Fisting his door handle, Steven glanced down at the tiny angel drooling on his leg and smiled. “Come on, you little piece of heaven,” he whispered. He slipped his hands beneath Glory’s fragile arms and draped her over his shoulder before easing out of the car. A smile nudged when her arms curled around his neck, and the scent of Ivory soap and bubble gum caused a sudden ache in his heart. He opened Annie’s door and helped her out, and in the flash of a moment, longing invaded his chest. The touch of her hand, the weight of Glory on his shoulder, and he almost felt whole again, as if he deserved the happiness of a good woman, one who would give him children to love …
“Thank you,” Annie whispered, reaching to take her little sister.
“No,” he said, unable to resist burying his head in the little girl’s sweet mass of curls. “I don’t mind.” Lump in his throat, he kissed Glory’s cheek and followed Annie up the steps.
“I can’t thank you enough for bringing us home,” Annie said, slipping her key in the door. She pushed it ajar, then turned and held her arms out for Glory, her smile warm. “You’re a very lucky man, Steven O’Connor, to have the kind of family you do.”
He paused, her statement taking him by surprise, as did the realization she was right, something he’d come to learn the hard way when his father almost died. He’d taken his family for granted before that … but never again.
Her smile tipped into a soft grin. “Or maybe ‘blessed’ would be a better word.”
It was his turn to smile. “That’s certainly what my sisters would say, especially Faith. Come on, munchkin,” he whispered in Glory’s ear, “time for bed.” Gently dislodging Glory’s fingers, he leaned forward to pass her to Annie.
“No …” she groaned, her sweet, little voice groggy with sleep as her arms inched back to his neck. “I don’t want you to go …”
He paused, his head tucked against hers as emotion thickened his throat.
Annie tugged at her sister. “Glory, Steven has to go home and we have to go to bed …”
“B-but will I see you a-again?” she said with a whimper.
He swallowed hard. “Sure, kiddo, anytime you want.” His gaze flicked to Annie and back, and suddenly his hopes for distance seemed to be fading.
“We’ll see,” Annie said, voice and hold adamant as she tried to pull Glory away.
“Okie-dokie.” Glory loosened her grip, then patted a fat, little palm to his cheek. “You’re itchy,” she said with a giggle, then deposited a sweet, tiny kiss on his mouth. “G’night, Steven.”
“G’night, Glory.” He tapped her nose before Annie managed to pry her away.
“Thanks again,” Annie said, inching through the door with Glory in her arms.
“Wait! Aren’t you going to kiss her too?” Glory spun around, eyes wide with the innocence of a little girl who had no earthly idea what she was asking him to do.
He blinked, noting the expanse of Annie’s eyes.
“Glory, no—” she whispered, turning ten kinds of pale.
“Please?” The little troublemaker stared at him with those wide eyes of an angel.
Heart thudding, he did the only thing he knew to do—he kissed Annie right on the tip of her nose. Clearing his throat, he stepped back. “Well, good-night, ladies.”
“No, silly,” Glory said, “like this …” She demonstrated with a sweet little peck on her sister’s lips as if he were too stupid to understand, then tilted her head. “See? It’s easy.”
Too easy, he thought with a trip of his pulse. Way, way too easy …
“Stop it, Glory, Steven doesn’t want to—”
“Sure I do,” he whispered, his words shocking him as much as Annie. Gaze holding hers, he slowly leaned in, close enough to see the long sweep of her lashes, the pale gold in eyes so green, he felt like he was in Oz, about to be granted a wish. He heard the soft hitch of her breath when she stopped breathing because it coincided with the halt of air in his own lungs. Cupping her face in his hand, his eyelids sheathed closed at the touch of her lips—soft, supple and just a hint of peppermint from the candy she’d offered him in the car. It was meant to be no more than a peck like Glory had given him, but somehow his mouth wanted to linger and explore … He stepped in close, body grazing hers and Glory’s till they were one. A little-girl giggle broke the trance, and Annie’s lips curved beneath his.
“His whiskers are itchy, aren’t they, Annie?” Glory asked, patting his face once again. “Kinda makes you wiggly all over, doesn’t it?”
Annie’s eyes glowed as she caressed her own cheek. “Very wiggly,” she whispered.
“Well,” Steven said quickly with a clear of his throat. He chucked Glory beneath her dimpled chin. “I suppose that’s enough kisses for one night, wouldn’t you say, kiddo?”
“No!” Glory giggled with a thrust of her chin.
He hiked a brow. “You know what? You are going to be trouble when you grow up, little girl.” Tapping a finger to her chin, he slid Annie a smile and winked. “Just like your sister.”
“I know.” She looped an arm around Annie with a pixie smile. “G’night, Steven.”
“G’night, Glory.” His eyes trailed to Annie and he nodded. “Annie.” Without another word, he loped to the car, his thoughts as warm as the summer night. He slipped into the front seat with a faint smile and turned the ignition before shifting into gear with a tentative sigh. His gaze lighted on the passenger seat where Annie had been and something warm and deep and full of hope expanded in his chest till he thought he couldn’t breathe.
“You’re a very lucky man, Steven O’Connor,” she had said.
Fingers clenched tight on the stick, he downshifted hard, all warmth dissipating the farther he rumbled away from her street. Exhaling slowly, his lips inched into a sad smile.
Don’t I wish.
“Ouch!” Annie blinked, more tears smarting at the sight of blood pooling where a rose thorn had pricked her finger. She glanced up at the trellis she needed to climb to sneak back in and fought the urge to break down and cry right there on Aunt Eleanor’s lawn in the moonlight. Lip quivering, she promptly sucked on her finger, deciding this was the perfect ending to a horrendous evening spent weeping in the ladies’ room of Ocean Pier.
“I’ve told you before, kid, you’re something special.”
No … she wasn’t, not really.
At least not to Steven O’Connor nor to Aunt Eleanor and certainly not to God. Maybe to Glory and even Maggie in a long-distance sort of way, but the person who’d made her feel more special than anyone alive was no longer around, no longer able to fill that void in her heart.
Oh, Daddy, I miss you so much. Against her will, a heave wracked from her lips and she put her head in her hands, a sharp stab of loneliness gouging deeper than any thorn.
“Did I ever tell you how you got your name, Susannah Grace?” he’d asked one rainy afternoon when she’d snuggled close in his sickbed, water slithering the windowpane while tears slithered her cheeks.
“Yes,” she’d whispered, clutching his hand tightly as if the cancer were about to steal him away. “But I like it when you do.” She heard Glory’s chatter from the kitchen where the smell of Mrs. Baxter’s pot roast drifted into her father’s darkened room, mingling with that of the antiseptic and grape juice their kind neighbor swore would fight her father’s cancer.
A hoarse chuckle scratched through his dry lips and Annie instantly reached for his water, carefully tipping the glass to his lips. After a few sips he smiled and she smiled back, though her heart wrenched at sunken eyes that even yet glowed with love. His fingers shook as he caressed her face. “I can’t believe we almost lost you,” he said softly, parched lips tilted equally in affection and a father’s pride that never failed to warm her soul. Except lately …. Her nose stung with the threat of tears and she quickly lay down, burrowing close while he gently stroked her back. Her eyelids fluttered closed as she clutched his old, striped pajamas, faded blue and white material that stirred thoughts of Christmas morning with cookies and cocoa and cuddling in his lap. Oh, Daddy, please don’t leave …
“Well, I wanted to call you Grace after the aunt who taught me about faith in God,” he continued, the strong medicinal scent of his Lifebouy soap filling her senses with wonderful memories, “but your mama read about this woman named Susannah one day in that Catholic Bible of hers and flat-out insisted that was your name. Claimed Susannah was a beautiful and God-fearing woman with pious parents who raised her up to serve the Lord, just like we planned to do.” He chuckled, the sound raspy and thin. “Fine,” I say, “Susannah it is, but then her middle name will be Grace, by thunder, and that’s the way it’ll be.” His weak laugh vibrated in her ear, and a ghost of a smile edged her lips. Dear, sweet Daddy—stern words forever toppled by a soft heart. “And a mighty good thing, too, ‘cause if ever a child needed the grace of God when she came into this world, Gracie, it was you.”
He shivered, and it traveled her body like an electric current. She felt his hand tighten on her back, his touch protective as always when he told her the story of her birth. “They tell me you stopped breathing, something called Apnea or some such thing, and as God is my witness, Gracie, I knew it. Knew something was wrong out there in that cold, sterile waiting room. Could feel it, sense it, like the very air had left my own lungs.” His fingers shook as they skimmed into her hair, stroking her, loving her—something that came as natural to her father as breathing. A reverence seeped into his voice that thickened his words, causing a sense of awe to settle on the cozy, little room. “Pray …” the directive came,” he said quietly, and the low cadence of his husky tone merged with the rhythm of the rain, creating the same hypnotic pull as when he preached from the pulpit. “And so help me, Gracie, I collapsed to my knees then and there as if the very hand of God had pushed me, tears and prayers streaming, one faster than the other.”
He’d shifted then, fingers cold as they tweaked the back of her neck. She lifted to smile into his eyes with a gaze as watery as his, and her heart cramped at his skeletal frame. “Don’t ever forget, Gracie,” he whispered, eyes burning in a pale face, “more than any young woman I know—you’re God’s girl, make no mistake. He breathed life back in to you that day because he has a job for you to do, hearts to win for him. I know that as surely as I know that I love you.”
He grazed her jaw with quivering fingers, their cool touch a chilling reminder of the sickness that ravaged his body. “I love all my girls, you know that, but it’s no secret Maggie and I butted heads for years before she left, damaging the closeness I’d hoped to have. And Glory is a joy to my soul, make no mistake. But you, daughter, are appropriately named, a true touch of the grace of God in my life—strengthening me, encouraging me, sharing my deep faith in a God we both hold so dear. Never forget, Gracie, that as deep as my love is for you—he loves you far more, with a love everlasting … because you’re the apple of his eye.”
“No, Daddy,” she hissed, her voice rising harsh to escape into the gloom of her aunt’s backyard, “because one protects the apple of his eye.” Lips compressed, she tackled the trellis once again, ignoring the sting of thorns. Slipping over the windowsill, she kicked off her Keds and tossed the heels tucked under her arm onto the floor. She stripped off her clothes and dropped them without regard, a heave shuddering her chest as she collapsed on her bed. With renewed weeping, she wished she could talk to Daddy just one more time. Hear that slow, husky drawl that always carried a smile. To be comforted by his sage advice and feel his love in the sweet crush of his embrace. The raw pain of missing him rose in sobs that echoed off the walls of her room, but she didn’t care. Nothing mattered if she didn’t have Daddy …
Annie jolted up at the sound of her aunt’s knock. “Y-yes?”
“May I come in, please?” her aunt asked, voice hesitant and groggy with sleep.
Tears chilled on her cheek as her gaze darted to the discarded clothing and shoes, grateful they were hidden from view. Blankets to her neck, she swallowed hard. “Y-yes.”
The door squeaked opened and Aunt Eleanor stepped in, golden hair streaming a satin robe. “Why are you crying?” she said quietly, a faceless silhouette in the darkest of rooms.
Annie fought the heaves that rose in her throat. “I …. I miss my f-father.” The words unleashed a floodtide of grief so piercing, she crumpled to her pillow in a rending of sobs.
A whimper caught in her throat at her aunt’s awkward pat. “I … don’t know what to say, Suzannah,” she said softly, tone commiserating even if she could not. “But I know what to do.”
She left and Annie sat up, eyes fixed on the door till her aunt returned. Satin robe swaying about her feet, she moved forward and silently placed a letter on Annie’s pillow.
“What’s this?” Annie whispered, eyes straining to read in the dark. Fingers shaking, she angled it to the moonlight, heart leaping at the graceful script she recognized all too well. Gracie.
“He wanted me to give it to you on your birthday,” Aunt Eleanor said, “so you’d feel like he was here, but that’s a month away, Susannah, and I think you may need it more now.”
She blinked, the bold penmanship she’d seen on reams of hand-written sermons dissolving in a fresh wash of tears. Hand trembling, she stroked the letter to her cheek, craving his scent, longing for his touch and suddenly realized her tears might dampen it. A gasp popped from her mouth as she jerked it away, staring at the ink that now swam in a blur. A vise crushed within. No! My name stolen away … just like my daddy.
Aunt Eleanor cleared her throat. “I’ll leave you alone, Susannah,” she said, her whisper hoarse and unsure. And without another word, she turned and left, the door clicking behind her.
Swiping her eyes, Annie lunged for the lamp on the nightstand, and light flooded the room. Her hands shook when she carefully broke the liturgical wax seal, heart thumping at the touch of a single onionskin sheet. Hungry for his scent, she put it to her nose. Oh, Daddy …
My dearest Gracie,
The day of your birth was one of the happiest days of my life, but only a dim foreshadow of the endless joy you would bring me as a daughter. God chose to call me home, yes, but know that your mother and I celebrate this day with you from above, with a Savior as alive and real as our love for each other. He gave his all, daughter, a love surrendered so completely that we are transformed from the dark into his glorious light. The Light of the World, who in our absence, will be a lamp unto your feet and a warmth to your soul, until that glorious day when we can hold you again on streets of gold. And so, as the Father surrendered his Son for us, so I surrender my daughters to Him, knowing full well his hands are far more capable than my own to keep you and guide you and fill you with his joy.
My one request—no matter the trials in your life, Gracie, hold fast to our God and never let go. For always remember—where he is, we are—longing for the day we will see you again. Please love your sisters, your aunt and serve God with all of your heart while we love and celebrate you from afar—one of the greatest gifts ever received from the hand of God.
Your loving father,
Caressing the parchment, Annie closed her eyes, face slick with new tears wrung from a prodigal heart. All at once, something warm flooded within her spirit like a rush of adrenalin and repentance spilled from her lips like tears from her eyes. “Oh, Lord, forgive me, please …”
There is joy … over one sinner that repenteth.
Slipping to her knees, she began to weep for a long, long while, only these were tears of joy over a soul set free. She thought of Mama and Daddy, and for the first time, she sensed her anger was gone, replaced by a grief untainted by sin. “Lord, I’ve lost my parents,” she sobbed.
I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.
In a catch of her breath, a fountain of joy flooded within, flowing faster and harder than any tears from her eyes. “Oh, God I’ve missed you so, and I need you …” Somewhere far away an owl hooted just as Aunt Eleanor’s clock in the parlor chimed twelve, and Annie silently rose, her heart longing for God like she’d longed for her daddy. The same sense of a caress she’d felt before drifted over her like the gentle breeze that now ruffled the sheers at the window, and padding to the bureau, she unearthed her Bible buried deep in the lowest drawer.
Clasped to her chest, Annie carried the holy book to her bed and placed Daddy’s letter on top. Smoothing the cool parchment over the worn leather cover, she closed her eyes, grazing the onionskin one more time. Fingers burning, she finally opened the Word of God—Daddy’s legacy of love to her and his family.
Hold fast to our God and never let go.
A smile as soft as a kiss from heaven lifted the edge of her lips, and the tears that fell were as warm as the peace in her heart. “Don’t worry, Daddy,” she whispered, “I won’t.”