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Daisy Spencer had always wanted children. She just hadn't expected to wind up stealing one.
Okay, that was a slight exaggeration. She hadn't exactly stolen Tommy Flanagan. The way she saw it, nobody wanted the boy. His father was long gone and his pitiful, frail mother had had the misfortune to die in the recent flu epidemic. The story was the talk of Trinity Harbor and had been for weeks now.
While they searched for relatives, Social Services had placed Tommy with three different foster families in as many weeks, but Tommy wouldn't stay put. He was scared and angry and about as receptive to love as that vicious old rooster Daisy's father insisted on keeping over at Cedar Hill.
Despite all that, Daisy's heart just about broke when she thought of all the pain that ten-year-old had gone through. She figured she had more than enough love to spare for the little boy who'd been one of her brightest Sunday school students, a boy who was suddenly all alone in the world, a boy who'd lost his faith in God on the day his mother died.
Daisy's own faith had been tested half a dozen years ago when she'd been told she would never have children of her own. The news had almost destroyed her. It had destroyed her relationship with Billy Inscoe, the only man she'd ever loved.
All Daisy had cared about was having children she could shower with love. Adoption would have suited her just fine.
But Billy hadn't been able to see beyond the fact that his fiancée was barren. Billy had wanted sons and daughters of his own. He'd wanted his blood running through their veins, proof of his manhood running through the streets. He'd wanted to start a dynasty as proud as the Spencers'. When Daisy couldn't give him that, he'd taken back his ring and gone looking for someone who could.
With the exception of Daisy's minister, nobody knew the truth about what had happened between her and Billy. Daisy kept quiet because she'd been so humiliated by the discovery that she wasn't woman enough to give Billy what he thought he needed from a wife. Billy had been discreet for his own reasons.
Her own father thought the broken engagement was the result of some whim on her part, as if she'd turned her back on marriage because she thought someone better might be waiting around the next corner. He couldn't conceive of the possibility that his handpicked choice for her had been the one to walk out, and Daisy had let him have his illusions.
And so, until this morning Daisy had pretty much considered her dream of a family dead and buried, right along with every bit of respect and love she'd ever felt for Billy Inscoe.
The last few years she'd thrown herself into her job teaching history at the local high school. She was advisor for the yearbook, the drama club and the 4-H. She taught Sunday school classes. She took her friends' children fishing on the banks of the Potomac River and on outings to Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, or Wakefield, the birthplace of George Washington, both of which were nearby. She gardened, nurturing flowers and vegetables the way she'd always wanted to nurture her own babies.
Heaven help her, she'd even brought home a cat for company, though the independent Molly spent precious little time with her mistress unless she was hungry. And as if to mock Daisy, she'd just had her second litter of kittens.
In another era, Daisy would have been labeled a boring spinster, even though she'd barely turned thirty. Frankly, there were times when that was exactly what she felt like: a dull, dried-up old lady. The role she'd always envisioned herself playing—wife and mother—seemed totally beyond her grasp. She was on the verge of resigning herself to living on the fringes of other people's lives, to being Aunt Daisy once her brothers married and had families of their own.
Today, though, everything had changed. Early this morning she'd gone to the garage and found Tommy, cold and shivering in the spring chill. He'd been wearing a pair of filthy jeans, a sweater that had been claimed from the church thrift shop even though it was two sizes too big and a pair of sneakers that were clearly too small for his growing feet. His blond hair was matted beneath a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, and his freckles seemed to stand out even more than usual against his pale complexion.
Despite the sorry state he was in, the boy had been scared and defiant and distrustful. But eventually she'd been able to talk him into coming inside, where she'd fixed him a breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns, grits and toast. He'd devoured it all as if he were half-starved, all the while watching her warily. Only in the last few minutes had Tommy slowed down. He was pushing the last of his eggs around on his plate as if fearful of what might happen once he was done.
Studying him, for the first time in years Daisy felt a stirring of excitement. Her prayers had been answered. She felt alive, as if she finally had a mission. Mothering this boy was something she'd been meant to do. And she intended to cling to that sensation with everything in her. Even Molly seemed to agree. She'd been purring and rubbing against Tommy since he'd arrived.
"I ain't going to another foster home," Tommy declared, allowing his fork to clatter against his plate in emphasis.
He regarded her suspiciously. "You ain't gonna make me?"
"Because I intend to let you stay right here, at least until things settle down." Even as she said the words, she realized she'd made the decision the minute she'd seen him.
His gaze narrowed. "Settle down how?"
Daisy wasn't sure of that herself. Her heart had opened up the instant she discovered Tommy in her garage, but she was smart enough to know that she couldn't just decide to keep him. Frances Jackson over at Social Services was looking for relatives, and there were probably a thousand other legalities to consider. All Daisy knew was that if she had anything at all to say about it, this boy had run away for the last time. Maybe for once, being a Spencer would be a blessing. People might like to gossip about the family, but they tended to bow to their wishes.
"You'll just have to trust me," she said eventually.
He scowled at that. "Don't know why I should."
She hid a grin, wondering what made her think this smart-mouthed kid was a gift from above.
She gave him a stern look. "Because I have been your Sunday school teacher since you were a toddler, Tommy Flanagan, and I don't lie."
"Never said you did," he mumbled. "Just don't know why I should think you're any different than all those other people who promised I'd get to stay, then kicked me out."
"Nobody kicked you out. You keep running away," she reminded him. "Isn't that right?"
He shrugged off the distinction. "I suppose."
"Why did you do that?"
"They just took me in because they had to. I know when I'm not wanted. I just made it easy for 'em."
"Okay, then, for however long it takes to find your family—or forever, if it comes to that—you are going to have a home right here with me. And I'm going to see to it that you don't have any reason to want to run away. Don't take that to mean I'm going to be a pushover, though."
She said it emphatically and without the slightest hesitation. Her gaze locked with his. "Do we have an understanding?"
"I guess," he said, apparently satisfied for the moment that she meant what she said.
Relief washed through her. This was going to work out. She could feel it. Daisy didn't even consider the fact that she'd caught him trying to hot-wire her car as a bad omen. Hopefully Tommy wouldn't mention that little detail to anyone. She certainly didn't intend to.
She did worry ever so slightly about the repercussions once word got back to her father, but she was convinced she could handle that, too. She just hoped it would take the grapevine a little longer than usual to reach Cedar Hill. King wasn't as easily won over as a scared kid.
In the meantime, she knew she did have to call Frances Jackson. Frances took her job at Social Services very seriously. Tommy's disappearances were wearing on her nerves. Daisy reached for the portable phone.
"Who're you calling?" Tommy demanded, scowling.
"Mrs. Jackson. She needs to know that you're with me and that you're okay."
"Don't see why." He gave her a pleading look. "Couldn't we just keep this between us? You tell her, and the next thing we know she'll have the sheriff over here hauling my butt away."
"The sheriff won't lay a hand on you," Daisy reassured him fiercely, but she put the phone back on the table.
"Because the sheriff is my brother and he'll do what I tell him to do." At least she hoped he would.
Tommy still looked skeptical. "Have you got something on him?"
Daisy chuckled. "Not the way you mean. Just leave handling Tucker to me. It won't be a problem. Besides, when you go back to school on Monday, people are going to want to know where you're staying. We might as well be up-front about it."
"I thought maybe I wouldn't go back," he said, looking hopeful. "It's almost summer, anyway."
"Not a chance," Daisy said firmly. "Education is too important—you can't take it lightly. And there are weeks to go before summer, not days. You will go to school and that's that. Now go on upstairs, Tommy, take a bath and then get a little rest. I'm sure you didn't sleep much last night. There are clean towels in the closet, and you can have the guest room at the end of the hall. If you need anything, just ask. We'll talk some more later."
Tommy nodded and started out of the kitchen, then paused. "How come you're being so nice to me?"
For an instant he allowed her to see the vulnerable, lost little boy behind the defiant facade. "Because you're worth being nice to, Tommy Flanagan," she told him.
He seemed a bit startled by that, but he gave a little bob of his head and took off, thundering up the stairs, Molly trailing after him.
"And because I need you as much as you need me," she whispered when he was out of earshot.
Once again she reached for the phone and made the call to Frances.
"Oh, Daisy," the social worker murmured when she'd heard what Daisy had to say. "Are you sure you want to do this? Tommy's a real troublemaker. Not that it's not understandable, given what he's been through, but he needs a firm hand."
"He needs love," Daisy retorted. "And I intend to see that he gets it."
"Is there some reason I'm not a fit foster mother for him?" Daisy demanded.
"Of course not," Frances said, as if the very idea that someone would consider a Spencer unfit was ludicrous.
"Then that's that. Tommy stays here."
"Until I find a relative," the social worker reminded her.
"Or not," Daisy said. "You'll take care of the paperwork, then?"
Frances sighed. "I will. I'll drop it by later for you to sign, though I can't imagine what King is going to say when he hears about this."
"Then you be real sure not to tell him," Daisy retorted. "Or I'll make him think this was all your idea."
Frances was still sputtering over the threat when Daisy hung up. A little grin of satisfaction spread across her face. It was about time she gave the residents of Trinity Harbor something to talk about besides her long-ago broken engagement and her pecan pie.
"Sis, you are out of your ever-loving mind," her brother Tucker, the local sheriff, told Daisy when he arrived within an hour of her conversation with Frances.
Obviously the instant he'd heard what she was up to—probably straight from the social worker—Tucker had hightailed it over to lecture her as if she were sixteen instead of thirty. Hands on hips, he was scowling at her as if she'd committed some sort of crime, instead of simply seizing the opportunity that had been presented to her.
"That boy's going to land in juvenile detention," he declared in his best doom-and-gloom tone. "You mark my words. Doc's caught him stealing comic books. He broke Mrs. Thomas's window. And he rode his bike through Mr. Lindsey's bean patch and mowed down most of his plants. Something tells me that's just the things we know about. There could be more. He's headed for trouble, Daisy."
Daisy stared right straight back into Tucker's eyes, ignored his stony expression, and countered, "Well, of course he is…unless someone steps in and does something."
"And that has to be you?"
"Do you see anybody else who's willing?" she demanded. "He's already run through half the foster families in the area. As for those pranks of his, you and Bobby did worse and nobody did more than call Daddy to complain."
"That was different."
Tucker squirmed uneasily. "It just was, that's all." He tried another tack. "When Dad hears about this, he is going to go ballistic."
She shrugged off her brother's assessment as if it was of no consequence. "Dad is always going ballistic about one thing or another. Usually it's you or Bobby who gets him all worked up. It's about time I took a turn. Being King Spencer's dutiful daughter is starting to wear thin."
"You'll get your heart broken," Tucker predicted, his expression worried. "You can't just take in some stray kid and decide to keep him. That's no way to get what you want, Sis."
Her big brother knew better than anyone how desperately she wanted a family. He had been the one to console her when Billy had walked out, leaving her convinced she would never marry. Even without knowing anything more than the fact that Billy was the one to break the engagement, Tucker had wanted to throttle the man. Daisy had persuaded him not to, assuring him that Billy Inscoe wasn't worth another second of their time, much less the risk of an assault charge that could ruin Tucker's career in law enforcement.
"Sooner or later, they'll find Tommy's family," Tucker warned, regarding her protectively.
"I don't know what makes you so certain of that," she said. "There's been no sign of anyone so far, and you know how dogged Frances is when she's working a case."
"That's exactly what makes me believe she'll eventually get results. When she does, you'll have to let him go."
"And until then, he'll have me," she insisted stubbornly, not wanting to consider what she would do when that day came.
"Where is he now?" Tucker asked.
"Cleaning out your jewelry box, no doubt."
She scowled. "Sleeping," she contradicted.
"Wanna bet? If I prove otherwise, will you forget about this?"