“Shall we toss to see who mops the floor?” she asked, forcing a levity to her tone she didn’t quite feel.
He slipped the now damp dishtowel over a brass hook bolted to the side of the cabinet and turned, a glimmer of tease invading his serious gaze. “Odd, I wouldn’t have pegged you for a gambling woman, Miss Murphy.” He slanted against the counter, arms folded.
She flipped a stray curl over her shoulders and sashayed into the kitchen, dishrag in hand and a smirk on her face. “Of course I am, Mr. O’Connor—I gambled on friendship with you, didn’t I?”
Fishing a coin from his pocket, he shot her a grin. “That was a matter of intelligence, not risk.” He lobbed a nickel at her and she caught it one-handed, coaxing a throaty chuckle from his lips. “Why do I get the feeling you’ve done this before, Marceline?”
“Because I have,” she said with a cocky smile, feeling a bit reckless. She strutted over and fisted her hand, thumb tucked and dishrag dangling while she positioned the coin on top. “Julie and I used to toss to see who got to read a book first, you know.”
His teeth gleamed white. “How decadent.”
Her smile was smug. “No, Mr. Wiseacre, ‘decadent’ will be me enjoying an oatmeal cookie at the table with feet propped while you mop the floor.” She arched a brow. “Ready?” With practiced dexterity, she popped her thumb beneath the nickel, and it launched in the air, her breathing suspended while the coin toppled over and over.
Plunk. With a devious smile, Patrick snatched it just inches from her hand and slapped it on top of his. “Call it.”
She pursed her lips, eyes squinted as she tried to visualize which side of the coin it might be. “Heads,” she said with a confident hike of her chin, praying her intuition was correct.
His groan rose in the air when he lifted his palm. “I hate mopping the floor,” he muttered, slipping the nickel back in his pocket.
Giddy over her win, she giggled. “Don’t be a baby, Patrick, a little soapy water won’t hurt you.” Mischief bubbled up along with her laughter as she sloshed the rag in the sudsy dishwater and flicked it at him, intending only to splatter a few drops his way. She gasped when the rag accidentally flew from her hand. Eyes wide, her jaw dropped as it pelted him in the face and fell to the floor, leaving soapy water sluicing down his dark-bristled cheek. “Oh, P-patrick, I am so s-sorry …” Her voice trailed off into a fit of giggles she could no more stop than the water stains that dribbled down his trousers into a puddle at his feet.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have done that, darlin’ …” he said with a glint of retaliation. Whisking the sopping rag up off of the floor, he squeezed it with a lightning thrust of his arm, showering Marcy’s torso—and Miss Clara’s apron front—with soapy water.
Marcy shrieked and giggled, but not before dousing Patrick’s chest with a slash of her hand in the sink, slamming him with a wave of dirty dishwater before she darted away. Flushed with excitement, she felt like a little girl again, having a pillow fight with Julie. Adrenaline coursed while she scrambled to the other side of the table, her breathing hard and hands braced to a chair. “Come on, Patrick—truce,” she begged, tone breathless.
Dipping the dishrag into the dirty water once again, he casually tossed the sodden rag back and forth while he ambled toward the table with a wicked grin. “Sure, Marceline—right after I even the score.”
Her stomach skittered as she pleaded, eyes darting to the door and back with a nervous laugh. “Miss Clara will be back any minute, and she said not to start any trouble.”
Step by step, his grin never wavered as he rounded the table. “I didn’t.”
“Patrick, please—I’ll be good, I promise.” Her body pulsed with adrenaline as she skirted the table in the opposite direction, praying Miss Clara would return before she got soaked.
His husky chuckle sent goose bumps up her arms. “I know, Marcy—good and wet.”
With a wild shriek she made a break for the door, laughing so hard, she didn’t hear him coming until he whirled her around. Her laughter turned to squeals when she tried to get away, but he clamped a steel arm to her waist while he held the rag dangerously close to her neck. “Repeat after me, Marceline,” he whispered, eyes issuing a challenge. “Patrick, I’m a brat, I’m sorry, and I will never do this again.”
Pulse sprinting, she giggled, eyes flicking from him to the rag in his hand, weighing her options. “And if I don’t?”
One dark brow jutted high as his smile eased into a grin. “You won’t have to bathe tonight, darlin’.”
His words warmed both her cheeks and her temper. “You wouldn’t,” she dared.
“Only one way to find out.” There was a bit of the devil in his eye, the rag dangling precariously close to her neck
Marcy sucked in a deep breath. “All right, Patrick,” she said, skin tingling with mischief and eye on the rag, “I’m a brat, I’m sorry, and I … won’t promise—” Lunging, she whipped the rag from his hands so fast, he never saw it coming, christening him with dirty dishwater like Father Fitz christened babies in the back of the church.
He hooked her waist before she could escape, and her high-pitch giggles merged with his husky laughter as she flailed in his arms, a death grip on the soppy rag thrashing over their heads. Dishwater flew every which way while he tried to reclaim it, but Marcy hid it behind her back with squeals of laughter. Locking her to his chest with one arm, he circled her waist with his other, his breath warm on her cheek as he grappled to claim the win.
“Give … it … up … Patrick,” she breathed, her words punctuated by shrieks and shallow rasps as she tried to wrestle free, “you will … never win …”
Her words seemed to paralyze him, and in a single heave of her breath, his body stilled against hers. She could feel the ragged rise and fall of his chest, the hot press of his arm at the small of her back, the wild hammering of her pulse in her ears. All at once, she was painfully aware of his nearness, bare inches away from the dark stubble that peppered his jaw. His hard-muscled chest was so close she could almost feel the dampness of his shirt while the familiar scent of spices and pine whirled her senses. His breathing was ragged like hers, warm and sweet with the faint scent of chocolate from his chocolate cream pie, and when his gaze lowered to her lips, heat coiled through her so strong, it sapped all moisture from her throat.
The silence was deafening as he stared, a battle waging in eyes that eclipsed to a dark fervor, shocking her when they quivered her belly. “I will never give up, Marceline,” he whispered, his words a tender caress. His lips parted to emit shallow breaths, and fire singed when his glance flickered to her mouth once again.
“T-take it …” she whispered, alarm curling in her stomach. Dear Lord, had he meant to kiss me? Prodding the rag to his chest, she pushed him away while heat throbbed in her cheeks. She took an awkward step back, gaze on the floor as she buffed at her arms with brisk motion. “Goodness, Miss Clara will have our hides,” she said with nervous chuckle, unable to look at him even yet. “You win, Patrick—I surrender.” She forced a casual tone and attempted to side-step him on her way to the broom closet.
Her heart seized when he halted her with a gentle hand. “Marcy …” His voice was somber and steeped with regret. “Please forgive me …”
“For what?” A deep voice sounded from the door, shattering what was left of Marcy’s calm.
SPIRITUAL SCENE SETUP:
In 1895 Boston, 18-year-old Marceline Murphy is overseeing a fundraiser for her parish’s soup kitchen, a Christmas play entitled A Light in the Window. In the following scene when she and Sister Francine are holding auditions, they witness a performance by a little girl that simply wrenches their hearts … and, I hope, yours too.
Two hours later, Marcy had a headache from off-key singing, slaughtered diction, and Sister’s Francine’s whistle, giving her pause as to her sanity in agreeing to the job as fundraiser chair. Kneading her temple, she glanced up to see a young boy who had auditioned for the cast pushing a small girl in a wheelchair to the front of the stage.
With a scrub of shaggy brown hair, he approached with a solemn smile and a nod of respect. “Sister, Miss Murphy, my name is Nate Phillips, and this here is my sister Holly.” He took another step forward, cap in hand and voice fading to a whisper. “She’s only seven, but Ma asked me to bring her ‘cause, well you see, Holly doesn’t get to do too much on account of she’s crippled, you know, so Ma thought …” His Adam’s apple wobbled several times. “Well, she hoped you’d consider letting Holly audition because of her name and all, seeing it has to do with Christmas and that’s her birthday too.” He leaned in, a glimmer of moisture in his eyes as he twisted his hat with his fingers, voice lowering all the more. “You don’t have to pick her, understand, just let her read and sing ‘cause she’s real good at both, you know, and Ma just thought that alone would be enough to make her happy.”
Marcy blinked, the boy’s face watering into a blur. She swallowed hard to fight a heave, but it was no use, it broke from her lips in a shuddering rasp.
Sister Francine patted her arm and spoke to the boy with a firm lift of her chin. “If your sister took the time to come and audition tonight, young man, then audition she will.” She glanced up at Julie. “Miss O’Rourke, will you please hand this young man both a script and music for his sister, please.”
The young boy, all of twelve, looked as if he might break down and cry himself, jaw aquiver while tears welled in his eyes. “Thank you, Sister,” he whispered, then grabbed Marcy’s hand, shaking it as if he were pumping water for a man dying of thirst. Or maybe a sister … “Bless you, Miss Murphy, and you too, Sister Francine—Holly ain’t never had nothing like this happen to her before, so bless you!” He whirled around and rushed to give Holly a hug, then took the papers that Julie gave him and handed them to her as well. With a squeeze of her shoulders, he stepped aside.
Marcy took a quick swipe at her eyes and leaned forward, awarding Holly the brightest smile she could muster. She noted the faded calico dress the little girl wore that seemed three sizes too big and a pale face that made her appear like a china doll with liquid-brown eyes. “Holly, are you ready to read from the script?”
The little girl nodded, chestnut hair trailing fragile shoulders as she gave Marcy a sweet smile. “Yes, ma’am,” she whispered, her voice so soft and wispy, Marcy worried that no one would be able to hear.
“Start at the beginning, then, sweetheart, reading the script just like you’re that little girl in the play who’s excited about Christmas, all right?”
Holly nodded again and paused … right before she belted out the lines as if they were coming from an entirely different little girl.
“Excellent!” Marcy said with a grin when Holly had finished. “Are you ready to sing, and do you know the Christmas carol, Oh, Holy Night?”
“Perfect!” Marcy glanced up at the piano. “Julie, let’s try C major, all right?”
Whether it was the fact that it was late and everyone was tired or whether it was the sight of a frail little girl in a wheelchair who longed to be a part of the play, the room stilled to a hush. Marcy’s breath suspended as she waited, the pounding of her own pulse in her ears drowning out Julie’s musical intro. And then, in the sweet and soulful song of a little girl, a steamy and noisy auditorium became the gate of heaven itself as a sound so poignant rose in the room, Marcy had no power over the tears that slipped from her eyes.
For several thudding heartbeats after the last note was sung, the silence was almost painful, an ache in Marcy’s chest over the loss of a voice that had ushered them into the very presence of God. And then, in a blast of applause that swelled to the ceiling, the audience shot to their feet along with Marcy and Sister Francine, dewy-eyed over a delicate little girl who may not be able to walk, but whose voice could soar to the sky.
After a whisper in Sister Francine’s ear and Sister’s subsequent nod, Marcy hurried to give Holly a hug, kneeling to clasp the little girl’s hands in her own. “Holly, that was simply the most beautiful thing we have ever heard,” she said with a sheen in her eyes, “and we want you to know right now, young lady, that not only are we giving you a part in this play, but we want you to sing that very song as well. Would you like that?”
Brown eyes as glossy as Marcy’s blinked back when Holly nodded, her rosebud mouth quivering along with her jaw. “Oh, yes, ma’am,” she whispered, flinging herself into Marcy’s arms with a chuckle that broke into a sob.
Marcy squeezed the little sprite of a thing, eyes closed and heart rejoicing that even now, before this play came to pass, it was changing lives as Marcy had hoped and prayed. That it wouldn’t just be a mere fundraiser, but a spirit raiser as well, touching people with the grace of God. Jumping to her feet, she hurried to pull two rehearsal packets from Papa’s portfolio and handed them to Holly’s brother, who now stood by her side. “Nate, please give these to your mother so she knows the exact dates Holly and you will need to be here. There’s a full script inside each packet, so you need to practice both of your parts together. You will play the part of Daniel, and Holly will play the part of Sara—” She paused, her eyes softening as they lighted on his sister once again. “No, wait—Holly will play herself.” She glanced up and gave Nate a wink. “Since it is a Christmas play and all.”
He stared, mouth agape before it curved into a silly grin. “Yes, ma’am, and thank you, ma’am!” he gushed, cranking her hand so hard once again, she was sure she’d be sore come morning.
“Why don’t you take Holly home now so you can tell your mother the good news, and no need to come back until the first rehearsal date, all right?”
“Yes, ma’am!” he shouted, and took Marcy by surprise when he bowled her over with a hug that had her grinning ear to ear. She watched Nate wheel his sister away and sighed, returning to her seat next to Sister Francine.
“I’ll tell you what, young lady,” Sister Francine said with a smile that displayed a rare show of tenderness, “it’s moments like this that weaken my resolve to be an old crab.“