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Snow tumbled from an unforgiving sky, icy against her cheek as Chelsea McKaslin knelt in the small town's cemetery. The marker was simple, the white marble hard to read in the falling twilight and the accumulating snow. She swept away the fluffy inches of flakes from the gravestone with her fingertips, her hand-knit crimson mittens a vivid splash of color in a white, gray and dark evening. Ever since her mother had passed on, the world hadn't seemed as kind or as colorful.
"Hi, Mom." She laid pink carnations on the headstone, where the name Jessica Elizabeth McKaslin was etched, beloved wife and mother. "It's me, Chelsea. I've missed coming to see you, but I did what you asked. I finished my residency. I stuck it out. It was tough, the last thing I wanted to do after you were gone, but I did it."
More than anything she wishedshe prayedthat her mother could hear her. That her words could lift through the airy snowfall and rise up to heaven as if on angels' wings. Her faith had been tested over the two years of Mom's sickness and death, but it remained strong. She still believed. Somewhere her mother was looking down at her and smiling. Her love lived on. Maybe it was in the soft brush of snowflakes against Chelsea's cheek or the whisper behind the wind, so light it was barely audible. She liked to think so.
"Christmas is not the same without you." She could hope it would be better than last year with the gaping, painful hole in their lives and in their family. No one and nothing could ever fill the void. "Sara Beth and Meg plan to fix our traditional dinner this year. Johanna has her heart set on a tree. We're all pooling our gift money to start a scholarship in your name."
The electronic jingle of her cell penetrated her wool coat's outer pocket. She fumbled for it, the mitten's thickness and the numbing cold making her fingers clumsy. The number on the luminous display came as no surprise.
"I'm almost home," she said, squinting as the snowfall thickened, beating against her face.
"I was worried." Her youngest sister's voice sounded crackly. Reception was terrible because of the storm. "I've been keeping an eye on the clock and the weather report. Half the county roads are closed, and you should have been here twenty minutes ago. Where are you?"
"Safe. I had to stop by and visit Mom."
Johanna's silence said it all. Understanding zoomed across the line, the static unable to diminish the strong bond between them. Chelsea didn't have to explain how she'd been needing this place of connection to their mother.
"The roads are getting worse by the minute," Johanna reminded her gently. "I want you home safely."
"That's my plan." Chelsea was good with plans. They had always been her strong suit.
She took comfort in a logical world, in compiling pro and con lists and puzzling out the road ahead. Once sure of her destination, she gave all she had into getting there. That's how she had gotten accepted to med school and won a coveted residency position. She'd always taken to heart the Bible passage: a man chooses his path and God directs his steps.
"I'm leaving right now," she promised.
"Good, because they are about to close Grimes Road. I thought you might want a heads-up, that is, if you want to sleep in your old bed tonight."
"You know I do." Home. There was no place like it. She'd had her own apartment for years, but her family's piece of the Wyoming rangeland would always be her real home. Full of memories of love and laughter, made more special this time of year. Christmas had always been done right at the McKaslin household. She thought of her mom, how she always used to be waiting to welcome her daughters, cooking and baking up a storm. They all gained ten pounds every visit, especially if they weren't careful.
It was hard to think of opening the front door and not seeing her there. Chelsea pocketed her phone, realizing she was shivering. The arctic cold sliced through her coat like a razor, chilling her to the bone. She faced into the wind, blind as the snowflakes struck her with a worsening fury. She really did need to get home while she could.
Snow squeaked beneath her boots as she hiked around headstones and across the rippled sheen of snow accumulating in the parking lot. Security spotlights glowed like tiny moons hovering overhead, their light eerie and veiled. At least she would get her snow fix. She didn't miss Seattle's gray drizzle, not one bit, as she knocked snow off her car's windows. Home was all she could think about, her sisters waiting for her, the front door swinging open and Johanna launching out of it with a welcoming squeal. Lord, please see me safely home
A little girl's voice broke into her prayer, a lonely and frightened sound in the thick snowfall. Chelsea froze, heart drumming. She glanced around, but there was no sign of another car as far as she could see, which wasn't far at all. The snow had picked up speed, cutting visibility.
"Daddy!" Shrill this time, sharp as if on the edge of tears. Something was wrong. Was the child alone? Hurt? In danger?
She bolted from her car, trying to gauge where the cry had come from. A little north, she decided, as the snow grabbed at her boots and the wind pushed against her, holding her back. The labored sound of her breathing, her footsteps crunching in the accumulation and the thousand whispering taps of the snowflakes hitting the ground was all she could hear. No other sound from the child.
She definitely hadn't imagined it, but the thickening darkness gave no hint of where the girl might be. Now what did she do? Chelsea swiped snow from her lashes, turning in a slow circle. Maybe she'd gotten disoriented and the child was farther away then she'd thought. Waitwas that something? She held her breath, listening. There it was again, a hiccup, such a small sound.
Thank God she heard it. She kept going, angling toward the graves, until she came across small boot prints. They led her to a little girl sprawled on the ground in the inky shadows.
"Daddy?" she sniffled.
"No, I'm sorry, it's just me." She hit the button on the miniature flashlight clipped to her key chaina stocking stuffer from Mom three Christmases agoand a faint light illuminated the girl. Maybe seven, eight years old. Pale face, big eyes, tears pooling, but they didn't fall. The child was out here all alone? "Hi, I'm Chelsea. What's your name?"
"I'm not supposed to tell strangers that."
"That's right and face it, I'm a stranger. My sisters tell me all the time that I'm really strange." A little humor might make the kid feel more at ease. "But not scary, although this storm is a little scary. I can't see a thing. How about you?"
"No. That's why I fell down." Silken brown wisps peeked out from a bright purple knit hat. The little girl swiped at them with a matching mitten on her good hand. "It was the curb."
"I tripped on it when I got here. Almost fell right on my nose. I'm saying it was the curb's fault, too. Definitely not ours." Chelsea hunkered in, keeping her voice soft. She didn't need her medical degree to see the girl's arm was hurt, or why else would she be cradling it? "You must be here with your family?"
"My daddy." The pooling tears threatened to spill. She was a cutie, with a round face, a sloping nose and a porcelain-doll look. Someone's precious daughter. "I got to pick out the wreath but it was too sad leaving it at the stone."
"I know just what you mean." She thought of the flowers she'd left behind, pushed aside her grief and gave thanks she was a pediatrician. Her training would come in handy. "Now what about your arm? Can you move your fingers?"
"I don't want to." The kid shook her head, scattering snowflakes and locks of molasses. "There's nothing wrong. It's just cold."
"I see." She'd had stubborn patients before. "Is the rest of you cold too, or just your arm?"
"My arm especially. It'll be okay, I just know it." Honest blue eyes looked up into hers, so serious. "I really need my dad."
"I'll help you find him." She'd feel better if she could take a look at that arm, which the girl held gingerly. A sprained wrist? A fracture? The doctor in her was itching to find out. The dad couldn't be far. "Leave it to me. I have three sisters, so I'm really good at hollering. What's his name?"
"Dr. Kramer. I Well, I guess it's okay to tell you my name. It's Macie."
"It's good to meet you, Macie. I'm Chelsea. Tell you what, I'll holler and we'll follow your tracks back to him, all right?"
"But I don't want to go back. It makes me sad." Macie stayed right where she was, sorrow shining in her blue gaze. "It's cuz my mom is here."
"I'm sorry." Sympathy hit Chelsea so hard, it left her weak. Tears burned behind her eyes. "My mom is buried here, too. I know just how you feel."
Michael Kramer pressed his gloved hand against the gray marble as if to will what remained of his regret through the cold stone. Icy flecks of snow beat against his face as he fought not to remember his failings as a husband.
"The storm's worsening, Macie." He adjusted the wreath of plastic poinsettias, already dotted with snow. "We'd better get home before the roads close."
No little girl's voice answered. Probably because his daughter was no longer standing behind him. There was nothing but the impression in the snow of her two booted feet. Why hadn't he noticed earlier? Frustrated with himself, he frowned, crinkling his brow. And how many times had he told her not to wander off? He launched to his feet, searching the thick veil of falling snow. No sign of her.
"Macie!" The wind snatched his voice. Snow beat against his coat hood, drowning out all other sounds.
Blindly, he swiped snow off his face, noticing the scoop mark in the snow from a child-size mitten. No need to panic. Sunshine, Wyoming, was a safe place for kids, not like Chicago where he'd grown up. She had to be around here somewhere.
"Macie!" He tried again. Still no answer, at least none that he could hear in the rising storm. Not that she wouldn't be easy to find. Just follow the trail.
Her boots cut a visible path into the snow and darkness, roughly heading toward the parking lot. If she'd wanted to leave, she could have just told him. Frustrated, he fisted his hands, teeth chattering in the cold. His daughter was grieving, too. It wasn't easy for him to deal with emotions. Diana, when she'd been alive, had told him that often enough. He feared that made him a terrible father.
A flash of pink penetrated the swirling snow. Macie's coat. What was she doing on the ground and why was someone kneeling over her? He took one look at the bulky navy coat bending over his fallen daughter and the worst thoughts leaped into his mind. Protective fury roared through him. He grew ten feet and his fist closed around the navy coat wearer.
"Get away from her." He hauled the kidnapper to his feet. No oneno onewas going to hurt his daughter.
"Hey! Let go of me." A rather bossy woman yanked her arm out of his grip. "What's wrong with you, buddy?"
A woman? He blinked, the scene coming clear to him. His daughter sitting up, cradling her arm. Macie was hurt. Tears stood in her eyes. Was it this woman's fault? "What are you I mean, who are you? What's going on here?" he boomed.
"You must be Macie's dad. Good thing you came along. Awesome, right, Macie?" She cast him a quelling look and he felt like an idiot grabbing her like that. The girl was lost. Clearly the woman had been trying to help.
Great. Jump to the wrong conclusion, Michael. Just add it to his long list of idiocies around women. The flare of adrenaline crackling through his blood calmed. Now what did he do? Apologize? Explain that he wasn't a terrible father? All he could see was Macie still on the ground, clutching one arm, pale, shivering and obviously hurt.
"I fell, Daddy." Her lower lip quivered. "It was the curb's fault. That's what Chelsea said."
Chelsea, huh? He bypassed the woman, catching a glimpse of big blue eyes glaring up at him. Her sweet oval face was framed by a hint of light-chestnut-brown hair and topped with a red hat. He ignored the hitch in his chest that made him want to take better notice of her and knelt in front of his daughter. Macie looked fragile and tiny, and his heart seemed to breakbut that was impossible because as everyone told him, he didn't have a heart. "Were you daydreaming again? Telling yourself stories?"
"Kinda." She winced. "The snow could be hiding a princess's castle."
"Next time, stay with me, got it?" He gentled his voice, although it still came out gruff. Tenderness wasn't his strong suit either.
Macie nodded. Twin tears trailed down her too-white cheeks.
His poor baby. "C'mon, let's get you in the car."
"No. Chelsea says I need an X-ray." Macie sniffled. "You know why I don't like the emergency room, Daddy?"
Yeah, he knew. He squeezed his eyes shut to hold in the pain. The past flashed like a mosaicthe receptionist bursting into his office with news of an urgent phone call, the mad dash to emergency, seeing Diana still and slight looking in death. His nurse kept Macie in the waiting room. After hearing the sad news the child had sat utterly still, frozen in a room of chaos.
He opened his eyes. Only a second had passed, but it felt like an eternity. "Let me take a look."
"No!" She jerked away, the movement causing pain. More tears fell. "It'll get better. I know it will."
He knew the sound of desperation. He heard it every day in his office, when family members had to face a tough diagnosis. As a specialist, he gave out bad news as a matter of course. He'd had to harden himself so the sadness wouldn't take him down. He had patients to think about, he had to stay uninvolved and rational so he could guide them through a tough and trying time.
He gave thanks that his child was healthy, unlike the others he treated, and wiped at her tears. "Come with me, baby."
"No! I won't go where Mom died." His beautiful daughter hiccupped, upset by memories, which were hard for him, too.
At a loss, he opened his mouth and closed it. He wasn't cut out to be a single father. He wished he were able to do a better job.