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Despair should never be allowed to rule Thanksgiving Day.
Haley Jennings eyed the two camouflage-clad little boys in her backseat, mentally searching for anything she might have ever learned about children in her twenty-eight years on the planet.
She came up empty. That didn't sound promising for the orphaned nephews now in her care.
Tear tracks snaked a path down three-year-old Todd's round cheeks, a worn, black stuffed kitty named Panther clutched tight against his chest. Five-year-old Tyler slumped against the corner of the car, burrowing, as if hoping to disappear into the upholstery. He shed no tears, but the quiet look of abandonment seemed worse for lack of emotion.
Scared. Uncertain. Handed off as though they were parcel post packages from one place to another. And no doubt hungry, but few restaurants were open this late on Thanksgiving Day, a should-be-glorious holiday of roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing.
The thought of homemade stuffing made her mouth water. How much more must two little fellows be longing for a good old-fashioned holiday?
Part of her was glad their maternal great-aunt had found Anthony's will that named her the boys' guardian. Another part longed to run screaming.
She took the turn toward Jamison, knowing she had no food in her recently acquired no-frills apartment and the grocery store had closed mid-afternoon. And with the boys' meager belongings piled and shoved into every corner of her convertible, she had no room for a shopping trip and precious few funds to bankroll extra groceries this week.
Whoever said God's timing was perfect should be chastised, because this situation was about as far from perfect as life could get.
A flashing sign caught her attention as she approached the Park Round, the picturesque town circle surrounded by five country churches and a couple of pastors' homes.
Free Thanksgiving Dinner! Join us from 2:00 till 5:00 on Thanksgiving Day for a friend-filled holiday feast! All are welcome!
An arrow pointed toward the back of Good Shepherd Church. An upgraded older building stood there, caught in the trees, an aged steeple rising white against the late-November drab of damp bark. A chill wind bowed the sticklike trees, but the white-washed hall was surrounded by cars and bathed in light from garden stake lamps below.
One glance at her dashboard clock said they were nearing the late side of the offer. She faltered, not wanting to subject the boys to any more disappointments on a day that should be filled with family. Fun. Food. Rejoicing.
The word feast turned her hands on the wheel. Or maybe it was the Holy Spirit. In any case, she angled the car up the drive and into a parking spot. She climbed out and tilted the driver's seat forward, banging her head and knee in the process.
Red ragtops weren't designed as family vehicles.
"Where are we going?" Tyler eyed her from his booster seat, glancing around to discern an easy way out of the car. There wasn't one.
"Climb out this way." Haley jerked her head toward her side as she struggled with the puzzlelike latches on Todd's car seat. Who knew you needed a math degree to figure out a five-point latch system? "Once I've got your brother out, that is."
As she pulled Todd from the backseat, she managed to bump his head, too. Not too badly, but enough to start the waterworks flowing, full steam ahead. "Oh, baby, I'm sorry." She crooned the words and rubbed the spot, wishing she'd thought to cushion his head with her hand while extracting him.
Next time, for sure.
"I hate this car." Tyler made the pronouncement as he finagled his way across small bags and totes shoved into the backseat.
"I'm not all that fond of it myself at this moment," Haley assured him. "But it's paid for and it runs and at one time it was a status symbol. Cute blonde chick in blazing hot red convertible with mag wheels."
"It's dumb." Tyler brushed off his five-year-old knees with an air of impatience. "And we don't fit."
There lay the crux of the problem. Todd and Tyler hadn't "fit" in a long time. These two little boys had lost their mother and father in the past two years and they'd been shuffled around to various homes for monthsway too much change for a level-headed grown-up.
Two boys, aged three and five?
But possibly made more outlandish by her half brother's will naming her their legal guardian. Anthony scarcely knew her. She barely knew him. They shared a father and a legal relationship recognized by courts. Other than that? They'd met half a dozen times over the years, mostly at weddings and funerals.
What was he thinking?
The door to the hall swung open and a couple of old-timers stepped out. "Ma'am, may I hold the door for you?" An old man dipped his head in courtly fashion, a shock of white hair dancing in the wind. "That wind's a breath-stealer, sure enough."
She hesitated, not wanting to ask if there was still food, not daring to get the boys' hopes up only to dash them again. "I, urn "
"Plenty of good eats in there, miss, and I think those two boys are just the thing for them folks inside. Nothin' like bein' 'round a couple o' young-uns to remind us why we keep on keepin' on."
His words eased her path. Did he see the hunger? Or the fear? Or both?
In any case, Haley grasped a boy's hand in each of hers and walked the last twenty paces. "Thank you, sir."
"Jed, have a mind, will you, and close that door," bossed a woman's voice from within. "My tablecloths are being tugged every which way!"
The old guy exchanged a grin with Haley, winked at the boys and hollered back, "Customers, mother! We've got two young soldiers in need of a bite."
Haley stepped inside, Todd on her right, Tyler on her left. Silence descended as she and the boys moved from the front room into the gathering area, as if few in the room imagined little boys coming to Thanksgiving dinner at the church hall.
A tall man stepped forward. Fortyish. Good-looking. Square-shouldered. Broad-built. Dark hazel eyes matched military-cut hair, walnut-toned with hints of light. His assessing gaze went liquid brown while he pondered the boys at her side, as if recognizing something perfect and precious. He blinked and the look was gone, but the integral air of quiet authority and respect remained. Haley had the oddest urge to salute the big guy. Or maybe just hug him. Right about now, she could use a hug.
A pleased murmur stirred an air of delight through the room. "Look at them!"
"Aren't they marvelous?"
"Oh, they are!"
"Who are they?"
"Oh, it doesn't matter. It's just so nice to see such handsome little boys at our feast!"
A tiny smile quirked the man's left cheek, just enough to show amusement tempered with respect, bookend qualities that few men in Haley's age range possessed.
This man had both and more, his take-charge attitude calming the confusion within her without speaking a word. He squatted to the boys' level, but didn't invade their space. His sensitivity loosened their grip on Haley's hands, her arms, as if willing to meet the big guy halfway. A neat trick, all told.
"You hungry, boys?"
"Yes." Todd nodded, emphatic.
"Starving." Tyler sent a bullish look Haley's way. "She drove all day and didn't want to stop anyplace."
"Ah." The man appeared to weigh Tyler's words. "Traveling on a holiday can be tough. Stores close early. Some restaurants don't open at all."
"Really?" Tyler poked his head closer to the man, then hooked a thumb back to Haley. "That's what she said, but I figured she was making it up."
The man's gaze traveled up, and not all that quickly, as if appreciating the journey. Deep hazel eyes locked and held her attention long enough to make her heart trip faster. "Does she have a name?"
"Aunt Haley." Tyler said the words with more than a little distrust.
"She's pwetty." Todd leaned closer to the man, too, following his brother's lead. "And I like her yellow hair."
"It's drop-dead gorgeous," the man agreed easily. He spiked that crooked smile up to Haley and had no idea what his gentle manner was doing to her. He winked at her, stood, reached for the boys' hands, and to Haley's surprise, they moved forward. "You guys ready to have Thanksgiving dinner with us?"
"I am." Tyler nodded, firm, obviously trying to contain his excitement. His reaction told Haley he was accustomed to disappointment. Her heart broke because she knew that feeling all too well.
"Haley? Haley, is that you?"
The little woman who helped run the mom-and-pop convenience store at the interstate junction bustled out from the kitchen and hurried their way. She flapped her apron and grinned, her high-wattage smile enough to make everything seem almost all right. "LuAnn."
"And Charlie's here, too," the older woman fussed, her silver hair dancing sparks from the fluorescent lights above. "He's going to be so excited to see you, dear, but who are your friends?" LuAnn Simmons bent low and stuck out a hand, but Haley noticed she handled the boys with deference, like the man had done, hanging back, not encroaching their space.
"My nephews," Haley explained.
The man palmed Tyler's head in a sweet gesture, but he moved back as LuAnn stormed in. He didn't smile but his eyes grazed Haley, LuAnn and the boys. He dipped his chin slightly, noting the white-haired woman. "You're in good hands. No one goes hungry with Charlie and LuAnn around."
Haley knew that. She was a constant customer at their little store, its proximity to her new business venture making the Crossroads Mini-Mart a perfect spot for quick food. Consumed with building a new shopping cooperative just across the road, quick and easy food had become a mainstay in her life.
LuAnn's head bobbed, excited. "'When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink.'"
The man's face darkened as if a shade had been pulled. He moved back to the kitchen area while LuAnn steered the boys to the still-laden buffet.
Todd cringed back, hesitating, but his nose twitched as if the smell of food broke an unseen barrier. "This is Todd, LuAnn."
"Todd." He didn't take LuAnn's hand and she didn't force the issue. She sent him a bright smile, and her cheerful brown eyes made Haley feel less worried and alone. Amazing what a smile can do.
And a half smile, she noted as the tall man rejoined volunteers in the kitchen preparation area.
"And this is Tyler. He's five."
Tyler extended his hand to LuAnn. Haley sent him a smile of encouragement. "Thank you, Tyler. LuAnn is my friend. She and I work at stores near each other."
"Oh." Tyler tried to look polite, then failed as his eyes darted to the buffet table. "Can we eat now?"
"You most certainly can." LuAnn drew him forward. She picked up a sturdy stoneware plate and waved a hand. "I know you're big enough to pick out your own food, Tyler, but this table's a little high. I think if I hold your plate and you tell me every little thing you want on it, we'd make a good team. What do you say?" She angled a birdlike glance his way. "May I be your partner?"
Haley owed the older woman for handling Tyler so easily. She wouldn't have had a clue. She followed LuAnn's example, showing Todd the food, letting him choose as he held the black cat snug beneath his arm, unconcerned when he wanted twelve black olives because LuAnn hadn't protested when Tyler asked for extra gherkins and stuffing. By the time they got the boy's meat cut and grace said, LuAnn took a place alongside the boys and between a dozen gathered folks and waved Haley away. "Go. Fill your plate. I've got this covered." She flashed a smile at the boys, watching as Todd struggled with the height of the table and the plate.
"Try this, LuAnn."
The warm rumble of the man's voice pulled Haley's attention away from food. She would have thought that feat impossible at the moment, but something in that tone.
With one arm he hiked Todd up, then slipped a thick old-time phone book beneath Todd's bottom. He resettled Todd onto his new raised "seat," and the better vantage point made the little boy shine with delight. He peeked up at the man and offered a dimpled grin and a quick salute.
The man's smile faded.
Pain stilled his jaw. Shadowed his eyes.
LuAnn sent him a motherly look of concern, but said nothing.
He stepped back, turned and moved off to the kitchen again, in the crowd but not of it, Haley was sure on that.
LuAnn shoulder-nudged Haley's leg. "You. Food. Go."
Haley filled her plate, the scents and sounds of a family Thanksgiving surrounding her, a big-screen TV perched on a table at the far end of the hall covering the day's football offerings while people gathered at tables eating, chatting, laughing.
If she'd wished for a perfect Thanksgiving, this would be it.
The fact that this was as close to family as she could possibly get just made that admission more sad.
Pretty yellow hair?
And then some, thought Colonel Brett Stanton as he commandeered cleanup in the hall kitchen, the image of Haley's long, curly blond hair worth remembering.
He shouldered his way through a nest of female busybod-ies who'd gathered out of sight to wonder about the blonde and the two boys.
Brett didn't wonder. He knew. He'd seen the longing right off. The hunger. The fear and uncertainty clouding their day. He might not know their story, but he knew the wistful look of wanting, wishing, hoping to have or be a family.
Sadness gripped from within, a clear-cut knife strike, the mistakes of the past wrangling a grip on the future.
"Aren't they darling?" LuAnn hurried up beside him, two plates in hand. She handed them off to one of the chatterbox women and grasped Brett's arm. "Thank you for being so nice to them. I'm sure Haley's a little overwhelmed at the moment"
Brett would have gone straight to shell shock, but he let the understatement pass.
"And this couldn't happen at a worse time "
Five sets of ears attempted nonchalance as they keened closer like covert agents on an info-gathering mission.
"But I know she'll be fine. Just fine. And I'm so glad she saw our sign flashing out front. That's what drew them in, you know." LuAnn gave his arm a quick hug. "Brett, thank you for letting us use the sign today."