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Loud pounding pulled Caleb Mast out of the first good night's sleep he'd had in a month. He squinted at the clock on his bedside table. Who was beating on his door at three-forty in the morning?
Staggering out of bed, he made his way through his condo. After four weeks on an oil platform in the Gulf, he was ready for some downtime. He'd stayed twice as long as his normal rotation to cover for an injured crewmate. The twelve- to thirteen-hour shifts seven days a week were tough. Lousy weather and a shorthanded crew made the extra two weeks a killer. All he wanted was to crawl back in bed.
If some of his crewmates were looking to celebrate on their first night in, they could have fun without him. He didn't do the party scene. Not since He dismissed the thought without finishing it. He didn't look back. The pounding resumed.
He yanked open the front door. "If this building isn't on fire you're in trouble. What?"
A woman stood on his doorstep. She had a little girl beside her. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A fine mist was falling, scenting the air with rain and making a shimmering halo around the streetlamp across the roadway. A yellow hatchback with a dented door sat parked beneath it.
The woman pushed back her frizzy blond hair. "You're a hard man to find, Caleb."
The voice belonged to a bad memory from his past. "Valerie?"
She gave a halfhearted smile. "You remember my name. That's something."
Was she kidding? He had turned his life upside down, cut bone-deep family ties and moved halfway across the country with Valerie Perry. A year later, she left him a goodbye note with no forwarding address and an empty bank account. Now, after nearly nine years, she was back.
There were dark circles under her eyes and a droop to her full lips. She was thin as a rail. Her once-thick brown hair was bleached a brittle white-blond. It made her look cheap. Even at this hour, she wore heavy eye makeup. She licked her dry, cracked lips.
He folded his arms over his chest. "What do you want?"
"You could pretend you're happy to see me."
"If you're here to repay the money you stole, then I'm thrilled."
She dropped her gaze. "I've come for another reason."
"Mama, I'm tired," the girl whined. She peered at him through a mop of blond hair, straight and pale as wheat straw. He was stunned to see the characteristic round face, small upturned eyes and slightly flat nose that indicated she had Down syndrome.
His Amish mother had always told him such children were God's most precious gifts, sent to special families for a special purpose.
"I'm hungry. I wanna go home." The girl's speech was slow and halting. She hid her face against Valerie's leg.
"Hush. I'm talking," Valerie snapped.
Sympathy for the kid made Caleb take a step back from the door. October in Houston was balmy compared to the crisp autumn weather of his childhood home in Ohio, but the rain was picking up. "You want to come in?"
She steered the child past him into the living room. "Lie down on the sofa while we grown-ups talk."
Talk about what? What did they have to say to each other after so long? He should have shut the door in her face. She wouldn't be here if she didn't want something.
"But I'm hungry, Mama."
No matter what Val had done, the child deserved his kindness. "I've got some cold pizza and milk in the fridge. It's not much, but she's welcome to it."
Breakfast of champions. His Amish mother would be horrified to see him feeding a kid pizza at this time of the night. Then again, she'd be horrified by a lot in his current life.
The look the girl gave him was tired, fearful and hopeful all at the same time. He crouched to her level. "It's pep-peroni pizza. Is that okay?"
She nodded once. He glanced at Valerie. "Would you like something? Coffee?"
"Sure." She followed him into the kitchen. He pulled a pizza box from the fridge, placed a slice on a paper plate and stuck it in the microwave.
Valerie took a seat at the glass-topped table in the corner. "Things are such a mess. I didn't know where else to go. My boyfriend kicked us out, the jerk. My mom died last month."
"I'm sorry." Caleb had never met her mother. He shot a look toward Valerie as he spooned grounds into the coffeepot. She had a tight grip on her purse. She bit the corner of her lip and looked everywhere but at him. When the microwave bell dinged, she almost jumped out of her chair.
He checked to make sure the slice wasn't too hot, then carried it into the living room. Valerie's daughter was sitting upright on the sofa, struggling to keep her eyes open. He handed her the pizza. "I'll get your milk in a minute, okay?"
She snatched the plate from him and started tearing into the pizza. He went back to put a second slice in the microwave. Clearly, one wasn't going to be enough.
Valerie was on her feet, pacing the length of the room. "Mom's old man doesn't want the kid around anymore. Not that Joy is a problem. She's not. She's quiet as a mouse."
"Joy, is that her name?"
"Yeah, Joy Lynn."
"Nice." What else could he say?
"I thought you'd be married by now. I remember how much you wanted kids."
"I came close, but it didn't work out. She went back with her ex." And took her two kids with her. Another painful chapter of his life with a rotten ending. Parenthood didn't seem to be in the plan for him. The coffee finished dripping. He took a mug out of the cupboard and began to fill it.
Valerie sniffed and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "Joy is your daughter. I thought you should know."
He replaced the coffeepot with great care and set the mug down, amazed that he hadn't dropped either. "What?"
"I know I should have told you sooner, but she's your kid."
"I don't believe you." Val always twisted the truth.
"Joy, how old are you?" she asked over her shoulder.
"I'm eight, Mama."
"When is your birthday, honey?"
"You know that. December twenty-fifth. That is Christmas Day. Nana says I'm her Christmas Joy only, she has gone to heaven, hasn't she?" Joy's voice faded away.
Valerie had left him in early summer. It was actually possible.
Unlike the last woman who claimed he fathered her babe.
He refused to think about that final, painful confrontation with his Amish family. He had to focus on the present problem. Gripping the edge of the counter, he glared at Valerie. "Is this some kind ofjoke?"
She took a step back. "No. Mom's death made me realize that Joy should get to know you. You're all the family she has left."
"She has you," he retorted, wondering what kind of mother she was. Hard to imagine the self-absorbed, partyall-night woman he'd known in that role. He glanced toward Joy in the living room and his heart skipped a beat. He had a daughter.
If Val was telling the truth, he'd missed eight precious years of his child's life. The knowledge made him ache inside. Why had Valerie kept this from him? He would have stood by her. She had to know that.
"Mama, can I have my milk now, please? I remembered to say please. I'm being good."
Valerie arched one thinly penciled eyebrow. "Can she have some milk, Caleb?"
He wouldn't get his hopes up. Valerie could be lying. It was nothing new for her. He yanked open the fridge, pulled out a carton and handed it to her.
She took it, filled a glass with milk and carried it into the other room. He moved to the doorway to watch.
"Here you go. Mama left her cigarettes in the car, sweetie. Will you be okay with your daddy while I go get them?"
Joy jerked upright. "I have a daddy?" The kid sounded as surprised as he was by the news.
"Yes, you do. His name is Caleb Mast."
"A real daddy?" Her wistful tone carried hope and wonder.
"Your real daddy," Valerie assured her.
Joy's eyes narrowed. She pulled back and glared at her mother. "Is he another uncle like Jimmy and Keith?"
"No. He's your father. You're going to love him."
"What if I don't?"
What if she didn't? He wasn't a puppy or a kitten, something a kid liked on sight. He scratched at the stubble on his cheek. He was an ex-Amish oil-rig roughneck with few manners and a job that took him away half the year. He wasn't anyone's idea of a daddy. He'd given up that dream.
He turned away to get the forgotten pizza from the microwave and heard the front door open and close. He carried the second slice to Joy. She smiled when she saw it and licked the milk mustache from her upper lip.
What if she is my daughter?
Did it change anything? He didn't know her. She didn't know him. How much bonding could happen in the short time he spent ashore? Besides, he was about to take a job on one of the rigs off the coast of Brazil. He stood next on the company list to transfer. He expected to get word to pack his bags any day. He'd be gone for a full year when the opening came through.
She finished the milk and handed him the plate with the glass. "I like pizza."
"I like animal crackers the best. I eat all the elephants first." She rocked as she smiled.
Thunder rumbled, closer now. Her smile vanished. She glanced fearfully at the window. "I don't like thunder."
"Don't worry, it'll be gone soon."
She gave him a hard look. "Promise?"
"Can we have pizza tomorrow?" Where would she be tomorrow? "You'll have to ask your mom."
"Okay." She yawned widely.
He might as well get her settled. He wasn't going to send her and her mother out into the storm. Valerie had a lot more explaining to do. He gathered the bedding and soon had Joy tucked up snugly on his sofa. She was asleep in less than a minute. He bent and brushed her hair back from her face.
A special child was given for a special reason. What reason could God have for sending Joy to him?
She was a sweet kid, but was she his sweet kid? There was testing for this kind of situation. He would insist on it. Val was up to something. He settled in his recliner and waited for her to return.
Three hours later, the storm had moved on. Morning sunlight crept in beneath the window shade. Caleb rose from the chair and opened the front door for the umpteenth time. Birds twittered in the dripping trees. The walkway and street out front were glistening wet and deserted.
Valerie hadn't come back.
He heard a noise behind him. Turning, he saw Joy standing beside the couch. "Where's my mama?"
"I wish I knew."
Fear darkened her eyes. "I want my mama."
"Hey, it's okay." He started toward her without a clue what to do next.
She backed away. "I gotta find her."
She darted around him and ran barefoot out the door toward the street, with Caleb close on her heels.
Leah Belier added a box of crayons to her basket as she shopped with her friend Joann Weaver in the small grocery store in the village of Hope Springs, Ohio.
"Are you taking up art in your spare time?" Joann asked with a grin.
"Nee. I noticed Emmy Chupp borrowing colors from the other students this afternoon. She loves to draw. I think she has used up the ones her mother sent with her at the beginning of the school year. I decided to get her some more."
"That's still four weeks away. She needs them now. I'll get her colored pencils as a Christmas gift."
"That's sweet of you. How is her father getting along? I heard he broke his leg."
"He hasn't been able to work at the lumberyard for several weeks. Honestly, I'm worried about the family. Emmy didn't bring any lunch today. She told me she forgot it at home."
"Knowing you, I expect she ate your lunch, and you went hungry."
Leah chuckled. "It wouldn't hurt me to miss a meal or two, but I always bring extra food just in case."
She had shared her ample sandwich with Emmy and made a mental note to check in on the family tomorrow. As the teacher at the local Amish school, Leah kept a close eye on all her students. She was in a better position than most to see where trouble was brewing.
A new box of twenty-four crayons would cheer the shy child who liked to draw. Leah added some peanut butter and jelly to her basket. A few extra groceries might come in handy with lunches. If it looked as if they needed more help, she would let Bishop Zook know. No man's family went hungry in their Amish community. Caring for one another was a duty, not a chore.
She carried her purchases to the front of the store. The Englisch owner, Mr. McGregor, ran her items over the scanner. A big bear of a man with thick, curly gray hair, a wide smile and a booming voice, he and his tiny wife were longtime fixtures in Hope Springs.
"Afternoon, ladies. I hope all of you plan to come to the Christmas parade. Since this is our first year, we want it to be a success. My kids are building a float for the store. Should be grand."
"We are looking forward to it," Joann said.
"Mrs. Weaver, the printing job you did on the flyers for our dented-canned-goods sale was great. Lots of people came, not just the Amish."
Joann blushed. "Miller Press is happy to serve all those in our community, Amish and non-Amish alike. I will tell my husband you were pleased."
Joann and her new husband, Roman Weaver, both worked at his uncle's printing business.
"Good. Leah, my wife and I were just saying how much we're looking forward to your school Christmas program this year. Are the children getting excited?"
"Indeed they are. You and your wife are always welcome."
"My wife had the lights and decorations up the minute Thanksgiving was over, but it's watching your Amish students put on their plays and sing their songs so wonderfully that brings the true meaning of Christmas to my heart."
"I'm glad, for that is the purpose of our program."
"Remind your students to come to the Christmas parade. We want the kids to enjoy it, too."
"Why, I remember the Christmas little Anna Imhoff stood so straight and tall and recited her poem with such a big grin on her face at your school. That was the year they found John Doe beaten half to death on the Imhoff farm. Course, he was really Jonathan Dresher, but he didn't know his own name for weeks. Ain't it strange the ways the Lord finds to test us?" He stopped with her last item in his hand and stared into space.
"It is, indeed." She really needed to be going. She had a long walk home before dark.
"Anna sure took a shine to Jonathan. Happy thing, him marrying her sister, Karen. Yup, that was a mighty special Christmas."
"Ja, it was." Joann winked at Leah. Mr. McGregor loved to recount his stories regardless of the number of times his customers had heard them.
The outside door opened, and Leah saw an Englisch fellow come in. There was something vaguely familiar about him. He glanced her way.
Her breath caught in her throat. It couldn't be Caleb Mast, could it?
He turned down the collar of his coat and headed to the back of the store without any hint that he recognized her.
"Leah, is something wrong?" Joann gave her a funny look.
"Did you see the man who just walked in?"
"Nee." Joann looked toward the back of the store.
"I think it was Caleb Mast." Leah was almost sure of it.
"Really? I wonder what he's doing in Hope Springs after all this time. How long has it been?"
Leah knew exactly how long he had been gone. Nine years ago this month she was to have married his brother, Wayne. Then Caleb ruined everything.