a room set aside for tack. Anika grabbed the handle to look inside.

"No!"

The look of shock on her guests' faces berated Lucy for her raised voice. She softened her tone. "I'm sorry, Anika. I no longer use that room. I haven't opened it since . . ."

An awkward silence settled over them as Dorin and his daughter waited for her to finish what she couldn't.

Dorin deftly directed Anika's attention to a litter of mewing kittens. Lucy stood glued to the same spot. Her eyes stared at the door but only saw the past. Had it really been over two years since she'd found him collapsed on the floor? Her late husband Eddy had been doing chores, something he detested and usually left for her.

"Lucy?" Dorin's soft mention of her name drew her like a sweet breeze. She turned and saw compassion in his gray-blue eyes, softening his face before he broke contact. "Show me what I need to do."

She swallowed an overwhelming sense of loneliness, confused by the sudden onslaught. Her wish had been granted. Anika was here at last, but her father's presence complicated matters. Each time he looked at her with disappointment or indifference, the hole in her heart widened.

She shook off her melancholy mood and forced her mind to cooperate by answering his questions. Too bad she couldn't shake the ache in her chest.

"Can we go to your house now?" Anika looked exhausted. Her excitement over the assortment of animals had spent her energy. Around this time of year, when the animals all multiplied, Lucy's energy sapped quickly as well. Between the goats, cows, chickens, ducks and whatever wild critter's health she might be mending, she often fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Lucy didn't miss Dorin's frown. That was fine with her––he could stay and work. She opened a cabinet along the wall and withdrew a sheet of paper. "This is my morning chore list. I usually tackle them after––"

Dorin grabbed the sheet from her hand and looked it over. "I can handle it."

Lucy bit the inside of her cheek to withhold her retort. Thus far, his Romanian manners weren't impressive.

Together, she and Anika made their way back to the house. Anika reached for her hand and swung it as they walked. Her heart filled with fondness for her new, young friend.

"This is much better than we've had in a long time. Tata tried many things after the flood, but God did not bless his efforts."

"What do you mean?"

"The bees we tried to raise, they all died of a fungus." Anika shook her head at the memory. "Tata was so sad. He had borrowed money to buy them. To pay the man back, he had to work for free, which left us nothing to eat."

Lucy glanced at the young teen. Fatigue and malnutrition stooped her shoulders. "What did you do when he was away?"

"Sometimes I would leave our tent and sneak into the city to look for work and food. Tata didn't like that. He was afraid something bad would happen."

"Where did you get a tent?" Lucy knew the flood had taken their simple wood-slatted home.

Anika lowered her head. "Gypsies."

Gypsies were considered the poorest in Romania. Lucy's heart constricted for them. She had never known such poverty or worries in life. She'd read multiple articles about the struggles their country faced, compelling her to bring them here. She hoped Dorin would see it as a blessing and not an insult to his manhood.

Once inside, Anika ran her fingers over every part of Lucy's home. She especially liked the corrugated tin nailed up as wainscoting. Her fingers made a repetitive thump as she dragged them behind her. Her excitement marveled and humbled Lucy. Eddy had the idea of putting up a shop building and making it livable until the farm sustained itself enough to afford them a home. And though they had made it attractive inside, to Lucy, it was still just a metal building.

Anika paused at a picture on the bookcase. "Was this your husband?"

Lucy peered over her shoulder. "Yes, the man on the left."

"Is the other man his brother?"

"No, just his friend." Lucy took the picture from Anika and studied it before giving it back. She had never paid much attention before, but they could have passed for brothers. An unexpected shiver climbed her spine. Not one to give thought to sudden feelings, she passed it off as odd sentiment.

"Are you still sad?"

"What?" Her change in mood hadn't gone unnoticed. "No. I was just thinking is all."

The phone rang saving her from further questions. Though Anika would never mean to hurt her, too many inquiries about her past always left her feeling drained. She still had her own left unanswered.

"Hi, Mom. Yes, they arrived yesterday . . ." While she spoke, Anika opened the door for her father. Excited to show him everything she had seen, she pulled him along. Seeing his reluctance to cooperate, Lucy motioned it was fine with her.

After hanging up the receiver she glanced through the open room containing the kitchen and living room and caught Dorin's response to a picture of her husband. "He had a weak chin."

Lucy scrunched her brow in thought. Did Eddy have a weak chin? "Let me see the picture."

Dorin turned to face her and crossed his arms over his chest. "I am right."

She raised her brow and took the picture from Anika. What a thing to say about her deceased . . . her hand trembled as she stared again at the photo of Eddy and his best friend. She was suddenly cold. A thought lurked outside her grasp. Something familiar. What was it?

Dorin's hand covered hers briefly as he lifted the picture and replaced it on the shelf. "Where is the reading material you mentioned?"

His eyes held a gentleness she wanted to cling to. The few times he'd looked her direction without resentment was all it took to make her pine for more. She had to get control of her senses. One moment she was feeling unreasonable fear and the next she was building a crush on a stranger.

Dorin put his hand on Anika's arm and guided her to the door. "I think Anika should rest before we go to the store."

Lucy nodded in agreement. "That's fine. I need to put a list together for myself anyway." She collected the magazines containing information about the seeds and handed it to him before they left.

After the door closed, Lucy gathered her pen and paper. As she pulled out her chair, her cell phone beeped that she had a message.

"Nice picture of you this morning!" The text came from her sister.

"What picture?" Lucy mumbled. She clicked onto her Facebook page. At the top, in the ribbon of photos, was a shot of her walking toward her herb garden.

"Who took this?" Fear laced her whispered concern.


 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

The noonday sun spilled over the windshield as Lucy pulled into the parking lot of the local grocery store. Beside her in the front seat Anika beamed with excitement. "I can't wait to see inside."

Lucy glanced in her rearview mirror and shared the amusement in Dorin's eyes before they climbed from the car. Anika clasped both their hands as she walked between them with an obvious bounce to her steps. "Tata, do you think we can once again have tocanita?"

Dorin chuckled. A soft, masculine sound. "I'm sure we can, putin o."

Lucy smiled and wondered if she'd ever understand their Romanian terms. It was fun to hear and important for Anika to use so she'd always remember the native tongue of her home-land.

As they entered through the automatic doors, three boys of driving age, stopped in their tracks to stare at Anika. Whispered comments of wow and babe didn't go unnoticed.

Dorin's expression hardened. He stepped in front of the boys and glared.

Shocked by his boldness, the youths paled in color and stumbled over each other to get outside.

Lucy tugged Dorin's arm. "Come on, Daddy Bear. Anika's getting ahead of us."

"I don't like those boys."

Lucy shook her head as she watched Anika's lithe form flutter from one vegetable stand to another. Her graceful features and coloring made her stand out like a rose in a hay field. "You're going to have to deal with it. Anika's beauty is rare around here."

She felt his gaze on her and looked up as he turned away and muttered, "Not so rare."

"Tata." Anika shouted, "Uite–varza!"

Dorin smiled fully. It was the first time Lucy had seen his lips spread in a wide grin. She stared at his evident happiness, and this time when he looked at her, it didn't fade.

"Varza, in our language, is cabbage."

Lucy stood to the side as they discussed the various choices. For some reason, the Facebook picture came to mind and made her skin crawl. Whoever took it had been on her farm. The hair on her arms stood on end. Her eyes darted from the vegetables to the doughnut case and to the end of the aisle.

"Lucy." Dorin emphasized her name. Had he already called her?

She looked up and gave a faint smile. "I'm sorry, what?"

"Is there sausage here? Anika and I will make you tocanita."

"Sure, over here." She kept a wary eye out as they made their way to another part of the store, then watched in amazement as they filled her cart with more pork products than she bought in a year. Thank goodness she'd been putting money aside for the last few months. But even if she hadn't, she couldn't have told them "no." The excitement written on their faces was well worth the expense. And judging from their pronounced cheekbones, both father and daughter could use some extra weight.

They'd covered half the store when Dorin brought her cart to a stop with his hand. Anika trotted down the cereal aisle ahead of them. "Are you ashamed to be seen with us?"

Lucy's jaw dropped. "Wow. Are you serious?"

The Adam's apple in Dorin's throat moved up and down as he swallowed. "People are staring. Does that not bother you?"

"Of course they're staring. Your daughter is a knockout and you look like a pillar next to me. My head barely reaches your shoulder, Dorin."

His jaw twitched. "You are either very ashamed or very distracted."

Lucy ran a hand through her hair, wishing Dorin would let the topic drop. "I'm very distracted."

"By what?" His piercing gaze bore into her.

She glanced around but couldn't allow her eyes to settle on the cart. If Dorin thought her distraction owned to the amount of food they'd chosen, he'd never agree to let her buy it, and he and Anika both needed the nutrition. Instead, she focused at the end of the aisle. As she did, someone stepped through the swinging doors that separated the meat department. She gave a quick inward breath and stepped back.

It was only an employee.

Dorin glanced the same direction and back again. "You are afraid of butchers?"

Aggravated, she turned to face him and caught the upturned corners of his mouth. She couldn't help but smile in return. "No, I'm not afraid of them. It's nothing, really. Let's enjoy shopping."

With a full cart containing food for her house and theirs, turning corners became a challenge. Dorin reached around either side of her to help push. Her heartbeat quickened with his nearness. They straightened out, but he didn't release his grip on the handle. "I'll push."

Lucy, caught between him and the cart, let go and slid out from under his arm. Only after she was out of his close proximity did she dare take a full breath to calm her quickened heartbeat.

"Lucy!"

Her eyes trailed to the voice of her sister. Tall with long, strawberry-blonde hair, Emily made her way toward them. Her blue eyes sparkled with excitement. After a quick hug she stood back and glanced from Anika to Dorin. Lucy didn't miss the look of interest that passed between him and her sister.

"I'm Emily, Lucy's sister." She turned toward the girl. "And you must be Anika, I recognize you from the pictures Lucy keeps on her wall."

As if it were possible for her to brighten any more, Anika glowed. She reached for Lucy's hand. "Lucy is very special to my heart."

At least she still had one fan. Lucy glanced again between Dorin and Emily. They were about the same height. Emily often complained she'd never find a man to balance her, but Dorin would. She swallowed her unreasonable self-pity. They looked good together. She would choose to be happy for her sister.

"I thought you would be in the city by now." Her voice sounded forced, even to her. She'd have to try harder.

"No, the nanny position doesn't start until next week. With all your recent excitement I can understand why you got it confused."

"What is a nanny?" Anika now leaned her head against Lucy's shoulder. Her strength was giving out. Lucy needed to remember for the next couple of weeks, Anika would need frequent breaks and naps until her body adjusted to all the recent changes.

Emily smiled at the apparent sweet scene they made. "A nanny takes care of other people's children for them while they're at work."

Anika tried to cover a yawn. "I thought you were a missionary."

"I am. Why don't I come over later and tell you about what I do?"

Anika looked at Lucy for an answer. Lucy suggested, "How about dinner? That will give Anika time to rest."

It was settled. They said temporary good-byes and her sister would be over in the evening. Lucy tried to hide her disappointment. She wasn't ready to share her guests. Ever since childhood, she'd always felt like a dimly lit bulb next to her beautiful, leggy sister. She reburied the hope that had started to rise. What exactly the hope meant she didn't know. Nor was she willing to ponder it now.

***

Dorin sat in front again to give Anika the option to stretch out on the back seat. Her health had weakened drastically in the last three months. Fear she would turn as sick as her mother often kept him awake at night. If he lost his daughter, God would have completed in taking everything important to him.

Please strengthen her, Lord.

He glanced at Lucy and mentally compared her to her sister. There was a small resemblance but their differences in height overwhelmed them. Not to mention the opposite personalities. Emily appeared much more controlled, the effects of maturity, while Lucy was likened more to his daughter and her whims of fancy.

"Anika," Lucy's voice sounded too cheerful, strained even. "I'll take you and your father to my church tomorrow. If you like music, it's the place to be. They have several different bands that switch off playing every week and it's a lot of fun. We also have a really big youth group that you can join."

Dorin narrowed his eyes. "You are over-stepping, Lucy. This is my daughter and I will be the one to decide if she needs to take part in a group of youths."

The silence that settled between them overpowered the hum of the engine. Finally, Lucy was the one to break it. Between firm lips, she said, "I wasn't trying to overstep you, Dorin. But if you want her to meet friends, church is a nice place to start."

"The boys that met us in the store, do they go to your church?"

Lucy bit her bottom lip. Her answer came slower. "I only recognized one that comes."

"Like your actions, you speak before giving thought."

He needn't look her direction to know the effect of his opinion. The atmosphere dropped several degrees. It seemed no matter what they were doing, they both had a way of irritating the other.

Lucy remained silent as she continued to drive. Her tense frame revealed the sudden rage his words had roused. He kept her in his peripheral vision and struggled with whether or not to apologize. He hadn't considered his light tongue lashing would affect her so. He stole another glance. The elegant shape of her head and the proud way she held her chin almost made him soften.

But then he remembered her distraction while shopping. In Romania he'd carried a mountain of shame for not being able to properly care for his family. Here in America, he wanted it to be different. But if Lucy was ashamed . . .

The road to her farm came into view. Lucy slowed for the turn-off as a dark car peeled away from her driveway and sped off. The color drained from her face. Dorin looked from the road and back to her. "Did that car come from your house?"

She blinked and seemed to have trouble focusing. They drifted to the side of the road. "I . . . I don't know." Her eyes glistened as she stared far off.

Dorin touched her hand. He knew the connection they shared would startle her enough to draw her out of her daze.

A light gasp escaped her lips and she drew back. "I'm sorry. I'll drive us home now."

Suddenly, the small matters from before no longer seemed important. Perhaps it hadn't been shame that she'd dealt with in the store. He spoke softly, not wanting to upset her further but needing to understand. "Was that car part of your distraction earlier?"

Lucy had begun chewing a nail and paused. "I don't know. I don't understand what's going on."

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing." Lucy parked the car in front of their homes. "It's nothing."

Dorin knew it was definitely something or she wouldn't have appeared scared. But with Anika stirring in the back seat, now wasn't the time to question her further. He looked at the housing provided for him and his daughter and decided a change of topic would help ease Lucy's mind. It seemed their living quarters was more of a home than the shop she lived in. "Did you bring this trailer in for us or was it already here?"

Though her face remained grim, she answered, "I bought it from a friend."

"For us?"

"Yes, Dorin." She sighed. "And believe it or not, I gave thought to it before making the purchase."

Though she wanted to come across defensive, he didn't miss the lightening of her voice or the glint of mischief in her eyes. It made him smile. A temporary ease covered her fears. He hoped it would last.

The afternoon was spent learning how to operate Lucy's planter while Anika slept. Dorin wished Lucy hadn't insisted on riding with him for the first run. Her presence disconcerted him, causing him to err when he'd known exactly what to do. He shifted speed and threw her forward again.

"Dorin, you have to shift more smoothly or you'll throw out all our seed."

His aggravation mounted. "I realize that, woman."

"Woman?" She laughed––a sweet, harmonious sound. "I get the hint. You'll do better if I leave you be."

He nodded, perhaps with more enthusiasm than necessary.

"The problem is, I'm on 'til you finish the row and turn around."

"Is there a faster speed?"

With a wide grin, she shoved his shoulder.

When the row was finished and he'd completed another, she hopped off at the fence. He watched as she clamored over the gate, rather than unlock it, and saunter off to the herb garden.

After learning more about her farm, her abilities amazed him. Her frame seemed built like a fairy nymph while her personality and determination matched a giant's. Against his own will, he found her intriguing. But in so many ways, she was still a child.

***

Dorin worked steadily beside his daughter preparing one of their favorite dishes. While he fried the onions and the coated, smoked pork, she chopped carrots and peppers. His stomach growled in response to the aromas.

Anika laughed. "I agree with your belly, Tata. It is good to have much food again."

"Yes, putin o. I deprived you too long."

Her hands stalled on the vegetables before her compassionate expression turned to face him. "You could no more control what happened than Mamei could her health. Our journey has been hard but very worth it. You will see. I think life here holds many answers to prayer."

"What prayers?"

A secret smile played on her lips. "Special prayers, Tata. That you need not concern yourself with." She patted his arm before turning to rummage in the refrigerator.

He shook his head. Youngsters––no telling what fantastical thoughts they conjured up. He removed the meat with onions from the pan and set it in the sink to cool. From the window he saw Lucy inside the pen with her goats and fowl. Tucked under her arm was a Bantam hen. He peered closer to see if it appeared injured. No. Lucy was petting it.

Strange woman.

From behind her, an ill-tempered billy-goat bent his head. He pawed the ground. Lucy, totally unsuspecting, was about to be uprooted. Concern for her filled his heart. Without a second thought, Dorin made for the door.

"Tata?"

He rounded the side of the house in time to see Lucy thrust into the air. The chicken she'd held squawked and fluttered clumsily before landing to the side. Dorin jumped across the fence, but not before she hit the ground with a thud. The billy charged for a second attempt, but Dorin grabbed his horns and swung him to the side. Stunned, the goat shook his head and ambled off.

"Ugh." Lucy stood and dusted off her side. "That's the last straw. That mean ole' billy's been a thorn in my side since the day I brought him home." She stomped toward the gate. "I'm getting my gun."

Laughter erupted before he could hold it back. How long had it been since he'd felt a rush of amusement? But if Lucy's scornful glare was any indication, she didn't appreciate his humor.

He held his side and hurried after her. "Lucy, don't be upset. I think it's more your pride that's bruised than your back-side."

She shoved her chin in the air. "Don't talk about my back-side. And I'm still getting my gun."

"Lucy," Dorin easily pulled her to a halt. What wasn't easy was maintaining his train of thought as she stared up at him with her bright, blue-green eyes. He stammered, "I, I thought . . ." he paused to hold his thoughts together. "I think there might be a better way of handling him."

She sighed and looked back at the pen. "You can't do all my chores, Dorin. I still need to work, too." He watched her walk back to her house, a slight limp to her gait. He stood grounded for a few minutes, until he was sure she wasn't coming back to shoot the goat.

***

Lucy spooned the last bite of tocanita and mashed potatoes from her bowl and savored it in her mouth. Their dinner had been delicious. Emily's home-made yeast rolls were the perfect complement to the smoky stew.

Still sore from her encounter in the pen, Lucy had only managed to soak her bruised backside in the tub before Emily arrived. Then, as was common with her visits, she'd pulled out the photo albums she loved to flip through.

Anika rose from the table and groaned. "I will pop if I eat another mouthful." She ambled over to the couch to stretch out. "Oh! I love photographs. Tata, come look with me."

"Maybe we should play a game." Lucy's suggestion was lost as all three of her guests clustered themselves together on the sofa. She stood alone in the kitchen like an odd duck. She could join them, but something held her back. The reason was undoubtedly the two heads bent closely together over the album. If she was going to be happy for her sister and Dorin, there couldn't be room for jealousy. Unfortunately, the only way she knew how to deal with it was through avoidance.

After cleaning the table and dishes she had nothing else to keep her away. With leaden feet, she made her way to the chair, adjacent the sofa. Dorin looked up as she sat down. His eyes seemed to read straight to her heart. She adjusted her gaze to the upholstery of the chair. It was well-worn and needed replaced, but at the moment it served as a very useful tool. The loosened threads gave her something to concentrate on.

She chanced a peek in his direction. A glint flashed in his eyes. He wasn't fooled. Well, he could think what he wanted, but he wouldn't get anything out of her.

Her sister pointed to a picture. "Look at Lucy's hair. It was so long and pretty."

Dorin glanced at the photo, then at Emily's hair and back to her. She couldn't stand being scrutinized. Anika, her defender, came to her rescue. "I like the way it is now. It gives you life."

Self-conscious, Lucy ran a hand over her chin-length bob. The natural curl gave it added volume and a mind of its own. She gave a quick glance toward Dorin. Did he agree with his daughter or would he agree with Eddy, preferring it to be long?

Emily stood and covered a yawn. "Thanks for a great dinner. I really enjoyed talking with you, Anika." She stooped to give her a hug then patted Dorin's shoulder. "No need to get up. I know my way out."

Lucy noticed he stood anyway. So he did have some chivalry, just not toward her. She waved good-bye to her sister at the door and found Dorin standing behind her. He had a peculiar look in his eyes.

His gaze fell to her hair as he fingered a lock in his hand. "When did you cut it?"

Dorin's nearness, coupled with his touch, weakened her senses. She steeled herself. He was a good match for Emily. She had no business building a silly crush. She brushed a hand over her hair, releasing it from his. Turning to the open door, she blinked away a rush of emotion. "As soon as I was free."

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