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The smallish town of Rosewood blossomed in the summer. Located outside Houston, the villageturnedtown was situated on the gradually sloping lands that marked the approach of the Texas hill country. Children, playing with abandon, filled the streets and parks, euphoric with the months of freedom stretching out before them.
Katherine Blake felt equally enthusiastic about summer. Especially since it meant vacation Bible School this first week of June. It was one of her favorite activities at the church. There was much to love about being minister of the warm, caring congregation, but there was something so very special about anything involving the children.
And she really loved it when she got to sub in one of their classes. She rarely had the opportunity to step out of her administrative role. However, because they were short of volunteers, everyone had
been reined in to help on this first day. And Katherine had drawn the class of fiveyearolds.
Surely it was one of the Lord's many wonders the amount of energy a room full of fiveyearolds could generate. With no children of her own, Katherine appreciated every moment of her time with the many who belonged to the church. And she tried not to think about how much she longed for children of her own.
"Katherine, can you round up the paints and brushes for the art project? Oh, and the clay, too. I want to get started and take attendance."
"I'll get right on it, Donna." Katherine didn't mind the grunt work. She admired Donna Hobbs, the teacher of the class. Twentyseven years old, bubbly, a pretty blonde, she was one of the best Sunday School teachers in the church.
As Katherine collected art supplies, she checked out the children still entering the classroom. As they continued parading inside, she suddenly recognized two of the miniature faces. Tessa and Annie from the grocery store collision!
It dawned on Katherine why Tessa had looked so familiar. She was new to the churchher family had just joined recently. The Spencers had changed churches because they wanted a stronger youth program for their family, which included a teenager and two younger children. Tessa had been visiting her grandparents when the family joined Rosewood. Katherine had only glimpsed the youngest child last
Sunday, when her parents had retrieved her from the children's church service.
Pleased to see her new friends, Katherine approached them. "Tessa, Annie. Great to see you."
"Hi!" they greeted her in unison, still somewhat shy. But their grins were welcoming.
"Are you the teacher?" Tessa asked, her face puckered in anticipation.
"Actually, I'm the helper."
"Daddy says I'm his best helper," Annie confided, losing a touch of her shyness.
Katherine smiled as she met Annie's large blue eyes, which were filled with bashful pride. The child was a charmer. "I'm sure you are the very best helper," Katherine agreed.
"I help, too!" Tessa added, not wanting to be outdone by her friend.
"Oh, I'm sure you do," Katherine replied seriously, although her eyes danced with amusement. What a pair!
Since Donna was trying to quiet the class, Katherine left them with a wink. But throughout the morning, she found her gaze wandering toward the winsome duo.
The time spent with the fiveyearolds was as much fun as Katherine had anticipated. When Donna called for the closing prayer, Katherine was nearly as disappointed as the children to see the class end.
asked Katherine to man the classroom door while she escorted some of the children out to waiting cars at the front drive.
Glancing down the hallway, Katherine recognized Annie's father striding down the hallway. His purposeful gait didn't match his surroundings. Michael Carlson looked like he belonged atop a steed or perhaps the modernday versiona massive Harley. She shook her head at the notion.
"Mr. Carlson" she began with a smile.
But he cut her off. "I'm here to pick up Annie and Tessa."
Although his words were controlled, she could see that he was angry. She wondered why.
"Of course. They're right here. We certainly enjoyed having them today."
"This one time had better last Annie."
Confused, she watched as he began to shepherd the girls out of the room. She snagged his sleeve. "Mr. Carlson? I don't understand. Is something wrong?"
"Annie was here without permission. Tessa's mother didn't mean anything by it, but Annie won't
"But why not? She seemed to enjoy it so much
"We don't go to church. Ever." Katherine felt his distress in her own soul. "Oh, surely you can't mean that!" "I said it and I meant it." "Perhaps if you and your wife discussed it"
"My wife's dead."
Stunned, Katherine was silenced for a moment, even though her eyes flicked to the ring he still wore. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be insensitive. But I do hope you'll reconsider about Annie." She paused, sensing his loss, knowing words couldn't dilute it. "I'll be praying for you and your family."
His blue eyes met hers, the darkness in them hiding what she guessed was a wealth of pain. "Don't bother."
The children in tow, Michael strode through the hallways, slowing down only long enough to accommodate Annie's and Tessa's shorter legs.
He kept up the pace as they left the church and drove rapidly toward home.
But he couldn't stop thinking about Katherine Blake. He had been aware of her in the grocery store when they met. In fact, she'd lingered in his mind. And again today when he spotted her, he'd felt an unwelcome jab of attraction. It wasn't something he was ready for.
Michael could still see the compassion in Katherine's eyes. But he had seen similar expressions all too often after Ruth had died. He didn't need the pity of dogooders, certainly not from lady Sunday School teachers.
He and Ruth had just moved to Rosewood and only attended the local Methodist Church a few times when she became ill. Staying home to care
for her and the kids, Michael hadn't realized then it would be one of the last times he'd enter a church.
No, he and his kids didn't need anything from anyone not anymore. There had been a time when he had begged, pleaded. But that time was gone, never to be recovered.
Once at home, Michael took over for the babysitter, Mrs. Goode, who was happy for the rare opportunity to leave early. Tessa and Annie retreated to the world of Barbie dolls and makebelieve. His son, however, was more practical.
"Dad, I'm hungry," David announced, shifting from one leg to the other in an impatient dance.
"I know. You'll have to wait until it's cooked."
David tried to finagle. "We could order pizza."
"By the time the pizza could get here, I'll have dinner cooked."
"But if we order pizza, you wouldn't haveto cook. You could read the newspaper or watch TV."
"Nice try, David. But you need your vegetables."
David sighed, a heartfelt groan of disappointment. "Then, can I eat at Billy's?"
Michael stared suspiciously at his son. "Any special reason?"
"Well " David hedged.
"Why?" Michael insisted.
"His mom's a reallygood cook," David finally admitted.
And it went without saying that Michael wasn't. So much about their lives had changed since Ruth's death. So many things he felt his children had been
cheated out ofthings he couldn't compensate for or replace. But he had to try.
"It's important that we eat together as a family. Why don't you see if Billy wants to come over, instead?"
"Uh, if he does, could we have something good?Like pizza?"
"We already covered that, David. No pizza. So, you going to call Billy?"
"Nah." With sevenyearold resilience, David scampered away.
Dinner was a quiet affair. The children picked at the overdone pork chops and soggy cabbage. Clearly David could picture the pizza he'd been denied. And Michael dreaded the difficult task ahead of him.
Once the dishes were stacked in the dishwasher, Michael approached Annie, who was in her room enthralled with her new toy stove. "Hey, princess, you have a minute?"
She looked up, her sweet smile melting his heart. "Sure, Daddy. You want to play?"
Obligingly, Michael sat down next to his daughter, trying to fit his long legs into the cramped floor space between the stove and all its accessories: miniature bowls, pans, silverware and mixer. "What are we playing?"
"Dessert. I'm baking a hugecake."
Feeling his love for his precious daughter swelling, Michael smiled. "What kind of cake?"
"Chocolate!" she chirped, opening the door to the
play oven, her imagination filling in where reality stopped. "Good. My favorite."
Again she looked up at him. "I know. That's why it's chocolate."
His heart completely undone, Michael accepted the small plastic plate filled with part of an Oreo cookie. He took a bite, then waited a moment. "This is delicious, Annie."
Obviously pleased, she broke into a grin.
For a few moments he enjoyed the bites of cookie, accompanied by water served in tiny teacups. But he knew he had to tell Annie, to get this over, even though he dreaded doing so. "Princess, I need to talk to you."
"About what, Daddy?"
He paused. "Honey, you can't go with Tessa to vacation Bible School tomorrow."
At first Annie's small face reflected only confusion. "But why not, Daddy?"
"We don't go to church," he replied, not wanting to meet the questions in her eyes.
Then her lips quivered as her face crumpled. "Why can't I, Daddy? Tessa gets to go. And she's my very best friend in the whole world!"
"I know. But Tessa's family belongs to the church.
"Tessa's mom said that's okay. That Jesus wants everyone to come to His house."
Michael's throat worked, remembering a time he,
too, had believed that to be true. "Annie, it's different for us. So, I'm sorry, but you can't go."
Tears rolled down Annie's cheeks. "But I want to
Again Michael fought a wave of emotion, swamped by the bitter irony of his words. "Honey, we don't always get what we want in this life."
But Annie was beyond logic. Crying loudly now, her eyes and words accused him. "But you could let me go if you wanted to!"
Feeling helpless, Michael hated to hurt his child, but he could not budge on this point. When it had mattered most, God had let him down, let them all down. And Michael couldn't ever forget it.
The following morning Katherine watched the children pouring through the hallways, searching for little Annie Carlson. She had prayed for the troubled family, hoping the Lord would soften Michael's heart.
Brightening, she spotted Tessa Spencer. Still searching, she didn't see her other young friend. But maybe they hadn't come together.
When Tessa was close enough, Katherine knelt down beside her. "Morning, Tessa. How are you?"
"Okay," Tessa replied without her usual exuberance.
"Where's Annie today?" "She couldn't come. Her daddy wouldn't let her." Katherine suspected her own disappointment equaled Tessa's. "Maybe he'll change his mind
before vacation Bible School ends. We have almost two weeks left."
Tessa didn't look convinced. "Her daddy said she couldn't come back, ever."
Katherine winced. The man was a tough case. Then, seeing how forlorn little Tessa was without her friend, Katherine reached for her hand, linking it with her own. "How about if you're my special helper today?"
"But I thought youwere the helper. What would I do?"
"Help me pass out the art supplies, get the juice and cookies ready."
Looking somewhat comforted, Tessa nodded. "Okay." Yet she kept her hand within the safe confines of Katherine's.
Michael Carlson's stubbornness was hurting two little girls very much. Katherine could only imagine how much he was hurting himself.