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"What now?" Rebecca Michaels pulled back from the peephole, a frown marring her tired features.
When she opened her front door to the large policeman, tension whipped down her length. Standing next to the stranger was her son. The policeman's solemn expression told her the next few minutes wouldn't be a welcome-to-the-town exchange. She braced herself. "Is there something wrong, Officer?"
"Ma'am, is this your son?"
She nodded, her throat tightening.
"I found this young man behind the grocery store, loitering. He should be in school."
"That was where he was supposed to be." Rebecca directed her attention to her nine-year-old, whose features were set in a sullen expression. "What happened, Peter? You left an hour ago for school."
He dropped his gaze. "I didn't wanna go."
"That's not an option." Rebecca looked toward the policeman. "I'm sorry to have inconvenienced you. I'll make sure he gets to school when my baby wakes up."
The man stuck out his hand. "I'm Gabriel Stone. I haven't had the opportunity to welcome you to Oakview yet. Sorry it had to be this way."
Rebecca shook his hand, comforted by the firm feel of his fingers around hers. His handshake conveyed an impression of directness and no-nonsense that was refreshing. "I'm Rebecca Michaels." She relaxed the tense set of her shoulders.
"Well, ma'am, if you don't mind, I can take your son to school for you."
"I wouldn't want to put you out."
"No problem. That's part of my job, making sure the kids stay in school."
Grateful for his offer, she smiled. "Then great. My other son, Josh, just went down for a nap, and I hope he sleeps for a while."
The policeman returned her smile, the lines at the corners of his eyes deep as if he smiled a lot. "If you need any help, don't be a stranger. I live on the next block. I've known your grandmother for years."
As her son and Gabriel Stone turned to leave, Rebecca called, "Come right home after school, Peter. We need to talk."
The pout that graced her son's mouth made her wonder if she would have to go out looking for him after school. She started to say something further when Gabriel Stone said, "He'll be here. I'll make sure of that, ma'am."
Rebecca leaned against the doorjamb and watched her son and the policeman walk to the squad car. Gabriel Stone might bring Peter home this afternoon, but who was going to give her the strength to deal with this new problem? She squeezed her eyes closed and wished for the wisdom she would need to handle her eldest. He hadn't wanted to come to Oakview. He'd let her know that he hated his new school and wanted to go back to his old school in Dallas.
Had she made a wrong decision about coming to her grandmother's to live? She hadn't had much choice after her husband walked out on her and the children. Taking a deep breath of the spring-scented air, she relished the quiet of the moment, only the occasional sound of a bird in her grandmother's large oak tree breaking the silence.
"Rebecca, who was that?"
"Gabriel Stone." She closed the front door and turned toward her grandmother, who came from the back of the house, her cane tapping on the hardwood floor. She stopped, and with her shoulders hunched leaned on her cane, something she only did when she was really tired. Granny had been up part of the night with her and Josh. The doorbell must have awakened her. "Everything's okay. You should go back to sleep, Granny."
"I needed to get up. I never sleep past seven, and here it is nearly nine."
"You probably never stay up to all hours of the night, either. I'm sorry Josh was so fussy."
"My child, never apologize for that." Her grandmother waved her hand toward the door. "I wish you had asked Gabriel in for some coffee. I don't get to see him nearly enough, especially now that he's the new police chief."
Police chief? She'd had no idea she had been talking to the person who ran Oakview's small police department. He hadn't said a word. "He'll be back this afternoon."
"Did he come over to welcome you to Oakview? That would be just like the boy."
"No." Rebecca wished that had been the case. "Peter skipped school."
"I knew he wasn't happy, but I never thought he would do that." Rose Bennett headed for the kitchen. "I think you could use a cup of coffee. You've been up quite a while with Josh."
Massaging the tight cords of her neck, Rebecca followed her grandmother into the most cheerful room in the house. Sunlight from a large bay window bathed the kitchen. The yellow and powder-blue flowered wallpaper, the white cabinets and the polished hardwood floors lent a warmth to the room that Rebecca loved. She remembered spending a lot of wonderful childhood days in this very kitchen, listening to her grandmother's stories of her family during the Oklahoma land rush. If she could, she would spend most of her time in this room, cooking. She rarely had that kind of time anymore.
Granny retrieved two mugs from the cabinet and brought them to the pine table situated in front of the bay window. "Sit before you collapse. You look exhausted, my dear."
Rebecca started to argue, then realized her grandmother was right. Weariness clung to every part of her. She could easily slump over on the table and go to sleep. She needed the caffeine to keep her awake so she could finish unpacking. Even though they'd been in Oakview for two weeks, they were still living in boxes. Peter would never feel as though this was his home as long as he had to get his things out of cardboard boxes. She was determined to have them settled completely as soon as possible. Then maybe they would begin to feel like a family again.
Granny poured coffee into the mugs, then took a seat next to Rebecca. "First, how's Josh? You must have finally managed to get him to sleep."
"You know Josh. He rarely complains. But his ears are still bothering him. He eventually went to sleep, I think out of pure exhaustion. I worry that his ear infection will spread to his lungs. You know the problems he can have with his breathing."
"He's such a sweet baby." Granny sipped her coffee. "Of course, I'm not sure he's considered a baby any longer. He'll be two soon. I wish I could help you more with him."
"Granny, offering to let us stay here has " Rebecca swallowed hard, but the tears returned to plague her.
"Child, this is your home, too. Always will be." Rose patted Rebecca's hand. "You're family, and next to God, family is the most important thing in our lives."
"I wish Craig thought his family was important." Rebecca remembered a time when their small family had been important to Craigbefore Josh was born. When they had been first married, he'd wanted children, but over the years his feelings had changed.
Rose pinched her lips and snorted. "That man will regret leaving you one day, only by then it'll be too late."
"We've been divorced a year yesterday."
Rose placed her hand over Rebecca's. "I know, child. I'm sorry. With faith and time the pain will go away."
The feel of her grandmother's small, gnarled fingers over hers comforted Rebecca. "Time might help, but I don't know about faith, Granny. I think God stopped listening to my prayers long ago. I've tried so hard to keep this family together. My sons need " She couldn't continue. The heartache of the past few years overwhelmed her, robbing her of her voice and capturing her breath in her lungs.
"It may seem that way, child, but He hasn't. He has a plan for you. You just don't know what it is yet." Rose squeezed Rebecca's hand. "You're here with me now. Things will start to look better."
Drawing in a shallow gulp of air, Rebecca swallowed past the tightness in her throat, determined to hold her family together somehow and reach her eldest son. "Peter's so miserable. He has never been openly hostile and defiant to me until lately. He used to love school. Now, I have to force him to go."
"Wait until he makes new friends. He'll forget all about Dallas."
Rebecca took several sips of her lukewarm coffee, wishing she had the faith that her grandmother had. When Craig had walked out on them eighteen months ago, she had prayed for help and guidance. None had come. Josh had to have surgery on his heart. The bills stacked up and Craig was slow to help pay for his children's upbringing. She had to sell the only home Peter had known and finally admit she couldn't make it in Dallas by herself. She'd returned to the town she'd grown up in Oklahoma.
Rebecca reached to pour herself another cup of coffee when she heard Josh's crying. Glancing at the time, she realized he hadn't slept more than half an hour. She pushed to her feet. "I'll see if I can't get him back to sleep."
Her grandmother caught her arm to stop her. "Honey, when God closes a door, He opens a window. Moving back to Oakview is a fresh start for you and your family. This is a wonderful town to raise your children in."
Rebecca leaned down and kissed her grandmother's wrinkled cheek. "If that's correct, then you're my window, and I appreciate you opening your home to me and my children. Ever since my parents died, you have been my anchor."
Josh continued to cry. Rebecca hurried upstairs to her bedroom, where he slept in a crib next to her bed. She looked at her youngest who had managed to turn over finally, after twenty months. His face was beet red, and his short arms and legs were flailing.
"How's my little man?"
He turned his head toward her, his big brown eyes, slightly slanted at the corners, filled with tears.
"Nothing can be that bad," Rebecca said, scooping her son into her embrace. He fit in the cradle of her arms, his length no more than a one-year-old's.
Tears misted her eyes. Blinking them away, she began to sing Josh's favorite song. He cuddled against her, sleep slowly descending. She would not feel sorry for herself or Josh. That was wasted energyenergy she couldn't afford to waste.
Gabriel entered the clothing store and strode toward the elderly woman, sitting in an uncomfortable-looking chair with a young man standing over her with a scowl on his face.
When Ben Cross saw him approach, he waved his hand toward the white-haired woman and said, "I want her arrested. She tried to take a watch."
The elderly lady bristled. "Nonsense. I was admiring the watch, stuck it in my pocket to buy after I had looked around and forgot all about it."
"Ma'am" Gabriel began.
"Bess Anderson. You can call me Bess, Officer. All my friends at the home do."
"Shady Oaks on First Street?"
"Why, yes. You know the place where I live?" She straightened her shoulders, clutching her purse handle with both hands.
The elderly woman reminded Gabriel of a typical grandmother of yesteryear. She was dressed in a floral print dress with sensible walking shoes and a felt hat on her head. All she was missing were white cotton gloves. "Ma'am, how"
"Bess, please. Ma'am makes me sound so old, which I refuse to be."
"Bess, how did you get here?" Gabriel ignored the glares Ben was sending him.
"Why, I just walked out of the building and headed for town. I like to shop and haven't been in a while."
"Then let me take you home." Gabriel turned away from Bess and whispered to Ben, "I think this was all a misunderstanding. I'm inclined to accept her word that she just forgot about the watch being in her pocket. Is that okay with you?"
Ben pursed his lips, his eyes pinpoints.
"She's at least eighty. I can't see locking her up, Ben."
The young man sighed. "Okay. This time. This better not happen again."
Gabriel escorted Bess Anderson to his squad car. While the elderly woman gave him a rundown of her afternoon outing, he drove her the few blocks to the Shady Oaks Nursing Home. As he walked her toward the main building, the director came out the front door, worry carved into her expression.
"We've been looking all over the place for you, Bess. Is everything all right?"
"My goodness, yes. I just had a lovely stroll into town, and this nice gentleman offered to bring me home." Bess continued past the director.
Gabriel shook his head as he watched the old woman disappear into the building. "Bess Anderson is certainly an interesting character, Susan."
"And a handful. She's only been with us for a few weeks, and this is the second time she has walked away from the home. I don't know how she gets out. Thank you for bringing her back. Do you want to come in for some tea? It's almost four. We were about to have it in the main lounge."
"I'll take a rain check. I have a date with a young man at the school. In fact, if I don't get moving, I'll be late."
Quickly Gabriel headed toward the elementary school. He pulled into a parking space just as the bell dismissed the children for the day. He climbed from the squad car and leaned against it, his arms folded across his chest, and waited for Peter Michaels to appear. Gabriel waved to several students coming out of the school, but he kept his gaze focused on the door. He wouldn't put it past the boy to try to sneak away. Peter hadn't been very happy this morning when Gabriel had deposited him in the principal's office before having a brief word with the man.