Excerpt from Her Holiday Family
Simon stood at the front of the church with hat in hand, trying very hard not to look as rattled as he felt. Ten orphan kids-TEN!-all looking to him to turn this disaster around and set their world to rights again. What in blue blazes did a bachelor like him know about taking care of kids, especially so many of them?
When he'd agreed to this venture he sure as temptation hadn't counted on ending up as the sole caretaker of these kids. But they were his responsibility now and he'd have to see it through.
Sending up a silent Lord help me prayer, Simon made himself smile in what he hoped was a relaxed, neighborly fashion as he watched the members of the small town congregation file in to the hastily called emergency meeting. He and the kids were strangers here-didn't know a soul-and he had no idea what to expect from these people. If they didn't help him he wasn't sure what in the world he was going to do.
The children stood lined up in front of him and they edged closer together as the church began to fill. Some of them held hands, as if trying to draw strength from each other. He could do with a bit of that himself, but unfortunately he was on his own-just like always.
Fern, a much-too-serious thirteen-year-old, was looking out for the youngest, as usual. Three-year-old Molly and four-year-old Joey stood on either side of her, holding onto her hand. He quickly checked over the rest of them, feeling a little kick of relief at the way they held themselves. He knew they were worried and scared but not one of them uttered a word, and all the tears had been dried before they left the confusion of the train depot. Miss Fredrick had taught them well.
He glanced over their heads, studying these strangers who held his and the children's fate in their hands-at least for the next few days. He disliked the idea of begging for handouts, but for the sake of his charges he would swallow his pride.
If there was ever a time he needed help it was now. Hopefully there was a motherly sort out there who would know what to do and would be willing to take care of his charges.
At least he wasn't facing these folk entirely alone. The town's minister, Reverend Harper, stood at his side with his wife and daughter nearby. Thank goodness someone had had the presence of mind to call the clergyman in when they'd arrived. The reverend had assured him that the folks in his congregation were generous, warm-hearted people who would help in any way they could.
As the people settled into the pews, their expressions were a mix of curiosity and sympathy. Most offered encouraging smiles to the children. How many had already learned of their situation?
When it appeared the last person had taken a seat, Reverend Harper stepped forward. "Thank you all for responding to the bells and joining us here on such short notice." He motioned toward Simon. "This gentleman is Mr. Simon Tucker and he'd like to introduce these fine children to you."
Ready or not, he was up. How best to personalize these children for the congregation? Considering he'd only gotten to know them himself over this past week or so it wouldn't be easy.
He laid his hand lightly on Fern's shoulder. "This young lady is Fern. She's thirteen and the oldest of the children. She's very responsible and is always looking out for the younger ones."
He moved his hand to the shoulder of the boy on her right. "Speaking of which, this little man here is Joey. Joey is four and loves animals." Joey had told him more than once that Miss Fredrick had promised him he could have a dog when they reached Hatcherville and it was as if she'd promised him the moon.
Simon shifted to the child on Fern's left. "And this little Sweetpea is Molly. She's three and the youngest of our group." Molly slipped her thumb in her mouth and Simon couldn't find it in his heart to blame her.
Next he moved on to the children he had the closest tie to. "These two are Audrey and Albert. They're seven years old and twins." They were also his niece and nephew but there was no need to mention that.
He quickly went down the row, introducing the rest of the children-Rose, Lily, Tessa, Harry and Russell-trying to mention something positive about each of them. His gut told him it was important that these folks feel sympathy for the children.
When he was done, Reverend Harper spoke up again. "Thank you Mr. Tucker." He signaled his wife and daughter. "Now, while we grown-ups talk, Mrs. Harper and Constance will escort the children over to Daisy's Restaurant where Abigail is planning to serve them up a nice hot meal."
Several of the children looked to Simon for reassurance. It once again drove home how dependent they now were on him. Scary thought. But he smiled and nodded.
Mrs. Harper took Lily's hand while her daughter Constance took the hands of the twins. Together the whole lot of them filed out.
Simon resisted the urge to rake his hand through his hair. He needed to make a proper impression on these people.
When the little troupe had made their exit, Reverend Harper spoke up again, placing a hand on Simon's shoulder. "Mr. Tucker finds himself in need of our assistance and I've assured him that the people of Turnabout are up to the challenge. As some of you may already know, there was an emergency on the train when it pulled into town this morning that required Dr. Pratt's services. It turned out to be very serious indeed. I'll let Mr. Tucker tell you more about what's happening."
Simon nodded to the clergyman. "Thank you, Reverend Harper." Then he turned to the people seated in the pews. "The lady who is now in Dr. Pratt's care, Miss Georgina Fredrick, is the guardian of the children you just met. I was escorting her and the children to a new home that's waiting for them in Hatcherville. But just before we pulled into the station here she had an attack of some sort. Your Dr. Pratt tells me she suffered a stroke. And her outlook isn't good."
He was encouraged by the sympathetic looks focused his way. But would it translate to action? "First, let me tell you a little about this dear lady. Miss Fredrick is a warm, generous, caring person. For the past nine years she's opened her home to children who had nowhere else to go. Over that time, all of those children you just met have been left in her care and have found not only a safe home but have formed a family bond as strong as any blood kin." His admiration for the woman knew no bounds. To his way of thinking there was no higher calling than to care for children.
He let his gaze roam across the people seated before him, briefly holding a gaze here and there before moving on. "Recently Miss Fredrick decided that her existing home in St. Louis could no longer accommodate her stretched-to-its limits household. So I helped her find a new place. That's where we were headed. I'm here because she asked me to provide an escort for her and the children, and to help them get settled in."
He slid the brim of his hat through his fingers. "We obviously can't move on until she's recovered enough to travel." Please God, see that she does recover. "So what I'm asking you folks for is a place for me and the kids to stay while we await that outcome." Had he said too much? Not enough? Please God, let him have touched their hearts.
Simon drew his shoulders back. "I figure you all might have some questions for me before you respond, so feel free to fire away."
A plump woman on the second row stood. "May I ask what your actual relationship is to Miss Fredrick and these children?"
"My sister Sally was Miss Fredrick's housekeeper for a number of years and helped her care for the children." He felt his chest constrict as he remembered his feisty younger sister. "Sally passed away three months ago, and Miss Fredrick continued to give her two children a home when I could not." He would be forever grateful to the woman for taking in Audrey and Albert-goodness knows she was able to give them a better home then he ever could.
A tall bearded man near the back of the church stood. "Have these children been given a Christian upbringing?"
"Absolutely. Miss Fredrick sees that they attend church services regularly and reading from the bible is part of their daily routine." He gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "And just so you know, they've also been taught proper manners and behavior."
Apparently satisfied, the man sat back down. After a short silence, Reverend Harper stepped forward. "If there are no other questions for Mr. Tucker, we need to discuss his request for temporary lodgings for himself and the children. Is there anyone willing to step up and answer this call?"
To Simon's relief, a number of hands went up. At least he'd be able to lay that worry aside.
"I can take three or four of them in."
"I can take two."
"I can take one."
"I can take three."
As the offers came in Simon's optimism faded. He held his hand up to halt the offers. "That's mighty generous of you folks, but I'm afraid there's been a little misunderstanding. I need to keep them all together right now." The idea of splitting them up brought back unpleasant memories of how he and his sisters had been farmed out all those years ago. But it was more than that. "It's not that I don't appreciate your very kind offers, but since these children are in my sole care right now, I need to be able to keep an eye on all of them. And separating them when they're already feeling so anxious about their foster mother is just going to upset them more."
That announcement was greeted with an uncomfortable silence. What was he going to do if they couldn't make this work? He'd promised he wouldn't separate them-he personally knew how wrenching that could be. Even if they all had to sleep on pallets on the floor, it would be preferable to scattering them, especially now when they needed each other.
He tried again. "It's not as if they each need their own room. They're used to sharing tight quarters."
Reverend Harper cleared his throat. "I think we all understand and sympathize with your reasoning, Mr. Tucker, but what you're asking is a mighty tall order to fill. There are eleven of you, after all."
The reverend said that as if Simon weren't already painfully aware of the situation.
But before he could respond, the man continued. "You may have to accept the need to separate them for a few days. We can likely find accommodations for two large groups, but there's not many households large enough to accept eleven guests for an overnight-"
He paused as if he'd just had an idea and Simon immediately felt his hope rise. Had the man come up with a solution? Simon was ready to grasp at any straw.
Reverend Harper had looked to the pews on the right-hand side of the church as if seeking someone out. "Unless, ah, there you are Mrs. Pierce. Perhaps you would allow us to impose on your generosity?"
Simon followed the minister's gaze, trying to figure out who he was looking at. Then a slender, blonde woman, dressed in the purple and gray of half-mourning, stood. There was something arresting about her. She was taller than the average woman and held herself with an elegant grace, but it was more than that. Aloof, cool, distant-she seemed not so much a part of this gathering as a disinterested observer. Her face seemed expressionless, but her thickly-lashed brown eyes seemed to miss nothing.
And yet he sensed something vulnerable about her, a just-below-the-surface fragility that tugged at him.
While her expression gave nothing away, he had the distinct impression this ice queen was not going to go along with the reverend's verbal arm-twisting happily.
Which didn't bode well for just how 'motherly' she would be toward the children...