“Can you hear me?” Emily Durham’s throat tightened. A tingling sensation, like a thousand little spiders, crawled up the back of her neck. Something wasn’t right. Deer season ended two days ago. Why was this man still here?
A cold wind rattled the few dry leaves that clung to parent limbs. Emily blinked against a lock of hair that blew across her face and shivered. The hunter’s lack of response spiked the hair on her arms despite layers of clothing. His slack jaw made him appear more dead than alive. She eased back into the brush, cringing as branches scraped against the nylon fabric of her coat and strained to see past the trees.
Nothing moved. Nothing made a sound—including the man slumped on the ground.
Back in the states for a week, yet it felt as if she were still in an overseas war-torn country. Only this time she didn’t have a guide. She wasn’t on a mission trip. And no one knew where she was.
Her breath turned shallow as her heart hammered against her ribs. Jesus, You’ve led me this far. Help me know what to do next. Before her, lay an injured man. Behind, stretched the deer trail leading back to the cabin. Dread wrapped around her like a shroud.
Emily held the branches back and stepped lightly to avoid snapping twigs. While her head warned, get away, her heart couldn’t leave the man alone.
She dropped to her knees beside the lifeless form. A shudder coursed up her spine. Her gaze trailed from the man’s pale face to a semi-dry, dark smear staining the front of his orange vest. Her breath caught in her throat. What started out as a reminiscent walk through the woods turned into a nightmare.
“Please, Jesus, let him be alive.” She pressed her fingers against his bearded throat and held her breath.
Not willing to accept no for an answer, she moved her fingers and pressed tighter. Her eyes squeezed tight as her mouth moved in a fervent prayer.
A faint pulse thrummed against her skin. Emily exhaled in relief. “Thank you, Jesus.” She shed her winter coat and laid it over the man, tucking it around him the best she could. “I’m not leaving you. I’ll be right back.”
Her attention caught on a rifle as she turned to leave. Had the hunter walked this far then dropped his gun from exertion? She picked it up by the fore stock and positioned it across his lap, pointing the muzzle away from the path. “Just in case.”
Emily sprinted through the woods, dodging trees and briary patches that could slow her down. Haunting worries imprisoned her thoughts. What if she took too long and he died before she returned? What if he had children wondering why their daddy hadn’t come home?
What if she came back to find the gun pointed at her?
She stumbled but caught her balance before hitting the forest floor. Her heart argued the man wasn’t the threat. But why the caution? She wouldn’t brush it off to a wild imagination. Years spent as a missionary, often surrounded by God’s enemies, had taught Emily to follow her instinct. And that trust saved her life more times than her family would ever know.
Ten minutes later her brother’s cabin came into view. Although empty, save for her few belongings, the cabin hid a shed on the other side.
Emily halted beside the house and strained to catch her wind. Cold air burned her lungs more than the exertion. Her breath made bursts of white clouds as Emily ignored the stitch in her side and hurried forward. She slipped her key into the master lock of the shed and threw open the door. Ethan’s old four-wheeler. A gas can set against the wall. Fuel sloshed inside. A gallon was all she’d need. A couple hard thrusts of the throttle, and the motor roared to life. Emily rushed back down the path.
The wind created by the increased speed chilled through her thin layers of cotton. Each time the trail narrowed and caused she veered off course, a harsh shiver racked her body. With her thoughts on the injured man, she regretted not grabbing another coat.
Emily maneuvered around another patch of scrub. I’m taking too long. What if he dies?
The orange color of the hunter’s vest came within view. She drew the ATV as close as she could, hoping the sound of the motor would stir him.
He didn’t move.
“Sir, I’m going to move you.” Whether he could hear or not, she felt better talking out loud. The rifle lay untouched. Emily checked its safety then positioned it across the front rack of the ATV. From his uninjured side, she slipped the man’s arm across her shoulders and shoved her feet against the forest floor. The man moaned and rolled his head to the side. Relief bubbled through her chest.
Leaning back against the tree for support, Emily’s legs shook as her tightened muscles strained to bring them to a stance. He moaned again.
“I’m so sorry, but you have to get to a doctor.” Bark scraped against her coat releasing the smell of broken fungi. She forced air out her nose to ward off the urge to sneeze. The sharp movement might send them both to the ground.
“Wha’?” Pain laced the man’s voice, but at least he was alert.
“I’m helping you.” She took a deep breath then steadied his weight against hers. “Can you see the four-wheeler? You have to help me get you there.”
He raised his head only to drop it against hers like a weight. “No stren’.”
She inhaled and exhaled heavily. Without his help, she may as well have been moving a bear. With the inside of her foot, she shoved his forward then took a step of her own. Stopping to breathe in enough stamina for their next move, Emily repeated the steps until they reached the ATV.
At the hospital with her parents on either side, Emily stared as the helicopter whisked the injured man into the air. Her body felt cold and numb. Shocked. She’d witnessed enough injuries overseas why did this incident bother her?
As if reading her thoughts, her stepmother, Ann, squeezed her arm. “You weren’t expecting this. Not here at home.”
If it weren’t for her parents stopping by, Emily might still be struggling to get the hunter into the truck.
Her dad had driven while her step-mom followed in their car. Emily helped steady the man over the jolts of the road. His eyes opened once, revealing a deep hazel dark with pain. She doubted he saw anything.
“They’ll be able to do more for him in the city than they could here.” Her dad wrapped his arm around her and squeezed.
“What about his family?” This wasn’t supposed to be part of her furlough. Emotions Emily struggled to control slipped out in confusion. “I’ve never appreciated my size until now.”
She covered her eyes and sniffed. “I couldn’t have helped him if I’d been as small as you, Mom.”
Emily massaged her neck to relieve the pain and tension. The man had been heavy. Not that he seemed overweight, just taller than her and solid.
She shuddered as his wound replayed in her mind. The conservation land butted up against her family’s farm. Although open to public hunting, they rarely had anyone that far in—which made the whole situation strange. Who had fired the stray bullet?
Six months later …
Emily adjusted the strap of her sandal and smoothed her skirt. The atmosphere of the office, although expensive, emitted welcomed warmth. Cherry bookcases stretched to the white paneled ceiling, enveloped in decorative molding and offset by moss colored walls. A stylish rug of interlocking circles and squares overlaid the hardwood floor. The retro carpet mixed with the elegant shelving reflected an open mind. A mind willing to take risks and explore new possibilities.
The shelves held books and unique, twisted designs of brass, copper, and iron. Her possible new employer ran a lighting company, but the pieces appeared more artful in form.
The door opened an inch. A man’s voice spoke patiently to his listener. “You know you’re asking me to do that during business hours. It’ll have to wait until this evening.” Silence followed by feet stomping away.
“I’m Robert Brewington.” A man entered and held out his hand. “Just Robert, no mister.”
Emily stood, surprised to see his height envelope hers by a good three inches, and shook his hand. “Emily Durham, no mister to my name either.” The immediate ease she felt with him over the phone was present in person as well.
The man’s features reminded Emily of the hunter she’d found in the woods, minus the beard. She held her breath and searched his eyes before he turned. Emily’s anticipation didn’t last long. The man from the woods had hazel eyes. Mr. Brewington’s were brown. Disappointment replaced the momentary hope. Why did she keep looking for someone who might not have survived?
“Have a seat, please.” Robert picked up her resume and sat on the edge of the desk. “I’ve looked over the application you faxed. I already knew you’d be a good fit from the phone interview, and your experience overseas should give you a balanced understanding of the children’s needs.
“This convention I’m attending is only for a week, but I’ll probably be gone for two with meetings and the like. Since the business picked up, I fly out usually every month and from there schedule meetings with other companies, distributors, etc. We have an over-zealous sales marketer, and I admit, I’m just as bad.”
He paused and scratched his head. “I know you mentioned it on the phone, but how long did you say you have left before you return to the mission field?”
“Good. Without the kids’ mother here I was afraid I’d have to put them through summer school. School alone is hard enough on my daughter. I didn’t want her to suffer through vacation as well.”
Emily’s curiosity piqued. Why didn’t his wife step in? During Emily’s interview, Robert briefly discussed his adopted children and estranged wife, but surely the woman still cared for the children.
A framed photograph on the desk showed a pretty blonde poised beside Robert. The woman looked immaculate. Her face as perfect as if the photo had been airbrushed, not a stray-a-way hair on her head, and French manicured nails graced the hand on her husband’s arm.
“And if they give you too much trouble, my brother will be here to give you a hand.”
“Who?” She focused her attention, a little too late. Had Robert said she’d be sharing a house with his brother? He’d better be married.
Robert chuckled. “You’ve got that deer-in-the-headlights look. My brother, Dillon, lives in the guesthouse and works out of the shop.” He stood and motioned her to follow. The man had a constant flow of energy about him.
Outside in the back yard, he pointed across the lawn. “See the house and shop. He won’t be far should you need him. And I’m sure the kids will want to interrupt him plenty.” Robert turned serious. “Let them. They’ll need it. And whether Dillon thinks so or not, he does too.”
Emily stared at the immaculate property. Situated at the back of a dead-end lane, the elegant estate boasted a fence on both sides then extended to an open field bordered by trees. A perfect retreat from the rush of city life.
“Dillon keeps mostly to himself designing our top lighting products.” He turned back to the house. “Come on. Let me introduce you to my kids.”
Once inside, the phone rang from the direction of the office. “Sorry. I need to see to that. Why don’t you meet Dillon instead? Just make yourself at home, no need to knock.” Robert ushered her outside again and toward the shop.
Meet his brother? By herself?
Emily followed the stone walkway that trailed through the yard, weaving around tightly controlled gardens of shrubs and flowers. She tossed her head back and glanced at the sky, her long hair brushing against her back. “Thank you, God. The last part of my furlough will feel like the retreat it’s supposed to be.”
The path separated. Emily turned away from the guesthouse and strolled toward the handsome board and bat building. Visible through the open windows and door, welding equipment and shards of metal littered the floor near the center while lighting fixtures lined shelves along the wall. Like dad’s barn and Ethan’s woodworking shed, it was a man’s domain. However, this building possessed a different smell than what memory served her of home. Hot metal and solder tickled her nose. She maneuvered around boxes of glass bulbs and wiring. “Hello-o-o.”
A man looked up from leaning over a worktable. Huge eyes blinked behind protruding, telescope-like lenses that hung over heavy frames. Emily stopped in her tracks. If Mr. Magoo wore glasses—A giggle bubbled up in her throat. She coughed and covered her mouth with her hand. There was nothing she could do to hide the amusement in her eyes.
The man cocked his head to the side and scratched his temple with a forefinger. Emily tightened the muscles in her face, but they weren’t strong enough to combat his cartoon-like appearance. Spurts of laughter tumbled past her lips.
With a swift movement of his hand, he swiped the glasses off his face. “Can I help you?”
Uh oh! If this was Dillon Brewington, they definitely weren’t off to a good start.
“I’m Emily Durham.” Emily motioned toward the house. The corner of her mouth twitched as she tried to stifle a smile. “The nanny your brother hired.”
A shadow fell over the man’s face. A handsome, sturdy face, somewhat like his brother’s but different. A bead of sweat trickled in an uneven pattern down Dillon’s forehead between his brows. He swiped the bridge of his nose against his sleeve.
Had she made a mistake? “I assumed he was your brother. Aren’t you Dillon?”
“Yeah, I’m Dillon.” His chest rose and fell as he stared. Then he glanced back at the table as if it would save him. “Look, I have work to do. It was nice meeting you.”
She gave a moment to Dillon’s retreating back, then shrugged. One brother a risk taker, the other an artist.
Near the door a large dome of blown glass snatched her attention. The freckled rust and burgundy pattern blended out from a yellow top and ended with a slight wave of curls at the base. She couldn’t resist resting on her heels to touch the beautiful creation.
“I’m not a child. I had no intention of picking it up—I just wanted to feel it.” The smooth, cool surface was as beautiful to touch as to look upon. “This is incredible.”
Dillon lifted Emily’s hand from the artwork, bringing her to a stance. “Thank you.” As if embarrassed, he quickly dropped her hand like a piece of hot metal.
His shy actions lit Emily’s curiosity. Was he uncomfortable around everyone, or just her? She wished he would look back so she could study his eyes. Were they green or hazel? He hadn’t held her gaze long enough to reveal their color.
Dillon pointed to the glass. “I made that in a friend’s studio. It can’t be duplicated.” He gestured her toward the door.
Entranced by his ability and the shelves full of art she wanted to examine, Emily wasn’t ready to leave.. “What is it for? Are you working on it now?”
His mouth formed a tight line while she fought the urge to smile. He didn’t like her intrusion, but how could she hide her enthusiasm? Wasn’t he used to praise? His uptight actions intrigued her even more.
“I’m working on something else at the moment. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
She glided out the door but like a mischievous imp, looked over her shoulder. “Sure, but I’ll be back.”
As she strolled along the path toward the house, her conscious shamed her for teasing the poor man. Perhaps she should control her interest in his work. Her mind switched gears from his talent to his appearance. He looked like his brother Robert, but possessed a completely different personality.
The door opened as Emily approached the house. “How’d it go?”
She raised an eyebrow at Robert. “That smirk tells me you already know.”
Her employer’s mouth stretched into a smile as he motioned her to follow.
“Are you going to explain why you didn’t go with me?”
“The phone rang, remember?”
Emily dropped the subject. She wanted the job too much to demand an answer for which she already knew. Brother ribbing brother.
Robert led her through the kitchen. A dark haired woman wearing an apron smiled warmly before turning back to the sink. Perhaps, the hired cook? Emily looked forward to meeting her.
The Brewington home held something to catch her eye at every turn. They retraced their steps toward the front entrance, passed through the sitting ,room with its beamed ceiling and came to the curved stairs in the foyer. She committed the tour to memory. This would be the short-term employment that helped pay her next mission trip.
“I’ve already told you about my son from your first interview, but here’s a bit more.” Robert’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Not long after his birth, his mother died of malaria then six years later his dad died of aids.”
Emily had encountered similar cases when she’d visited orphanages in the boy’s home country of Africa.
Soon they were at the first room. The door swung open. “Dad! Can you play ball now?” He paused then shared a bright smile with Emily. “Hullo.” He reached his hand to her hair. “Very pretty. What color is it?”
Emily drew a lock in front of her face. “My mom always called it strawberry blonde.”
“Jabali. This is Emily, the nanny I hired.” The boy continued to smile. “She’ll stay here while I’m at the convention.”
Jabali’s smiled faltered. He dropped his eyes to the floor then in a smaller voice asked again. “Can we play ball?”
“I promised you, didn’t I?” Fatherly love filled Robert’s voice. “We’ll play this afternoon.”
The boy jerked his head up and took Emily’s hand. “I’m ten, how old are you?”
Robert coughed into his hand and struggled to speak. Emily waved him off. “I don’t mind telling. I’m thirty-three.”
“Em-i-ly. I like to say your name.”
“Thank you,” her heart melting already. “Can you show me your room? Are those signed baseballs?”
He smiled widely and pulled her toward a shelf near his bed. The next few minutes Emily learned more about baseball than she’d ever known. The child had certainly been immersed into an all-time favorite American sport.
“How far is the Cardinal’s stadium from here?”
Robert answered. “Only about thirty minutes. We never missed a game last year, did we son?” Their attachment to one another was evident and genuine. It seemed they’d made a natural adaption to the role of father and son.
“Are you ever coming to see my room?” A surly twelve-year-old stood at the door’s entrance. Her speech still thick with a Ukrainian accent.
“We were just coming, Rhysa.”
Unlike Jabali’s blue walls, Rhysa’s were all white. She pointed to a dresser. “I want to move that over against the other wall and change things around, but Dad is making me wait until tonight.”
Emily nodded in understanding. Rhysa must have been the one he’d spoken to before entering the office. She obviously didn’t like waiting to get her way. She was tall for twelve years and sturdy. Her blonde hair was worn in a tight ponytail, accenting her strong, yet symmetric face. Emily pictured her with a smile and saw the beauty her frown kept masked.
“Rhysa, this is the nanny I hired for the summer. Say hello to Emily.”
Emily held out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Rhysa.”
The girl ignored the offered handshake and shrugged. “We don’t have to be friends. It’s not like anyone sticks around.”
Sweat trickled down the back of Dillon’s shirt. What was his brother thinking? Dillon knew they needed a nanny, but he’d expected to meet a sweet, grandma figure or at the very least, a strict schoolmarm.
Certainly not someone like Emily.
There was something familiar about the strawberry blonde. Dillon searched his thoughts. He pictured her appealing face in all the places he frequented. Nothing matched.
What did it matter anyway?
He lit the torch and resumed his work. Still, not placing her face irritated him. The distraction would only cause him to err and ruin everything he’d achieved that morning. He shoved Emily’s face from his mind and focused on the whoosh of the acetylene.
As if Dillon’s senses needed the change, her face wasn’t the familiar memory—it was her voice.
Why would he remember someone’s voice?
The heated brass tubing slipped from his gloved hands and clanked to the floor. He blew a long breath between his teeth. He couldn’t risk getting behind schedule. The shipment for Brewington’s Lighting and Displays latest design was due by the end of the week.
“So what did you think?”
Dillon turned toward the door to his brother. “I think you’re nuts. You know I’ve got a tight deadline and you hire the most beautiful one out there.”
“No.” Robert dragged out the word and tapped his fingers on both hands together. “I hired the most qualified.”
Dillon reached for the tubing. “I doubt you interviewed anyone else.”
“I’ll only be gone a couple of weeks. Then I’ll be here to interact with her.” His tone intimated it would be cause for jealousy.
Dillon knew Robert took his marriage too seriously for that. It was just a ruse to propel him on board. “Good. I don’t need the distraction.”
“Yes, you do. This box you live in,” Robert held his palm out toward the shop’s interior, “isn’t healthy. Forget your past and move on.”
Dillon raised a shoulder toward his ear and cringed. Their playful banter just took a personal hit. Why did Robert think Dillon’s choice to submerge himself in work tied to a couple of failed relationships? It was a decade old argument. He smirked, “You need new material. You’ve grown stale.”
Robert shook his head and withheld comment. Even without the last word, he sauntered away in confidence. Probably certain he was still in the winning.
The whole situation made Dillon uncomfortable.
Since the Brewington business’ growth-spurt, every challenge set by their marketer seemed to possess Robert with an unnatural drive. Similar to a thrill seeker, each goal he accomplished only made him reach higher. Although Lainy, Robert’s wife, seemed to crave the fruit of his labor as much as her husband craved the success, their marriage had suffered.
Dillon shook his head. He didn’t see the growth as a blessing. But trying to slow Robert was like telling a batter on third to walk to home plate. An impossible order.
An ache formed in Dillon’s shoulder as it always did whenever he tensed. He rubbed the still tender muscle. Six months didn’t seem that long ago. Articles of near-death experiences often spoke of the victims learning to appreciate each day of their lives. Dillon sighed. What was he supposed to appreciate about his brother’s choice of nannies?
He heated the tube again then flattened the end with a hammer, careful to leave a vein down the center. The dogwood leaves from the emerald blown glass were already fastened with brass brackets, waiting to be adhered onto the branch.
Dillon glanced back at his drawing. Assured of his plan, he moved to the soldering table and painted a coating of flux over both pieces of copper. The liquid would ensure a strong bond between the copper and solder … much like him and Robert. He stared at the brush in his hand—the same one his dad had started with. A bittersweet memory pinched his heart. Because of Dad, Dillon and Robert were able to make a living doing what they loved.
In his early twenties, Mac Brewington, with his meager savings and a dream, had built a company that now rivaled their giant competitors. If dementia hadn’t set in, he’d still be in the shop instead of a nursing home.
Dillon glanced at his feet glad for the distraction. “Hey, Shop Cat.” He’d never given the feline a proper name. Then again, he’d never expected it to stick around. On the same day Robert’s brake lines were cut, the cat appeared, as curious with the underneath of the car as Dillon had been.
The police report never matched the vandalism with a culprit. Could it have been the same person that shot—Dillon passed off the thought. The day in the woods was a fluke.
Emily crossed her legs on the sofa and studied her next move. Jabali was quick, but she’d always been hard to beat at checkers. Playing with the energetic boy the past two weeks had polished her skills with several forgotten childhood games.
Connecting with Rhysa hadn’t been as smooth. Rhysa’s excitement with the changes in the house mixed with an overdose of distrust kept Emily guessing.
The phone rang and Rhysa answered. “Hi, Mom!” The lilt in her voice was something new to Emily.
“That’s nice.” A long pause followed as Rhysa listened. “But when are you coming home?”
Another pause. “But you said you’d come back.” Rhysa slumped onto the couch beside Emily.
With the girl sitting nearby, Lainy’s voice came through the phone. “If you keep whining, I may not want to visit. And I never promised anything.”
Silence followed until Lainy spoke again. “Put Robert on the phone.”
“Dad’s not here.Why would he want to talk to you anyway?” Rhysa’s voice rose with each word. “You’re the one who left!”
Across from Emily, Jabali fumbled with a checker in his hands. His downcast gaze spoke volumes of disappointment.
The phone startled Emily as it bounced off the cushion beside her. Rhysa stormed from the room wrapped in rage. What was their mother thinking? Granted most marriages had their shares of bumps, but how could she not want to continue a relationship with the children, birthed or adopted?
Reality slapped her in the face. Emily’s own mother had left. Funny how the truth of her past hadn’t risen to the surface earlier. But unlike many children of divorced homes, Emily and her eldest brother, Ethan, had only to suffer for a couple years. Later, when their dad married Ann, their lives became complete. Ann’s genuine love more than made up for the lack of their real mother’s. Even after Emily’s half siblings were born, nothing changed.
Jabali’s sudden loss of interest in the game pulled at Emily’s heart. She didn’t know everything about the children’s backgrounds, but their current pain built a mountain of compassion. “Come on, Jabali. Let’s grab your skateboard and go to the park.”
The boy’s sad eyes sparked. “Okay. I’ll tell Rhysa.”
Emily straightened the pillows on the couch then waited for them by the garage door, ready to set the house alarm.
Rhysa had her roller blades tucked under her arm. “Do we have to be seen in your car?”
The unexpected insult hurt. What could Rhysa have against Grandpa Luke’s old Plymouth? Built in ’49, the fat-fendered vehicle was a trophy to Emily. “That’s what I’m insured to drive, so be happy we have wheels.” The car’s antique license worked perfectly for her infrequent stateside visits.
She could have responded with more discipline for the girl’s rude behavior, but right now wasn’t the time. Rhysa was reacting off her mother’s rejection. Emily blinked away sudden tears. Too soft a heart wouldn’t help. Rhysa and Jabali needed security. That meant someone to not only love them but to be their strength.
Dillon’s face came to mind. Thus far, he hadn’t offered his help. But at least the convention ended tomorrow, and their father would return.
Jabali road shotgun while Rhysa slumped in the back seat, trying to hide. Emily dimmed the headlights with her foot. She loved the outdated amenities of old cars like the floor dimmer.
Grandpa had started the restoration of the car while Emily was still a young girl. Offering her help at every stage, he’d allowed her to choose the color. The metallic light green, although pretty, didn’t stand out well. Driving with the headlights on insured other drivers would see the vehicle.
At the park, Rhysa took off with the speed of a jet. Did she find them that embarrassing to be seen with or was she only skating off her annoyance with Lainy? Jabali looked back at Emily.
“Ready.” She kept up with him at a fast paced jog, keeping his sister within sight. The park wasn’t overly crowded. Still, she never let down her guard.
Lainy came back to mind. Emily wished she could meet the woman to better understand the situation. What drove her away? Jabali had been in the family for the last year and a half, Rhysa, not so long. Had Lainy not been able to deal with the scars of Rhysa’s past?
“Rhysa, slow up a bit. You’re getting too far ahead.”
Although she didn’t look back, the girl at least did as asked.
Further up the path, other girls near Rhysa’s age slowed as they came closer. Each had a purebred on a leash. Drawing nearer, Emily and Jabali easily overheard them.
“Hey, looky there, it’s the Russian Sasquatch.” Their mocking cackles increased in volume.
Jabali skid his skateboard to a stop. Blocking their path, he demanded, “Apologize to my sister, or I’ll put a curse on you!”
Shocked expressions stared at Jabali then expanded into smiles as one girl blurted, “Oh, we’re so scared.”
Emily looked toward Rhysa whose pain-filled eyes touched on her brother, but narrowed and broke contact when they met Emily’s.
Emily tapped Jabali’s arm as the girls passed. “Let’s go.”
For all the hurt Lainy put the children through, they certainly didn’t need additional trouble from their peers. No wonder Robert hadn’t wanted Rhysa to endure summer school.
Humiliation and shame were now added elements to the difficult equation Emily had agreed to. Her situation would be easier if there was another adult she could share with. But Maurita spoke very little English and Dillon was as helpful as roller blades without wheels.
They continued on the path although it was clear the zeal for the park had vanished. What should she have done? Thinking over the ugly scene, Emily wished she’d have handled it better. Shocked by the unexpected verbal attack, followed by Jabali’s remark, what could she have done?
At the car, Rhysa climbed in without removing her skates, only to slink down in the seat. Not a word. No show of emotion.
Emily never had to deal with the pressure to fit in. Homeschool shielded her from so many ugly realities. Still, like Rhysa, her size often bothered her, too. A part of Emily accredited it to her single state. Men wanted Barbie dolls—at least that’s what the media suggested. She glanced at the two broken children. This wasn’t about her.
“God, I realize why I’m here. It’s not for me as much as for these children. Give me the wisdom to steer them closer to you. Guide me in growing Jabali’s faith so that he never feels the need to fall back on superstitions from his homeland. Let Your belt of truth wrap around him as a protection from the enemy’s cunning deceit.
“And Rhysa,” her heart squeezed with pain, “this child, dear Lord, is filled with misery. She feels abandoned and rejected. Guide me in proving to her she is lovely, not only in Your sight but in mine as well. Open both of the children’s hearts to receive Your love and mine.”
Emily slid in next to Jabali and turned the key.
“Ah-h-h!” A large black spider sat on the dashboard, unmoving.
Jabali clapped his hands. “Good! This works very good. My spider kept your car safe.”
“What?” Only after the boy removed it to the floor did Emily realize it wasn’t real. “Ja—”
Laughter from the back seat erupted from Rhysa. “I saw your eyes in the mirror.” Rhysa snorted. “They were huge!”
Jabali’s white toothed grin joined Rhysa’s.
“Very funny, guys, so the joke’s on me.” Emily shook her head. Although she didn’t support Jabali’s superstitions, she welcomed the lightened atmosphere.
Emily had planned on stopping for ice cream, but under the circumstances it might only bring the girls’ comment from the park back to the surface. “How would you two like to get a movie for tonight?”
“Yeah, the new Monsters movie!” Jabali looked back at his sister.
Rhysa nodded. “That’s good for me.”
“As long as there aren’t any spiders in it, I’m okay.” Emily teased, knowing the cartoon’s light-hearted humor would be good for them.
Thank You, Lord, for giving this evening another chance.
After stopping at a Red Box, they pulled into the lane leading home. Jabali strained his head to see around to the shop. “Aw, I was hoping Uncle Dillon would watch it with us.”
“You can ask him.”
“No. His truck’s gone.”
Emily was sorry for the boy’s disappointment. Part of her shared the feeling. It would have been fun to see how the artistic recluse reacted to a humorous film. Did he have a sense of humor?
Inside the garage, the children grabbed their park gear and were out before she had time to gather the movie and her purse.
Rhysa leaned away from the open door leading into the house. Her voice soft and timid, “I thought you set the alarm?”
Reason and fear warred inside Emily. Perhaps the cook had forgotten to lock the door on her way out. Or maybe Dillon needed something from the garage before he left. Her excuses did little to quiet the tiny bells of alarm ringing inside her head.
The kitchen was clean and empty. The smell of grilled meat and cilantro stirred the rumblings in Emily’s stomach. She’d become accustomed to the cook’s habits. Maurita arrived in the morning and left in the late afternoon but not before leaving a prepared dinner in the oven with the timer set to cook or warm.
“Maybe Maurita left the door unlocked?” Emily spoke to Rhysa and Jabali as they trailed close behind.
Rhysa shook her head. “She uses the front door. Even if she forgot to set the alarm, this door should have been locked.”
Emily pointed toward the wall phone. “Call your uncle while I search the house.” A marble rolling pin sat cradled in its wooden holder on the kitchen island. Emily crowded the counter on her way out, discreetly claiming her defense.
The large house grew with the thought of an intruder. Emily forced herself to breathe steadily. Her heart knew with faith she had no reason to fear. But her head begged to differ.
She stood in the entrance of the sitting room examining potential hiding places before taking a closer look. An overstuffed chair in the corner posed the only threat. Emily crept around the sofa and neared the hearth. With the rolling pin raised to swing, she jumped onto the cushioned seat and searched between the chair and wall—nothing.
Emily’s heartbeat quickened, shaming her with obvious fear. The dread of someone jumping out unexpectedly likened itself to hide and seek. The childhood game hadn’t been one of her favorites then and it certainly wasn’t now.
She crept toward the office then paused beside the door. Should she fling it open and rush inside? Or would turning the knob slowly be more advantageous? Wanting it all to be over, she chose the former.
Her hand tightened around the brass then slipped, scraping her knuckles against the wooden frame. Locked. That’s a good sign, right? Emily took a deep breath. Where to look next?
Even before she turned, the weight of an ominous cloud settled around her. The wide staircase morphed into a giant mouth, ready to snap closed as soon as her feet touched the ivory colored teeth. She fought off a shiver. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The twenty-third Psalms played as a mantra inside her head. Emily remembered standing in front of their small congregation with other children from their booster choir. Without any fear to hold her back, she’d repeated the whole chapter with confidence. Where was her confidence now?
The hall off the sitting room loomed with playful shadows. Playful felt safer than ominous. She’d save the upstairs for last. But the evening sun attested time had slipped by. Unease irritated the base of Emily’s neck. It would soon be dark and switching on the lights would only give her away.
To whom? Perhaps no one had entered and all of this was for nothing. Unfortunately there was only one way to find out.
Emily tiptoed down the hall leading to the master bedroom. A room she had no need to enter before. The door opened on silent hinges and butted against the wall. Okay, no one hiding behind it. A garden tub with splendid pillars was in the corner accentuated by potted palm trees and large paintings of the beach. On the opposite side of the room, covered in regal gold and bronze bedding sat a king size bed.
Emily cringed. Oh, I don’t want to have to look under that. She swallowed past the lump in her throat and forced wooden legs to move. The plush carpeting softened her steps. With the rolling pin held tight in her grip, she bent at the knees. Her mouth formed a tight line. It’s now or never. She reached for the bed skirt and flipped it back.
A deep breath filled her lungs. Bending forward, she rested her head against the floor. This is probably all for nothing and I’m just being silly.
The master bath was next. Darkened by the lack of windows, Emily flipped the light-switch. This was one area it would be foolish to approach in the dark.
The fluorescent bulbs flickered as the fixture began to hum. Not the perfect time to wear out.
Though dim, the lighting provided enough to see by. As if the garden tub wasn’t enough, the room was complete with a shower for two and a long double sink. And … a walk-in closet.
“Being alone stinks.” Emily mumbled beneath her breath. If she were married, she’d have a husband to depend on. Someone to come to her aid—a protector. But God had chosen a different route for her life.
Guilt pricked her conscious. Okay, I’m not alone. God is with me. And He’s all the power I need. Her back straightened with determination as she lifted the rolling pin. Just swing with me, God. The closet door opened wide. Light trickled forward from the bathroom, creating dark, creepy forms along the wall.
She settled a timid foot into the room, then another while feeling for a light switch along the wall. Like a turtle stretching its neck, Emily craned to see around the door.
She screamed and spun around, bringing the rolling pin crashing down.
“A-h-h!” Dillon stumbled backward, rattling the shower door.
Her mouth dropped open—She’d struck her employer’s brother.
“Oops.” Emily hadn’t expected Dillon so soon. He must’ve driven home as soon as the kids called him. She eased the offending object behind her back and rocked on her heels. “I thought you were the intruder.”
He grimaced and rubbed his shoulder. “Why would the intruder use your name?”
She glanced to the side then tapped a finger against her bottom lip. “Um … I guess he wouldn’t.”
Dillon reached for her weapon. “This should stay in the kitchen, which is where I’m taking you.”
He touched her back to propel her forward, but pulled her to a stop at the doorway to the hall. “Where have you searched?”
Despite their circumstances, the interesting tingle left by his fingers couldn’t be denied. She looked up, hoping to get a better look at his eyes to satisfy her curiosity from before. The dim lighting still hid them from view. “Everywhere but upstairs.”
“Saved the best for last, huh?” A semblance of a smile teased the corner of his mouth before he diverted his attention.
Dillon checked the hall then stepped out first. After he escorted her to the kitchen to join his niece and nephew, he replaced the rolling pin.
Emily pointed toward the counter. “Don’t you want that?”
He smirked and patted a bicep. “I don’t need it.”
Did their uncle have a sense of humor after all?
Jabali’s hand slipped into hers. She glanced toward him and noted Rhysa had also crowded close. She squeezed Jabali’s hand and gave Rhysa a smile of encouragement. A fear of the unknown etched worry lines across Rhysa’s forehead.
They needed a distraction. Emily cleared her throat and motioned toward the oven. “Have you checked what Maurita left us for dinner?”
Rhysa blinked in surprise and then did as suggested. “Grilled chicken. And I bet mango salsa’s in the fridge.”
Jabali sprung forward. “I’ll check!”
Thank you for the distraction, Lord, but please keep Dillon safe. The children had enough upsets in their lives. Why had this one been allowed? Surely God wouldn’t let anything happen to their uncle, he was the only steady security they had. She peeked toward the stairs before setting out the flatware.
The last room was Jabali’s, and still Dillon hadn’t found anything suggesting a prowler.
“Robert.” Dillon stood in front of the baseball collection with his cell phone and commanded his brother’s attention. The possibility that someone had broken into the house had created a bigger stir in him than Dillon would’ve expected. He cradled the phone with one hand as the other massaged his shoulder. Emily’s swing could rival a Cardinal batter. “I searched the house, nobody’s here. It was probably just a fluke.”
“Where are the kids?” Worry deepened his brother’s voice.
“With Emily. I think they’re getting dinner on the table.” He leaned out of the room and listened past the hallway. “She sure has a knack with them.”
Robert sighed through the phone. A moment passed before he spoke again. “Things have been weird here, too.”
Now it was Dillon’s turn to be surprised. His spine stiffened preparing for bad news.
“I was certain of being followed last week. But it seems this week’s schedule threw them off.”
“What are you saying? Someone knew you’d be at the convention, or—”
“I’ll … I’ll talk to you about it tomorrow. I should be home by the afternoon. Just keep a close eye on everyone.”
The room darkened as apprehension roared in the pit of Dillon’s stomach. His got-it-together brother was struggling. Who was behind this? And better yet, why? With a sudden urgency, Dillon headed toward the stairs.
Dillon slowed to as he neared the kitchen. Voices floated through the air in assurance no harm had come to them while he was gone.
Emily met his gaze from across the informal table. “Everything check out okay?”
Jabali and Rhysa’s attentive silence revealed they too were waiting for his answer.
“Empty as a to—” He stopped himself. Not the expression needed in this situation. “Safe and sound. The way I expected to find it.”
Though it seemed they could breathe easier, he wasn’t certain of their security.
After dinner, Dillon piled his plate on the counter. He was anxious to return to the cottage and check for intruders while waiting to hear from Robert.
“Uncle Dillon. Now that you’re home, you can watch a movie with us!” Jabali’s bright, expressive face was hard to refuse. But other things took priority.
“I’m sure he’d love to. After all, he’s probably lonely being by himself all the time.”
Dillon judged her tight smile and realized she’d be hard to beat in an argument. Nothing new there. Robert was the same way. “Fine. Why don’t you get it started while Rhysa pops corn? I’ll be right back.”
He slid out of what was beginning to feel like a crowded room and crossed the lawn. Emily’s wide-eyed expression interrupted his concentration and drew a smile to his lips. He was supposed to be keeping an eye out for intruders, not grinning over being attacked. He rotated his shoulder and readjusted his thoughts. The cottage and shop were dark, just as he’d left them. But were they as empty as they appeared?
Dillon slowed as he neared the custom stained-glass door. The knob jiggled. Still locked. If it hadn’t been for his brother’s attack, Dillon might have passed off Emily’s concern. But the flukes, as he had called the bizarre events of the year, were adding up.
The small efficiency was clean of intruders but not his piles of drawings. His leg brushed against a stack on the side table, sending papers fluttering to the floor. Ignoring them, he relocked the door.
Moments later he met Emily at the end of the path back to the house. Her arms crossed over her chest. Had he done something wrong?
“Sorry if I seemed demanding.” She gestured toward the kitchen with her head. “But the kids need your presence and …” She rocked back on her heels again. “It looked like you were keeping something from them. What did you find?”
So he hadn’t done anything wrong. A strange feeling tensed Dillon’s muscles. He didn’t want the kids’ nanny to have anything to fear. “Nothing. Safe and sound, just like I said.”
His phone chose that time to ring. He reached into his shirt pocket. “Start the movie. I’ll be just a minute.”
She went back inside. An odd feeling lingered after her departure. But time didn’t allow for consideration.
Dillon answered the phone. “Robert?”
“Sleep light.” His brother sighed into the receiver. “While I was out, someone took the liberty of searching my room.”
Dillon reached for the door, no longer content to be apart from the family. Robert’s news meant whoever had tailed him last week, had caught up. “Change your schedule, fly home tonight.”
“Already tried and failed. But I’ll hang out at the airport. I might get a shot at a stand-by ticket. If nothing else, it’s at least public.”
Dillon settled into the easy chair across from the sofa. The children’s thoughtfulness to reserve the seat for him was touching, but since taking Robert’s calls he would’ve preferred the floor. Anxiety coiled in his muscles, making him ready to spring like a cat.
He leaned back and tried to relax. Although he’d rather be forming a plan, the children needed the security of his presence. And if Dillon didn’t know better, their nanny did too.
Despite the need for caution, the movie pulled him in. Whether the scenes were actually humorous enough to laugh, it was impossible not to be affected by the other occupants in the room.
Jabali, the most comedic one of them all, kept tossing his head back with his mouth split in a wide grin. Even Rhysa was tickled over several scenes. The light of the television flickered off her features, exposing dimples he rarely saw. How long had it been since he’d seen her happy? He wished it would last.
Did Emily know Rhysa’s history? The years she’d spent in an Ukranian orphanage or of her birth mother’s occupation? Daughter of a prostitute, Rhysa had witnessed more than most people did in a lifetime, let alone in six years. Emotional scars were often as damaging as physical ones. No wonder she rarely smiled and suffered sudden outbursts of anger.
Some might say Rhysa was the reason Lainy left, but Dillon knew better. Money had changed her from someone compassionate enough to want to help children to a woman focused on her needs alone.
And Robert thought him senseless to have given up on finding Mrs. Right. If his brother’s marriage was anything to go by, Dillon had made the right decision.
Emily erupted with laughter. Her laugh drew attention and the others shared in her joy. He turned enough to view her in his peripheral vision without being noticeable.
There was nothing pretentious about the woman. Completely relaxed and at ease with who she was. She chuckled again and glanced his direction. Now he knew what his brother thought he was missing. Shared moments like these, surrounded by family.
He also understood the concern Robert expressed tonight. Until they knew who was responsible for the attempts and why, no one was safe.
“So how’d the past two weeks go?” Robert poured Raisin Bran into his bowl.
The sun had yet to rise and Emily was already up. She leaned against the kitchen island with a cup of coffee and stifled a yawn. Her employer had arrived home earlier than expected, surprising her by coming through the garage door as she entered the kitchen. “That depends. Do you want a pat answer or an honest one?”
“Honest, of course.” He cringed.
From the look of his unshaven face and shadowed eyes, Emily preferred to give a pat description, but he’d never be satisfied. “You left me with two insecure orphans who feel orphaned all over again, one of which definitely resents my presence, a maid who speaks very little English, and a brother who lacks most social skills.”
Emily pulled a chair back from the table and sat at the opposite end from Robert. She gave a good-hearted smile and joked, “My optimism was only held in check by your quick return.”
“Hmm.” Robert cupped his chin in his hand. “I thought you said you spoke Spanish?”
“I did, years ago. But never at Maurita’s speed. I’m not complaining about her, we get along great. It’s just with your brother being such a recluse, it would be nice to have another adult to talk to, especially concerning the children.”
A long sigh resulted from the mention of his brother. Robert glanced toward the door. “Don’t let his aloof behavior discourage you. He’s always been shy around new people.”
“Why do I get the feeling he tries to keep everyone new?”
A chuckle rumbled from Robert’s throat. “Don’t let him run you off either. You’re exactly what this family needs. Isn’t there a verse you should be drawing from right now?”
Emily gave a sheepish shrug. “Yes, several. And what about you? You’re life isn’t exactly peachy from what I gather. What verses give you strength?”
“Second Corinthians twelve, verses nine and ten.”
She knew the familiar passage. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
Robert rose from the table. “Time to start the day. Remember you have off tomorrow, then I’m gone again on Monday.”
Her thoughts collided before she could give thought to her Sunday off. Concern tightened her chest. “You’re leaving again already?”
“Yes, but don’t worry. I’ll talk to the kids about their behavior.”
Emily’s heart sank. Did he not listen? The children needed him. And what about his brother? Was she completely on her own?