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By Karen Kingsbury
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Karen Kingsbury
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhere had the years gone?
If Ashley Baxter Blake asked herself one question as she set about planning her father's surprise seventieth birthday it was that one. Where in the world had the years gone? Wasn't it just yesterday that she was flying off to Paris, determined to outrun the reach of her family, the bond of shared faith? Yesterday when she thought Landon Blake too safe and real love too predictable?
She walked across the kitchen of the old farmhouse, the one with the wraparound porch and half a dozen bedrooms framed by old country walls and surrounded by sprawling Indiana acreage. The home where she'd grown up. The Baxter house. Ashley pulled a mug from the cupboard and poured herself a cup of coffee. The comfortable smell of fresh-ground espresso beans and sweet cinnamon filled the air, surrounding her with a million memories.
It was the first Saturday in June, and she'd promised her son Cole she'd make cinnamon rolls to mark the finish of his sophomore year at Clear Creek High School. And of course to celebrate the mostly As he'd gotten on his finals. But for now the kids were still asleep and Landon was out back working on the rose garden. The one her mother had planted and cared for so well before her death.
Ashley looked out the window and surveyed the yard and the trees at the edge of their property. Like old friends from a thousand wonderful moments, the memories gathered. The way they were bound to gather as the details of her father's birthday party came together. Her parents had lived in this very house, after all. The laughter and voices of the five siblings still rang in the walls and from the windows. She took a sip of her coffee and she could see them again. Brooke and Kari and herself ... Erin and Luke. Running across the property or fishing at the pond with their father.
The surprise of their lives was that there weren't just five Baxter kids. There were six. Pictures of Dayne joined the others in her mind, the times when he first found their family and his place among them. A sigh came from the recesses of Ashley's heart. How faithful God had been over the years, how full of provision and beauty. And redemption.
Redemption above all.
Another sip of her coffee and Ashley couldn't help but smile. How many times had they prayed as a family in this very kitchen? How often had their father pulled out his old Bible to lend wisdom when all the world felt like it was falling apart, or when decisions seemed too difficult to make? Yes, theirs had been a beautiful life and always at the center there had been her father.
He was more than an amazing dad. He was one of Bloomington's favorite people, a doctor at St. Anne's Hospital until a few years ago, and a leader at Clear Creek Community Church. His confidence and kindness spoke peace and truth into every situation. Even after their mom lost her battle to cancer eight years ago, their dad had been a pillar of strength. In the quiet of the early summer morning, Ashley felt the sadness again in her heart. The way she would always feel it when she thought about her mom. But it was hard to imagine how any of them might've survived that time if it hadn't been for their dad's faith. A faith he fanned into a flame for all of them.
She pictured her dad now — healthy and happy, married to their mother's friend, Elaine, and excited about his retirement years. Most of the family was here in Bloomington, but Ashley's sister Erin and her husband, Sam, and their four girls lived in Texas again. Dayne, too, lived far away. He and his wife, Katy, and their two kids spent most of their time in Los Angeles at the beach house they had in Malibu.
Just last week the local family had met here at the old Baxter house for Sunday dinner and her dad had smiled big. "Elaine and I are planning on more travel this fall. Spend a little time in Texas watching the girls' soccer games. Maybe go to LA when Dayne makes his next movie." Her dad chuckled, his eyes dancing with life. "He says we can be extras. Can't pass up that offer."
Ashley took another few sips of her coffee and let the faithfulness of God settle in around the tender places of her soul. You've been so good to us, Lord, giving us a love that defines family. And it all started with my parents. She paused in the silent prayer and looked up at the blue sky over Bloomington. They'd had their days of sorrow certainly. Maybe more than most families. But even then God had made them closer, stronger. And always their father was at the center.
Thank You for him, Lord. Ashley smiled, warmed by the sun streaming through the window and the memories of the past thirteen years. She would forever be grateful for her parents' tenacious love and determination to see her through her rebellious years. For loving her when she returned from Paris and wanted nothing to do with them.
So much had happened since then, so many seasons. What will the coming years look like, Lord? What brilliant moments of joy, what moments of growth, what times of heartache are ahead? For a moment, just thinking about the possibility of unknown sorrows seized her heart and brought a rush of fear.
She exhaled, feeling her fears fade as quickly as they had come. Whatever the future held, she didn't need to be afraid. Good and bad times were a part of life. As her dad always said, "This too shall pass." And through the years that had been true. Nothing stayed the same, except this: God's faithfulness, and the love they had for each other.
Ashley watched Landon brush the dirt off his hands onto his jeans and walk up the path to the back door and into the kitchen. He still looked like the young firefighter she'd fallen in love with a decade before. He grinned when he saw her. "Aren't you the most beautiful girl in the world?" He had a smudge of dirt on his cheek, but his blue eyes were all she could see. He came to her and took her gently into his arms. "It's always the same feeling, Ash. Every time I see you." He whispered near the side of her face, holding her body close against his.
"What's that?" She looked into his soul, consumed with a love that had been tested by time. A love without limits. "What do you feel?"
"Like somewhere, sometime, at some point I must've done something right." He kissed her, stirring the always near passion between them. "Because in all His love and mercy, God Almighty chose to give me you."
She felt her smile start in her heart and fill her face. This time she initiated the kiss and after a minute or so they both drew back, breathless, as quiet laughter filled the slight spaces between them. The feel of his face against hers would always be one of Ashley's greatest pleasures. "You have it all wrong." She worked her hands up into his hair and he did the same. When she could speak again she looked into his eyes, straight through him to the parts of him where only she had access. "You're the gift, Landon. You always have been."
He looked at her for a long time, running his thumb lightly over her cheek. "Not sure how I'm supposed to finish in the garden now." He chuckled. Before he could say anything else, Devin's voice from upstairs interrupted them.
"Mom!" He was seven, and every bit the life of the family. "Are the cinnamon rolls ready?"
Ashley grinned at Landon and then moved a few feet away. "Almost. Is Cole up?"
"Nah, he's a lazybones." Devin ran down the stairs as fast as his feet could carry him. He popped into the kitchen, his blond hair tousled, eyes wide. "Want me to wake him up?"
For a moment Ashley held on to the picture of him, his legs longer than they'd been at Christmastime, his pajamas an inch or so too short. She needed to work the image into a painting somehow. For now she went to the oven and checked the pan inside. "He can sleep another ten minutes."
Devin sighed. "Nessa's up." He rolled his eyes. "Playing with her dollhouse. She doesn't wanna look for frogs with me today. She already told me."
Ashley shared a look with Landon as she stifled a giggle. "I bet Daddy'll look for frogs with you."
"Are you kidding?" Landon pushed the sleeves of his long-sleeve T-shirt up. "I was already out there this morning and frogs are everywhere. It's like the plagues of Egypt."
Devin ran to him and flung his arms around Landon's legs. "That's perfect!" He took a quick step back and held out his hand like a crossing guard stopping traffic. "I'll be right back!"
He ran off and Landon crossed the kitchen to meet her. "Even frogs won't take my mind off you."
"Mmm. You make loving easy." They kissed again, the sort of kiss that would stay with them through the morning. "I'm going to check on Janessa."
"Play with dolls, you mean?" Landon's eyes shone with the familiar teasing she'd come to love. "I know you. You can't resist."
"I am grateful God gave us a girl." She turned toward the stairs. "And true, I might choose doll clothes over frogs." She punctuated the air with her pointer finger. "Not that I don't like frogs. I was an expert before you came along."
They both laughed. "Hey, before you go. You calling everyone today about the party?"
"I am. I'm still trying to talk Erin into coming. She lives a thousand miles away, so I get it." She paused. "I just know Dad would really like her here."
Landon hesitated. "So ... I have an idea ... about the party."
"Okay." She leaned against the counter and freshened up her coffee. "Today's an idea day for sure. I want more than a barbecue."
"Exactly." He folded his arms, thoughtful. "How about each of the six of you write him a letter? Put into words what your dad has meant to each of you." He shrugged, a smile playing on his lips. "You could read them that night. At the party."
"Hmmm." Ashley pictured the possibility. "We'll need extra tissues."
Landon laughed again. "Well, yeah ... but everyone needs a little emotion at a seventieth birthday party, right?"
Ashley liked it. Every one of the grown Baxter kids had a unique and special story. What better time to relive together the faithfulness of the Lord and let their father know how great a role he'd played in the stories of their lives. "Landon ... that's perfect. What a great idea!"
"You know ..." He plucked at a part of his T-shirt near his shoulder. "Every now and then I have a good one."
Devin came running down then and grabbed hold of Landon's hand. "Hurry! Before the rolls are ready. Maybe we can catch the big guy by the pond."
Landon and Ashley shared one more look as he ran off with their younger son. Ashley checked the oven once more and figured she still had eight or nine minutes. Long enough to spend a little time with Janessa and her dolls. She hurried up the stairs and found her daughter lost in a world of make-believe, sitting on her knees, her feet tucked beneath her as she talked to her Kelsey Baby doll. "You want the prettiest clothes, right?"
Janessa held the doll up and danced her around, giving her a high-pitched voice, even higher than her own. "Of course I do, Mommy."
"Okay, then." Janessa set her down and began sorting through dolly outfits.
Ashley watched for a minute from the doorway, unseen by her daughter. Janessa was four, and full of imagination, much like her brothers. But hers didn't take the shape of backyard adventures. Rather Janessa dreamed of dances and princesses and fashionable clothes. Ashley could only imagine how she'd be in high school.
"Hey, there." She stepped into the room and dropped slowly to the floor beside her daughter. "You getting Kelsey Baby ready for a big day?"
Janessa's eyes were the deepest blue, wide and full of innocence. "She's going to coffee with her mommy."
"Ohhh." Ashley nodded, as dramatic as her little girl. "What's she going to wear?"
"Well," Janessa pulled a gold lamé dress from the pile of clothes. "This dress and white shoes."
"I like it." Ashley ran her hand lightly down her daughter's long blonde hair. "You have such lovely taste."
Janessa sat a little straighter. "Thank you. Kelsey Baby says gold is the best because this is a really special coffee date."
The conversation continued, and again Ashley tried to memorize the moment. The sound of her daughter's voice, the feel of the carpet beneath them, the summer breeze through the cracked window, the shimmer of gold lamé. All the details that would fade with time, when Janessa was too old and busy for dolls on a Saturday morning.
Five minutes passed, and Ashley stood. "Time for cinnamon rolls."
Janessa gasped. "Kelsey Baby loves cinnamon rolls." She smiled at Ashley. "I hafta get her dressed first, okay?"
"Okay. I'll save you both a seat." Ashley grinned. By the time she reached the kitchen, Cole was up and sitting at the bar, the sports section sprawled out in front of him. He saw Ashley and smiled. "Morning, Mom. Thanks for baking."
"First Saturday of summer." She slipped on the oven mitts, pulled the pan out and set it on the tiled counter. "Wouldn't miss it."
Cole leaned his elbows on the counter and looked at her. "So I've been thinking." A comfortable silence settled between them for a long moment. "My birth dad. What was he like?"
Ashley tried not to react, even though everything in her felt like it had suddenly flipped upside down. "That's a random question."
"Yeah, I mean, I know who my dad is." He glanced out the window where they could see Landon and Devin. "But the other guy. Am I like him, or do I look like him?"
"Well." Her heart was in her throat, and she struggled at first to find an answer. "I didn't know him very long, Cole. Sadly." She hated the regret and sense of defeat that pushed in against her heart and soul. "He was an artist. A very good one."
"Hmmm. That's what I thought." Cole angled his head, pensive. "Maybe that's why I've been into photography lately."
Ashley didn't point out the fact that she, also, was an artist and that he easily could've gotten his creative bent from her. That wasn't what he needed to hear right now. She smiled at him. "That might be it."
"I mean, it's no big deal." He shrugged. "I was just thinking I should try to find out. You know, look up who he was just so I know."
"We can definitely do that sometime." She wondered if he could sense her discomfort.
"Yeah, maybe sometime." Cole knew that his biological father was dead. But Ashley had never told him that the man had died of AIDS complications. Eventually that information and the story of her short relationship with the man would have to surface. Ashley wasn't looking forward to it.
Janessa ran into the room, and the conversation shifted to Cole's summer baseball schedule. A moment later, Landon and Devin returned to the kitchen with news that Landon was right: more frogs were making their homes around the pond this year than ever before.
"It's frog paradise." Devin raised his fist in the air as he took the spot next to Cole at the bar. "And guess what? Frogs and cinnamon rolls are even double paradise. Plus Joey is coming over. He rode his bike up and now he's asking his mom, but he said it should be fine if we're looking for frogs."
Ashley smiled. Joey was a wonderful boy who lived next door. He loved every sort of sport, and on hot summer days he loved catching frogs with Devin. His parents, Jules and Lori, had come over a few times for iced tea on the back porch while the boys played. He was the sort of friend Ashley hoped would stay in Devin's life for a long time.
"Joey's the best friend ever, Mom, you know why?"
"Why?" Ashley laughed lightly at the intensity of Devin's tone.
"Because he taught me everything I know about riding quads and catching frogs."
Ashley laughed out loud this time. "That's why, huh? Quads and frogs?"
"Eww." Janessa held her Kelsey Baby close to her chest. "Girls don't like frogs." She looked at her doll. "Right, Kelsey Baby?" She paused. "She says she likes princes more than frogs."
"How old is she?" Landon whispered the question, laughing under his breath as he helped Ashley serve the hot rolls. "You know what I think?" He directed the question to the kids. "I think this is going to be the best summer ever."
"Yes!" Cole took a second cinnamon roll from the platter. "I feel a home-run record coming on."
Ashley smiled. A million paintings wouldn't be enough to capture the joy of raising these kids and living this life. When they finished eating they scattered to the backyard and Janessa headed upstairs to change her doll's outfit again. Ashley took the opportunity to sit outside on the back porch and call her siblings. The idea of everyone writing a letter for their dad filled her heart with possibility. The idea that Erin and Dayne and their families might even come? He wouldn't expect this.
Excerpted from Coming Home by Karen Kingsbury Copyright © 2012 by Karen Kingsbury . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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