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As the service for Anne droned on, Clay checked on the two children sitting beside him, who were huddled close together in the pew, holding hands. Emily's long, dark hair was pulled back with a ribbon, and her eyes were huge in her pale face. Fair-haired Josh looked uncertain and lost, his freckles standing in stark relief against his pale skin, one finger stuck in his mouth. He hadn't said a word since Clay had arrived in Omaha. Redirecting his attention to the sanctuary, where Reverend Phelps was presiding over Anne's funeral, Clay tried not to appear too hostile. He hadn't been inside a church since his sister's wedding almost ten years ago, and he'd prefer not to be in one now. But Anne would have wanted a church service. That's why he'd thrown his one suit into his suitcase in the early morning hours preceding his long, solitary drive to Nebraska.
He'd always been a sucker about giving his gentle, loving kid sister what she wanted, he recalled. His favorite comic book, his last piece of chocolate. He'd been her biggest fan when she'd had the leading role in her grade school play, and her staunchest defender when bullies had plagued her in middle school.
Yet he hadn't been able to save her from the ultimate bully. From the man who, ironically, had pledged to love, honor and cherish her all the days of his life.
As he looked at the coffin resting beside him in the aisle, Clay's throat tightened. A tear leaked out the corner of his eye, and he dipped his head to swipe at it with the back of his hand.
May Martin rot in hell for all eternity, Clay thought, the bitter wish twisting his gut.
And his feelings toward his old man weren't much kinder.
Nor were they tempered bythe memory of their brief conversation after he'd arrived in Nebraska. He hadn't seen or talked with his father since Anne's wedding, and he hadn't recognized the querulous voice on the phone. But though his father had sounded old and feeble, he'd been as self-righteous, demandingand disapprovingas ever.
"Listen, boy, I can't make it to Nebraska for the service. I have pneumonia." His father's hacking cough, followed by audible wheezing, had interrupted their conversation. "You'll have to handle the arrangements."
Clay had always hated how his father called him "boy." His jaw had clamped shut and he'd gritted his teeth. "I plan to."
"There has to be a church service."
"It's taken care of."
"Who has the children?"
"I guess there's no other option right now."
He must think I'll corrupt them in a week, Clay had concluded, compressing his mouth into a thin line.
"I'll take them as soon as I'm well enough," his father had continued. "I'll call you."
And with that he'd hung up.
There hadn't been a lot of opportunity to think about his father's last comment, but as the organ launched into a hymn and the people around him began to sing, Clay considered the two children beside him. He'd been so mired in grief, so bogged down in paperwork and funeral arrangements, he hadn't given much thought to their future.
But as he regarded their innocent, anxious faces, his heart contracted with compassion. How could he relegate these little children to a cold, joyless life with his strict, hard-nosed father? After the trauma they'd been through, they needed love and tenderness, and a stable, supportive environment. They needed a caring parent figure and a real home. His father would offer none of those things.
Unfortunately, he wasn't equipped to offer them, either, Clay acknowledged. He didn't know much about love or tenderness, and less about how to create a comforting haven. The home of his youth wasn't a good prototype. Nor were his twelve years in the Army, where the focus had been on structure and discipline and honor. And his current job kept him on the move, making it impossible to establish ties of any kindor even a permanent home. And that's the way he liked it.
Yet the thought of handing these children over to his father turned his stomach. The old man ruled through fear, not love. Joy and fun weren't in his vocabulary. Josh and Emily would have a dismal life with him. That was the last thing Anne would have wanted for them.
So what was he supposed to do?
"As we take our sister, Anne, to her final resting place, let us find some comfort in knowing she is at peace and with God." Reverend Phelps's closing remarks echoed in the church, and Clay tried to focus on his words. "And let us recall how she always tried to do the right thing. That's a challenge we all face. Because the right thing may not always be the easiest thing. It may not be what we want to do. It may take great courage. But Anne gave us a shining example of courage and selfless love. Let that be her legacy to us, one that we all strive to follow."
Twin furrows dented Clay's brow. He'd seen too many people fail at relationshipswith parents, with spouses, with children. Enough to convince him he never wanted a family. But if what the minister said was true, he had one now. For how could he send these children to his father's home, where their life would be little better than before?
All at once Clay found it difficult to breathe. Reaching up, he tugged at his suddenly too-tight tie. He'd had this feeling of being trapped, of the walls closing in on him, twice before in his life. Once, as a kid, living under his father's roof. And again, during Army training, when he'd been locked into a small, dark room for several days during a POW simulation. In both cases, he'd survived for one simple reason: he'd known he would get out.
But there was no escape from this situation. Not if he did the right thing.
Clay knew about duty from his years in the military. Knew about it, too, from years of living in his father's house, where the phrase "doing your Christian duty" had been drummed into him. The minister had confirmed that obligation. There was no doubt in Clay's mind about what he should do.
But he wasn't sure he was up to the task.
Frustrated, Clay raked his fingers through his hair. He didn't know a thing about little kids. If Anne had listened to him and left her husband instead of letting their father shame her into staying in that mockery of a marriage, he wouldn' t be in this predicament.
Giving him yet another reason to resent his old man.
As the pallbearers began to roll the coffin out, Clay moved into the aisle behind it. Emily and Josh remained in the pew, watching him with big eyes. He motioned for them to follow, and Emily nudged Josh. But the little boy shook his head and burrowed closer to Emily.
Stepping back into the pew, Clay crouched beside the children. "It's time to go," he murmured.
"Josh is 'fraid," Emily whispered.
A lump rose in this throat. "Neither of you need to be afraid anymore. I'm going to take care of you. How about I carry you, Josh? That way, you can see the pretty windows in the back."
Clay held out his arms and, with a nudge from Emily, Josh edged toward him. Swinging him up, Clay was startled by how little the boy weighedand reminded yet again of the children's vulnerability and the terrifying responsibility he'd inherited.
As the procession moved down the aisle, a tentative touch on his hand drew his attention and he looked down. Emily was watching him, her expression uncertain, as if to ask: Is this okay? In response, he pasted on a smile and folded her small, cold hand in his with a gentle squeeze.
The tremulous little puff of air she released, the sudden relaxing of her features, almost undid him. Clay knew Anne had tried her very best to shelter her children and create a real home. But in the few days he'd been in Nebraska, he'd discovered her best hadn't been good enough. The children had seen too much. Heard too much. Their eyes told the story. Fearful, anxious, uncertain, hauntedthey were old beyond their years. Especially Emily's. The damage was clear. And he was afraid it would take a miracle to undo it.
Clay didn't much believe in miracles except the kind people made for themselves through hard work and perseverance. In this case, however, he wasn't sure any amount of work on his part would give these children back their childhood. Yet they were in desperate need of help.
Since he doubted he'd darken a church door again any time soon, Clay figured he should use this opportunity to seek help from a higher source. Not that he expected much. But what did he have to lose?
God, I don't know why any of this happened. And I don't know if You care. But if You do, please take pity on these children. They need more than I can give. I'll do my best, but I'm not equipped to handle kids. If You're listening, help me find a way to heal these children. Not for my sake. But for theirs. And Anne's.
Clay saw the familiar arches in the distance, a short drive off the interstate, and cast an uneasy glance into the rearview mirror as he pulled into the exit lane. Josh was dozing in the back seat, and Emily was staring out the window. Since leaving Omaha four hours ago after the funeral, she hadn't said more than ten words. And the eerie silence was beginning to unnerve him. Weren't kids supposed to be noisy and restless on long car trips? Weren't they supposed to chatter and ask how much longer and want a drink of water and need to use the bathroom every ten miles?
These two, however, hadn't made one request or asked a single question during the entire trip. But they must be hungry by now. He sure was.
"How about some hamburgers and French fries?" Clay tossed the question over his shoulder as he started up the exit ramp.
He checked the rearview mirror again. Emily's somber gaze met his.
"Are you hungry?" He gentled his tone.
She gave a slow nod.
"Do you like hamburgers and French fries?"
Again, an affirmative response. "Josh does, too."
"How about a milkshake to go with them?"
Her face lit up a little and she gave her brother a gentle prod. "Josh. Wake up. We're going to have milkshakes." It was the first touch of life Clay had heard in her voice.
A parking spot near the front door of the fast-food outlet opened up, and Clay pulled in. By the time he climbed out of the pickup truck, Emily had unbuckled her car seat and was working on Josh's, her lower lip caught between her teeth.
"Do you need some help?" Clay offered.
"No, thank you. I can do it."
Five minutes later, after he'd settled them in a booth, Clay headed for the counter to place his order, keeping them in sight. But he didn't have to worry. Unlike the other children in the place, who were crying, shouting, throwing food or running around, Josh and Emily sat in silence waiting for him. While Clay wasn't anxious for them to emulate their peers, he was struck again by the need to restore some semblance of childhood to their lives. Some laughter and spontaneity and just plain silliness.
In light of all that had transpired, however, that seemed like a monumental task.
"Here's your change, sir."
Clay swiveled toward the counter and pocketed the money. "Thanks." Juggling the tray, he wove his way toward the booth, slid in opposite the children and quickly dispensed the food.
The first bite of his burger was wonderful, and he closed his eyes as he chewed, enjoying the flavor. At least, he was enjoying it until he opened his eyes and found Josh and Emily staring at him with solemn faces, their food untouched.
He stopped chewing. "What's wrong?"
"We didn't say grace yet," Emily said.
Trying not to choke, Clay swallowed his mouthful of burger with a gulp and wiped a paper napkin across his lips. He hadn't said a prayer before meals since he'd left home at age seventeen. Racking his brain, he searched for the stale words his father used to say, but they eluded him.
Emily studied him. "Do you want me to say it?"
"Good idea," he endorsed with relief.
She reached for Josh's hand, then for his. Josh inched his other hand across the table, and Clay took it. Their small hands were swallowed in his much larger grasp.
Emily and Josh bowed their heads as Emily spoke. "Lord, thank you for this food we eat, and keep us safe until we meet. Amen."
"Amen," Clay echoed after they gave him an expectant look.
As the children began eating, devouring every last morsel, Clay realized how hungry they'd been. And how dependent they were on him. For everything. Food. Shelter. Security. Love. Like it or not, he'd inherited a family. Unless he sent them to live with his father.
That was still an option. But not a good one.
Meaning his life was about to change dramatically.
And all at once he wasn't hungry any more.
"Don't make any noise, Josh."
The childish, high-pitched whisper penetrated Clay's light sleep, and he squinted at the illuminated dial of his watch. Four-fifteen. If he didn't get some rest soon, he'd be a zombie in the morning. But the uncomfortable couch that had become his bed since Emily and Josh had claimed his room three nights ago wasn't helping, either.
An odd sound came from the bedroom, and he frowned. What was going on in there?
Swinging his legs to the floor, Clay padded toward the bedroom door, his bare feet noiseless on the carpet. As he eased it open, two heads pivoted toward him and Josh and Emily froze, like startled deer caught in headlights.
The seconds ticked by as Clay tried to make sense of the scene. The two children stood at the far corner of the bed. Emily had taken the blankets off and piled them on the floor. Now she was trying to take the sheets off as well.
"What's going on?" Clay scanned the room again, bewildered.
Josh moved closer to Emily, and she placed a shielding arm around his shoulders. "Josh h-had an accident."
Shifting his attention to the frightened little boy, Clay gave him a rapid inspection. In his definition, "accidents" entailed injury and blood. But Josh didn't appear to be hurt. However, his pajama bottoms did look funny. They were clinging to him. Like they were wet.
All at once, Clay understood.
"It happens s-sometimes at night, if he's afraid." A tremor ran through Emily's voice. "I can clean it up. You don't have t-to be mad."
Clay took a step into the roombut came to an abrupt halt when Josh cowered behind Emily with a whimper.