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"Happy birthday! Happy birthday, Marcus!"
Marcus Wheeler lifted his hands and addressed the two dozen or so assembled guests.
"You shouldn't have gone to so much trouble. The church already gave me a nice monetary gift. A man blessed with that and a family such as this can't ask for more." He grinned, then added, "But I'm mighty appreciative, all the same."
"Good grief, man. We have six sisters between us," Vince, husband of Marcus's sister Jolie and scion of the boisterous Cutler clan, stated ruefully. "Did you really think your two sisters and my four would let your birthday slip by without a family celebration?"
Everyone laughed, and the rippling sound warmed Marcus to the very center of his soul. Not so long ago he'd been struggling to hold on to some semblance of his fractured family, and now, thanks to his two younger sistersespecially Jolie, the eldest of themhe had more family than he could keep track of.
"So far as I can tell," drawled Kendal Oakes, husband of
Marcus's youngest sister, Connie, "the Cutlers don't let any excuse to celebrate get past them."
This elicited more laughter and a general chorus of "Amen, brother!"
An only child himself, Kendal confessed to Marcus that he still didn't seem to know what to make of the loving horde who were the Cutlers, but after almost a year as a member of the clan, he was more at ease. Even his daughter, Larissa, who would be three in a couple months and was often overwhelmed by too much stimulation, had relaxed into the midst of what had proven to be a loving, sheltering family.
It was also a growing family, with Jolie and Vince expecting their first child in late June. Marcus knew that Jolie would be as wonderful a mother to her own child as she had been to her nephew, Russell, Connie's thirty-month-old son, in his first year when Connie couldn't take care of him.
"Can't have too much celebration," Connie murmured, smoothing Russell's bright red hair as he leaned against her leg, eagerly awaiting his piece of the birthday cake.
Marcus couldn't have agreed with her more. So much had changed in the past two years.
Connie had gotten out of prison and had since been exonerated of having taken any knowing part in the armed robbery and subsequent murder perpetrated by Russell's biological father. The split that had occurred in the family when Connie had reclaimed Russell from Jolie's care had been mended, thanks to Vince Cutler, who had married Jolie last Valentine's Day, almost a year ago now. Most amazing of all, Connie and Kendal had found each other, and what had begun as a marriage of convenience had joined two broken homes into one strong, Christ-centered family.
Marcus thanked God daily for the masterful way in which He had mended the bonds shattered by death and separation, and the spotty care of the foster child system in which he and his sisters had grown up. Truly, what else could a man of God possibly ask for?
Looking around the room at no fewer than seven happy couples, Marcus had to admit to himself that it was proving to be surprisingly difficult to be the only unmarried adult member of the family. Here he sat, a single minister in want of a wife, and suddenly thirty felt positively ancient. It seemed ungrateful, even selfish, to keep asking God where his mate was, but he couldn't help wondering. Marcus closed his eyes and sent a swift, silent prayer heavenward.
Lord, I thank You for all with which You've blessed me. I thank You for every person in this room. I even thank You for the room itself! You've given Jolie and Vince a lovely home. Connie and Kendal, too, for that matter. And I thank You for my church, Lord. Help me be satisfied with what I already have. That's my birthday prayer. Amen.
Jolie shoved another box onto his lap.
"Ya'll, this is just too much," he insisted, mentally cataloging the stack of dress shirts, ties, bookmarks and religious CDs already littering the floor around his chair.
"Hush up and rip in," Jolie counseled, dropping a kiss on his forehead as she moved back to her husband's side on the sofa that occupied one wall of the living room, to which the party had relocated after indulging the children's demand for cake. "That's the last one anyway."
Relieved to hear it, Marcus eagerly tore away the wrapping paper and pried apart the white pasteboard box beneath to reveal a large photo album tastefully bound in brown leather. A cross and the word "Wheeler" had been embossed on the front in gold.
Somewhat warily, Marcus cracked the cover. The front page contained grainy black-and-white photographs of their great-grandparents Edna and Bledsoe Wheeler.
"I remember these!" Marcus exclaimed happily. "But I thought they were lost."
"Jo had them," Connie apprised him, obviously pleased.
He turned another page and found a color eight-by-ten of his mother, Velma, as a high school senior. The youngest of two daughters born almost twenty years apart, Velma had been the late child of elderly parents and too quickly left alone in the world. After Marcus's father died she'd tried to fill the void with one man after another, eventually abandoning her own children in search of a love she'd never truly understood, only to die in an auto accident.
As difficult as it had been to be separated at ten from his younger sisters, Marcus thanked God that he'd landed with a family who had taught him to love the Lord and saved him from repeating his mother's fate. His sisters hadn't been blessed in that fashion. But now wasn't the time for bad memories. Today was his birthday, a time to celebrate. He and his sisters were back together again. That was all that mattered.
He turned the page and saw a small photo of their father, Carl, who had died of heart failure in his thirties, brought on by extensive alcohol and drug abuse. Marcus barely remembered him. Mostly he remembered the loud arguments that had preceded his departure from the household when Connie had still been a baby.
He'd been a nice-looking man, with Connie's bright, golden blond hair. What a pity that he'd allowed himself to be controlled by his addictions. Still, it was nice to have this reminder of him.
Pictures of Marcus and his sisters as children followed. Most included various members of the foster families with whom they'd resided. Next came a picture of Jolie's wedding. Marcus smiled at that and then at the photo of Connie and Kendal's second wedding, which followed. Now that was an interesting story.
Their first ceremony had been a somber affair performed in Kendal's home. They married because Russell needed a father, and Larissa needed a mother. Only some months later did the two realize that God had brought them together for more than the sake of their children and made their sham marriage a real one with a ceremony in church. It had been Marcus's distinct privilege to perform all three of his sisters' ceremonies.
He chuckled at photos of his nephew, Russell, and niece, Larissa. The two had taken to each other like bark on a tree. Soon the cross adoption of each child by the other's natural parent would be finalized.
The last picture was a puzzle. It looked like an ink blot at first, and then Marcus realized that it more closely resembled a printed negative of an X-ray. He turned the album sideways, trying to get a better look, prompting Vince to lean forward and announce, "That's your other nephew."
Jolie patted her slightly rounded belly with a self-satisfied smile. "We made you a print of the sonogram."
Ovida Cutler, Vince's mother, launched to her feet. All rounded curves and beaming smile, with fading red hair curling about her face, she was the quintessential grandmother.
"It's a boy!" she exclaimed, as if she didn't already have four grandsons.
"And this one will have the Cutler name," one of Vince's sisters pointed out.
"Actually," Jolie said, glowing at Marcus, "we're thinking that Aaron Lawrence Cutler is a fine name for a son, if you don't mind us appropriating your middle name, Marcus."
Marcus glanced at Larry Cutler, Ovida's husband, who was beaming ear to ear, obviously having no compunction about his given name coming in second to Marcus's middle one.
"I'd be honored, sis," he told her in a thick voice.
Fortunately the doorbell rang just then, preventing the whole room from erupting into happy tears.
While Vince hurried out to answer the door, Marcus quickly flipped through the remainder of the pages in the photo album to be certain that they were empty, then yielded to the clamor to pass it around. Within seconds the women were all "oohing" over the sonogram. Marcus himself hadn't seen anything that actually looked like a baby in the print, but that didn't lessen his delight in having it. Aaron Lawrence Cutler. Wow.
He wondered if he would ever have a son whom he might want to name after himself.
Vince returned with a girl in tow. Striking, with long hair the color of black coffee falling past her slender shoulders, she wore a somewhat outlandish costume of lime-green leggings, a long, straight denim skirt, a black turtleneck and muffler, a sky-blue fringed poncho and red leather flats. The shoes matched her gloves, which left only her wrists, ankles and heart-shaped face bare to the February chill.
A lime-green headband held back her sleek, dark hair, revealing an intriguing widow's peak that emphasized her wide, prominent cheekbones and slightly pointed chin. It was an exotic face, with large, round, tip-tilted eyes that gave a feline grace to a small nose and a wide, full, strawberry mouth. What galvanized Marcus, however, were the shiny tracks of tears that marked her pale cheeks.
Without even thinking about it, he was out of his chair a heartbeat after Jolie's mother-in-law, Ovida, and was striding across the room, certain that he was needed.
"Nicole Archer!" Ovida exclaimed, opening her arms. "Honey, what's wrong?"
The newcomer shook her head, eyes flicking self-consciously around the room. If her hair was black coffee, Marcus noted inanely, then those sparkling, soft brown eyes were cafe au lait. The cream in the coffee would be her skin.
Despite her lithe build, she was not a teenager, he saw upon closer inspection, but not far past it. He liked the fact that she wore no cosmetics, her skin appearing freshly scrubbed and utterly flawless.
A number of private conversations immediately began, their intent patently obvious. Marcus felt a spurt of gratitude for any effort to put this obviously troubled young lady at ease.
"I'm sorry to bother you," she said in a soft, warbling voice as Ovida's round arms encircled her slender shoulders.
"Nonsense. Suzanne's daughter could never be a bother to me." Ovida pulled back slightly and asked, "Now, what's he done?"
Those coffee-with-cream eyes again flickered with uncertainty. Sensing her discomfiture, Marcus stepped up and pointed an arm toward the door beyond the formal dining area as if he had every right to offer this young woman the use of the house.
"It's quiet in the kitchen," he suggested.
Ovida looked up at that, her worried gaze easing somewhat. She patted his cheek with one plump hand.
"I don't want to impose," Nicole protested softly, sniffing and ducking her head.
"No problem," Marcus assured her as Ovida turned the girl toward the door and gently but firmly urged her forward.
A couple of Ovida's daughters rose to follow, but Marcus lifted a proprietary hand. They would, of course, want to help, but ministry had some privileges, and he found himself compelled to exercise them for once. Both instantly subsided, and he nodded in gratitude before swiftly following Ovida and her guest.
He caught up with and passed them in time to push back the swinging door on its silent hinges. As she passed through into the kitchen, Nicole looked up and whispered her thanks.
"You're welcome," Marcus murmured, unashamedly following the pair into the brick-and-oak kitchen and letting the door swing closed behind him.
Ovida parked Nicole at the wrought-iron table in the breakfast nook. "Can I get you something to drink, honey?"
Nicole glanced at the half-empty coffeepot on the counter. Marcus had noticed that wherever Ovida and Larry Cutler were, the coffeepot was kept in service. It seemed fitting that this girl, for she was little more than that, surely, should show a preference for the dark beverage.
Without being asked, he turned to the cabinet and took down a stoneware coffee mug. Then he filled it with strong, black coffee and carried it to the table, placing it gently in front of this dark-haired beauty. She was beautiful, he realized with a jolt. But very young.
"There's cream and sugar, if you like."
Smiling wanly, she shook her head, tugged off her worn red leather gloves and wrapped a slender hand around the mug.
"Thank you. Again."
"You're welcome. Again."
As she sipped, he pulled out a chair for Ovida and nodded her down into it.
"Now tell me, honey," Ovida urged, "what's wrong?"
Nicole glanced quickly at Marcus before dropping both hands into her lap in a gesture that bespoke both helplessness and frustration. Marcus pulled out another chair and sat, bracing his forearms against the glass tabletop.
"Forgive me if I'm intruding where I'm not wanted, but if there's a problem, I'd like to help. My name is Marcus Wheeler, by the way."
He smiled to put her at ease. "It's nice to meet you, Nicole. I take it that you know my sister Jolie."
Nicole shook her head. "I know she's married to Vince, that this is their house."
"If you know the Cutlers, then you must realize that, through Jolie, I'm part of the family now. You probably don't know that I'm also a minister."
Her slender, dark brows rose into pronounced arches.
"Really? You seem too young."
Marcus chuckled. "That's good to hear today of all days." He leaned closer and confessed in a conspiratorial tone. "Today's my birthday. My twenties are now officially behind me."
"Happy birthday." Wrinkling her button of a nose, she added, "I didn't mean to crash the party."
"No problem." He folded his hands. "I'd like to help, if you'll allow it."
She sighed, braced an elbow against the tabletop, turned up her palm and dropped her forehead into it.
"There's nothing you can do. There's nothing anyone can do." Straightening, she shook her head. "I don't even know why I bothered to come here. It's just that.. " She looked at Ovida, and fresh tears clouded her eyes. "You said this was where you'd be if I needed you."
Ovida reached across the table to squeeze her hand. "You did exactly right. Now, then, what's Dillard done this time?"
"Same old, same old," came the muttered answer.
"That man!" Ovida snapped. "Did he hurt you?"
Marcus stiffened as alarm and something he didn't normally feel, anger, flashed through him.
"Who is Dillard?"
"Nicole's father," Ovida divulged. "Dillard Archer's been mad at the world and living in a bottle ever since his wife died more than three years ago."
"He was never like this when Mom was alive," Nicole said, shaking her head. "He'd lose his temper once in a while, even put his fist through a wall a time or two, but now." She bit her lip.
Marcus reached for the sheltering mantle of his professional detachment. For some reason that seemed more difficult than usual, but he managed, asking gently, "Is he abusive?"
Nicole bowed her head and whispered, "The worst part is the things he says sometimes, especially to my little brother."
"What's your brother's name?"
"Beau. He turned thirteen at the end of November."
An emotional age, as Marcus remembered all too well. The next question was, to him, all important.
"Has your father ever hit either one of you, Nicole?"
She sucked in a deep breath, her stillness indicating that she was deciding what to tell him.
"Not really. He's shoved us around a little, Beau mostly. I'm afraid my little brother hasn't learned when it's best to keep quiet."
Ovida shared a grim look with Marcus, saying, "Your poor mother's heart would break if she wasn't beyond such emotion, thank the good Lord."
"I just don't know what to do with him anymore," Nicole admitted tearfully. "I know he misses Mom, but we all do."
"Of course we do," Ovida crooned. "For her I'm happy, though. No more illness or pain. Just the peace and joy of heaven."