Read the first 3 chapters of A Sunday in Sweet Grove! – Melissa Storm
Melissa Storm
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Read the first 3 chapters of A Sunday in Sweet Grove!

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Could his little girl be the messenger of God's love?

Chapter 1

Saying Liam James lived in the tiny town of Sweet Grove, Texas, was quite a stretch. While technically true, he lived so far on the border of the township that it took him more than twenty minutes to drive into town. Tiny in population, sure. But acreage? Definitely not.

His wife, Rebecca, had grown up in the main part of town. Had died there, too. On the other hand, he had grown up in the much larger, much more vibrant city of Dallas. Though he’d happily moved his entire life when his pretty young bride had batted her eyelashes and said it might be nice to raise their as-of-yet unborn child in “the type of place where everybody knows everybody, for better or worse.”

And so they lived in town for about a year while their dream house was being built on the outskirts of town. Somewhere during that busy time, they’d had a daughter, Miss Molly Sue James. Rebecca quit her job as a middle school teacher and decided to stay home full-time, both to raise their child and to help Liam with the business as needed. He’d slaved day and night growing his Internet consulting company from a one-man operation to a thriving corporation with a waiting list near a mile long.

He’d worked hard so she wouldn’t have to. Liam loved Rebecca and wanted her to have everything . . .

And so everything is what she got, for better or for far, far worse. And that included cancer.

While all cancers were dastardly, Rebecca’s was the worst of them all. Her illness took her mind before it took her body, meaning his final moments with her were filled with confusion, frustration, tears—for both of them, and especially their little girl who was six when her mother passed out of this world and through those pearly gates.

She’d started first grade less than a month prior to her parents pulling her out of classes and bringing her home. They didn’t know how much time Rebecca would have left, and they wanted Molly Sue to be able to lap up every available moment, make every possible memory before it was too late.

So they homeschooled. Rebecca did the bulk of the work, despite her illness making everything at least a dozen times more difficult. Molly never complained, even though one wouldn’t expect a child to be so understanding of something an adult could hardly comprehend.

Liam would often find the two of them giggling under a pile of blankets while they took turns reading aloud from an old Berenstain Bears book. Molly took to reading like a duck to water. In no time at all, she and her mother shifted to reading the latest young adult fantasy novels. Rebecca patiently explained the words and concepts Molly Sue was still too young to understand on her own. And while the little girl’s reading excelled, she quickly fell behind in other subjects. Science, especially.

By the time Rebecca’s funeral had come and gone, Liam had already reached an important decision on the matter of his daughter’s education. She’d need a private homeschool tutor for at least a year to help her catch up. The last thing he wanted to do was send her out among the other kids before she was ready. The social challenges of reintegrating his daughter into the school system would be more than enough without heaping academic challenges on top of them.

The one thing he couldn’t bring himself to decide, though, was where he and Molly should build their lives now that they were no longer tied to Sweet Grove. He could run his home business anywhere. Sometimes he’d go so far as to research Montessori schools in Maine or Wi-Fi speeds in Fiji, but he never made any serious moves toward relocating their lives . . . which meant they stayed for better or for worse, both comforted and haunted by the memories of the dearly departed Rebecca.

At first, his parents had gently suggested he move back to Dallas so they could help raise Molly Sue, then they’d nagged, and later pleaded, but still he remained firm. Somehow, he knew Rebecca’s ghost would follow him to the far corners of the earth, so he might as well stay put in the dream house they’d built together, in the place where she’d wanted more than anything to see her daughter grow up.

What would Rebecca think of Molly Sue’s latest artwork, that funny joke their daughter had told over grilled cheese sandwiches, the fact that he might like to repaint the walls to a sad shade of blue to match his constant mood?

He thought about all these things more than he cared to admit.

Sometimes he talked to her late at night when he was sure Molly Sue had gone to sleep, but she never answered back.

She was gone, gone, gone.

And yet here he remained, trying and—more often than not—failing to be a good father to the daughter Rebecca hadn’t wanted to leave behind. He was stuck, and he hated himself for that. But how could he make sure his daughter grew up happy when he’d practically forgotten the meaning of the word . . . let alone how it felt?

* * *

Jennifer Elliot woke up with a smile. She’d always been a morning person and didn’t need an alarm to remind her when the time had come to rise and shine. Besides, today was her favorite day of the whole week: Sunday. Sundays were for God, for the children, and most of all, for really and truly living her best life.

She stretched her arms overhead, grabbed a drink from the half-full water bottle on her nightstand, and sprang out of bed, ready to take on the day.

“This is the day that the Lord has made . . .” she sang and then burst into a spirited humming rendition of one of the songs she most liked to sing with her kids. Okay, so they weren’t her kids, but then again, they kind of were. She loved being a daycare worker, but more than that, she loved being First Street Church’s resident Sunday school teacher. She’d always been great with kids, even though she was nowhere near having any of her own.

She didn’t even have a boyfriend, let alone any marriage prospects!

But with kids, what you saw . . . well, that’s what you got. She admired their honesty, and above all, she loved the pure bliss on their little faces as she told them stories about Jesus and reminded them of the Golden Rule. Yes, her call to be a Sunday school teacher had come in loud and clear, and she’d happily answered. The only real problem was that it was a volunteer position.

Of course, Jennifer didn’t care much about money. How could she when she barely had two nickels to rub together? Sure, it might be nice to have a bit more cash for pretty dresses, art supplies, and other things that made her happy—but, truth be told, she was perfectly happy already. Especially because today was a Sunday.

She pulled her favorite maxi dress over her head and frowned when she noticed a tiny hole had begun to tug at the neckline. Oh well. It’s had a good run. Just to be safe, she pulled the dress back over her head and tossed it onto the bed, then went to make breakfast in nothing but her underwear, a pink polka-dotted bra and cotton briefs with a faded Superman logo across the bottom. No one ever saw what she wore beneath her endless stream of dresses, but knowing she had something pretty and fun beneath always gave her that added boost of confidence she craved.

She padded out to the kitchen and buttered some toast, carefully removing a chunk from the middle so she could make eggies in a basket. A train chugged by outside, shaking the floor beneath her. The track outside Sweet Grove didn’t have too many trains pull through, but enough that she’d gotten used to the rattle and hum and, really, hardly noticed anymore.

Besides, you couldn’t beat the price. Her rent was less than $400 per month, and she knew Kristina Rose paid almost twice that for her nicer place uptown. Nope, Jennifer didn’t mind being poor. She had everything she needed. Besides, it’s not like Jesus was rolling in dough back in His day. She giggled as she pictured Jesus in His long white robe and blue sash swimming in a pool of dollar bills.

If this life was good enough for her Lord and Savior, then it was good enough for her, too. Money wasn’t what made people rich, anyway. Joy remained the only currency that mattered to Jennifer—having it, sharing it, spreading it all around like the generous helping of butter she heaped onto her toast. Yum!

She took her breakfast over to the small, messy desk on the other side of her studio apartment and booted up her computer. It was the one Maisie had used back when they were all in high school, which meant it was old—really old, like big, chunky box monitor old. But it had a working Internet connection and had been free, so even though it took its dear time booting up, Jennifer didn’t mind too much.

She basically only used it for one thing, anyway. After logging into her Facebook account, she scrolled through her feed looking for updates from her family on the East Coast. She wished they hadn’t moved away from Sweet Grove while she’d been away at college earning her education degree. Having to decide between the only home she’d ever known and the family she loved had been a terrible thing, one that had torn her up for months as she went back and forth, back and forth, weighing all the pros and cons.

Ultimately, the visit to Jessica’s new home in Baltimore is what made the decision for her. Even though her sister, nieces, and parents had all relocated, Jennifer just couldn’t picture herself making a life in such a large, impersonal town. Life moved too fast over there. She liked the pace Sweet Grove had set for her years ago and preferred not to live a life of rushing from one appointment to the next if she could avoid it.

So here she was, in her undies, working on her ancient computer, eating eggies in a basket. No news from her sister or mom. They didn’t post too much anyway. Maybe Jennifer would give them a call after church. But first she had a hole to stitch, children to teach, and a song to sing . . .

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” she belted out as she finished her morning chores, poor as a church mouse but happy as a clam, which of course was another strange picture that made Jennifer giggle.

Chapter 2

Sundays were the one day each week Liam allowed himself to sleep late. Most days he rose before the sun and shuffled over to his dark office to boot up his laptop and start work. On Sundays, he woke up slightly after dawn and cooked Mickey Mouse pancakes for himself and Molly Sue, a tradition his late wife had started and one he didn’t see himself putting an end to anytime soon. He could just picture himself, withered and old, sitting in the nursing home with an oxygen tank at his side as he shook his fists and demanded Mickey Mouse pancakes with chocolate chips cooked right into the batter.

By then Molly would have her own children, maybe even grandchildren, and Liam would still be alone—more alone.

He lifted the skillet and with a quick maneuver tossed the flapjack up and over . . . onto the side of the pan. He would never be as good at this as Rebecca had been, but he’d keep trying because it seemed like a nice way to honor her memory, even though he did a rather unremarkable job with this particular tribute.

He poured himself a glass of orange juice and briefly contemplated adding a splash of vodka before thinking better of it. He already felt as if he moved around in a haze and didn’t need to further numb the remaining senses he had at his disposal. Besides, Molly would be down to join him in . . .

He glanced at the clock above the oven and realized Molly Sue was behind schedule that morning. Usually she sat on a bar stool across from where he worked at the kitchen island and recounted her dreams from the night before with vivid detail. It wasn’t like her to sleep in, especially considering how much she loved their special Sunday morning ritual. Could she be coming down with something?

It was December, which meant peak cold season around these parts. Poor kid never got a snow day because she lived in Texas and never got a sick day because she was homeschooled. Maybe he could set her up with some movies and books in bed tomorrow, call off her tutor, give the girl a break.

Lord knew she needed one. Heck, so did he.

He finished making their pancakes, and the second one thankfully came out better than the first. That would be for Molly. He cut some strawberries, added some whipped cream, and prepared a breakfast tray to serve to Molly in bed. If she was feeling up to it, he’d go back down and grab his plate to join her. If not, he’d let her sleep and start work early for the day.

As he drew near Molly Sue’s bedroom, he heard singing—the song from Frozen but not the one everyone had been obsessed with a couple of years back.

“Hi, Daddy!” She beamed at him, standing amid an alarming pile of rumpled, discarded clothes. She wore a sparkly tutu that he seemed to recall belonging to a Halloween costume from the year before, striped knee socks, and pretty much every piece of jewelry she owned, including a sapphire pendant her mother had left for her—a sapphire pendant Molly Sue was not supposed to wear without permission.

“Don’t be upset, Daddy,” she said with a smile followed by an inelegant twirl. “I needed to look nice today.”

“You always look nice,” he answered, crossing the room to leave the breakfast tray on her unmade bed.

She let out an exaggerated sigh complete with a giant heave of her shoulders. “Yes, but I had to look extra nice. Do I look extra nice?” She raised an eyebrow at him, a gesture she’d inherited from her mother, much like that pendant she wore.

“Yes, you look beautiful.”

A smile bloomed across her face, and she spun again, then bowed. “Thank you, Daddy. Are those Mickey Mouse pancakes for me?” she asked pointing toward the bed.

“They sure are. Are you hungry?”

She brought a hand to her belly and frowned. “I am hungry, but we don’t have much time.”

“Time? Time for what?”

“We have to go, or we won’t make it!” She frantically searched her nightstand and then pulled out her small digital clock and groaned.

“Hey, slow down already. What’s wrong? Where are we going?”

She rolled her eyes at him. So much guff from a seven-year-old, and he didn’t know why he was in trouble to begin with! “It’s Sunday,” she said, placing a hand on each hip. “You know what that means.”

“Yes, it’s Mickey Mouse pancake day.” He smiled and raised the tray toward her as a peace offering, even though he still had no idea what they were warring over.

“Yes. Wait, no. Daddy!” she cried and stomped her foot. “Sunday means church.”

A pit formed in Liam’s stomach. He should have nabbed that vodka when he’d had the chance. “Molly Sue, we don’t go to church anymore,” he explained, feeling like the absolute worst father in the whole world.

“Daddy, we have to go to church. God misses us.”

Ouch. Sucker punch right to the gut. Somebody tag him out. There was no way he could argue with that.

“Okay, okay. I don’t want to let God down,” he said with a soft smile. “I’ll go get ready. Please eat your pancakes while I do.”

Molly Sue smiled back at him and jumped onto her bed, singing that Frozen song again and with more vigor than before. “For the first time in forever . . .” she belted out before stuffing a bite into her mouth and muffling her attempt to continue the song.

He listened to her clunky simultaneous performance of singing and eating as he tromped to his bedroom and began to look for something church appropriate. He never really left the house anymore. Most days he wore sweats or PJs, one of the best perks when it came to working from home, and—oh—he needed a shave and a haircut and . . .

“Are you almost ready, Daddy?” Molly Sue asked, appearing in the doorway.

“I don’t know what to wear. It’s been a long time since we’ve gone to church,” he admitted.

She rolled her eyes again and marched toward his closet. “I know that, Daddy. It’s why we have to go today . . . Wear this one,” she said yanking on a garment tucked in the back of his closet.

He didn’t have to look to know what it was—the suit he’d worn to Rebecca’s funeral.

“Okay. Now get out of here so I can get dressed in private,” he choked out.

Molly Sue skipped away happily, unaware of how upset she’d made her father. Liam tiptoed to his closest as if it held a monster he feared alerting to his presence. In a way, it did. That suit represented the worst day of his life. Why had he let it stay in his closet all these months? Why hadn’t he burned the stupid thing the moment they’d come home from the funeral parlor?

He took the detested garment out of the closet, glanced over the smooth black fabric, and then threw it to the ground and kicked it under the bed. There, the dust bunnies should make a meal of that. For all the many beautiful memories he had, there were just as many he wished he could wipe clear from his mind, never to find them again. Maybe more of that second kind. They haunted him enough without him voluntarily letting the miserable suit grace his form.

No, he’d wear a polo shirt today. It was simply the best he could do, given the circumstances.

Hopefully his little girl would understand.

Molly Sue and Rebecca

Eighteen months ago

Five-year-old Molly Sue sat high up on her parents’ bed, her back pushed against the large satin headboard. She liked how slippery it felt against her nightgown. Even more than that, she loved these special days when she got to stay home from school and spend the day relaxing with her mommy. They used to come only a couple of times per week, but lately she’d been home more days than she’d been away.

Every day had become a slumber party. She and Mommy both wore their jammies and stayed in bed watching princess movies and reading stories together. Today her mother wore the pajamas Molly Sue liked best from her large collection. They were purple—her very favorite color—and spotted with silly flying pigs all up and down the pant legs and even on the sleeves of the matching shirt. It always made Molly Sue laugh whenever she first caught a glimpse of her mommy in those PJs.

And laughing was good, because laughing meant you were happy.

Lately, both Mommy and Daddy had been crying . . . a lot.

They said her mother would be going away, going away forever. But in all her five and three-quarters years on this earth, Molly Sue had found that just because something feels like forever doesn’t necessarily make it so. Like when she needed to potty while out for a drive, and she had to hold it so hard to wait for a toilet. It felt like forever, but eventually she got to empty her mean, old bladder. Or when she had waited and waited and waited some more for her favorite movie Frozen to come out on DVD. That really had been for forever! But now her movie was here, and she and Mommy were even watching it right now.

So when her parents said that Mommy would go away forever, she felt sad, but she also knew that forever wasn’t for always, even though it sometimes felt that way.

“Molly,” her mother whispered, lifting her arms up to draw Molly Sue into a cuddle. “Do you know how much I love you?”

Molly giggled. She loved this game. “One million.”

“That’s right. And do you know how long I will be with you?”

Molly Sue thought about this. A smile spread its way from cheek to cheek. She knew just the answer . . . at least she thought she did. “Forever?”

“Forever,” her mother confirmed as she brushed the hair from Molly’s face. Her eyes danced as they sometimes did when she got extra happy or extra sad.

“Even when I go to Heaven,” her mother continued. “I’ll still be here, too.”

The little girl laughed again. “You can’t be in two places at once, silly Mommy.”

But Molly’s mommy didn’t laugh. Instead, a sad smile pinched her pretty features. “I’m going away, Molly Sue. My body is going away, but my spirit will live on in your heart and in Daddy’s. Do you understand?”

She wasn’t sure she did, but she nodded anyway. “When God is done visiting with you, can you come back?”

Mommy took a deep breath and drew her daughter near. She didn’t say yes or no. Instead, she answered with, “We’ll see each other again someday, I promise. But while I’m away, I’m going to need your help. Can you help me with something very important, Molly Sue?”

Molly sat up straight and pumped her head vigorously. She would do anything to help her mother, especially with how hard even the simplest things had been for her lately.

“Daddy is very sad,” Mommy explained as she caressed the lacy frill on the sleeves of Molly Sue’s nightie. “But you and I both know it’s never too late for a fresh chance. That’s why I need your help. Can you help be his angel when I go to Heaven? Can you help Daddy feel happy again?”

Well, yeah, of course! She wanted her daddy to be happy, almost more than anything in the whole wide world. “Yes, I can be Daddy’s angel,” she agreed.

“Good, because I have a plan . . .”

* * *

Jennifer had fewer pupils than normal that Sunday morning. Many were still away celebrating the holidays with out-of-town family members. Others had likely been claimed by the fresh strain of flu working its way up and down First Street. She liked days like this because the smaller group allowed for more intimate discussions.

For today’s lesson, she’d decided to talk to the kids about what happens after we get our miracles. It seemed fitting given that Christmas had just passed by and everyone had New Year’s on the brain.

“So Jesus was born,” she continued after a quick recap of the Christmas story. “The angels rejoiced, and the world was saved. What happened next?” she asked the children.

“The wise men came!” one of her older kids answered with a knowing smile.

“They did,” she said, cocking her head to the side and offering a reassuring smile. “But what next?”

“Joy to the world!” A kindergartener popped to her feet and sang at the top of her lungs before collapsing in giggles.

“Yes.” Jennifer smiled and nodded. “The world was happy, because it got its miracle. But what happens after the miracle has already come?”

Everyone grew quiet. Some of the children fidgeted in their seats. Others scratched their heads and tried to avoid eye contact.

“We don’t know what you’re talking about, Miss Elliot,” one of her favorite students said in an exaggerated whisper that was actually louder than her normal indoor voice.

Jennifer laughed, and the children joined her. “It’s a hard question to answer,” she admitted. “Everyone always focuses on the miracle, on the happy ending. But we all know that Jesus’s birth wasn’t the ending at all. In fact, it was just the beginning.”

“So what did happen next?” Pastor Bernie’s grandson asked, and Jennifer felt especially proud in that moment that she had managed to catch the little troublemaker’s attention.

“Well, Jesus grew up into a little boy and then into a man,” she said, placing her Bible on her lap and giving it a nice pat.

“And then he died-ed,” one of the kids added.

“He did, but that’s not the end either, is it?” Jennifer asked, leaning in close and wagging her finger. Her class always had more fun with the lessons when she made lots of big gestures and asked them to answer questions as she taught.

The pastor’s grandson, Alex, stretched his hand high and waved it around as if waiting to be called on. “He came alive again on Easter!” he blurted out in excitement.

“He sure did, and He’s alive even today, isn’t He?”

The children nodded enthusiastically.

“Everyone focuses on the miracle of the birth this time of year, but you know what? Every day after that has been a miracle, too, because every day we are reminded of the promise God made to us, and every day He continues to keep that promise.”

Josie raised her hand and shot a haughty look at Alex when Jennifer called on her to share. “So are you saying every day is a new miracle?” she asked.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Thank you for pointing that out, Josie. And I want you to all think about that as we move on past Christmas this year and then past the new year, too. Every single day is a new beginning. Every single day is a miracle, not just the ones we celebrate with presents and songs. Everybody got that?”

“Yes, Miss Elliott,” the children sang more or less in unison.

“Good,” she said, pressing down on her legs and rising from the small plastic chair. “I hear the grown-ups starting to move about out there. I think that means the big service is over. So . . . who would like to end our time together by saying a prayer?”

“Oooh, me! Me! Me!”

Many of the children wanted to lead the day’s prayer, but none so enthusiastically as Josie, and Jennifer was happy to oblige her. Everyone bowed their heads, and Josie spoke her prayer quickly in a squeaky, excited voice.

“Dear God and Jesus. Thank you for loving us and taking away our sins, and thank you for my new Barbies, too. Amen.”

“Amen,” Jennifer said with a chuckle.

A few of the boys groaned.

“I’ll see you all next week,” Jennifer called after the departing children. “Make this a great one! And Happy New Year!” She watched them fly through the doors and into the waiting arms of their parents, thankful for another chance to mold their hearts this week.

“Molly Sue!” Josie cried in her squeaky shout. “We haven’t seen you for forever.”

Molly Sue? Could it really be? Jennifer craned her neck to see through the small throng of children congregating by the door, and sure enough, Molly Sue James stood with her father, Liam, just outside the classroom.

“Well, hello, stranger,” she said, striding through the crowd of children and parents. She hadn’t run into him since the grand reopening of Mabel’s, though she’d often wondered if he’d ever take her up on her invite to rejoin the congregation at First Street Church.

“We were too late for Sunday school, but God is happy we came anyway, right?” Molly Sue asked with a pout.

“Of course He is, and I am, too, and so are all your friends here. We have really missed you.” She stood a little straighter and tucked a strand of hair behind each ear. “Both of you,” she added, then gave Molly Sue a hug and smiled at Liam—a hug felt too personal and a handshake felt too formal. And, oh, he looked handsome today, even though he clearly needed a shave and probably a haircut, too. She’d always liked men with a bit of scruff, and Liam’s suited his strong jaw and high cheekbones.

“That’s what I thought, too,” Molly shouted. No wonder her and Josie were such good friends. “It’s never too late for a fresh chance. That’s what Mom told me, and I believe her.” Molly Sue turned back to her friends, leaving Jennifer and Liam to talk.

“Did you forget what time church starts?” Jennifer teased to lighten the mood.

“I . . . No. I hadn’t actually planned on coming at all, but Molly Sue insisted.” His hazel eyes met hers, and she had to force herself to look away to avoid getting ensnared by them. No, no, she couldn’t be attracted to her dead friend’s husband. Talk about an inappropriate crush!

Maybe if she kept talking, she would stop focusing on how her body and heart responded to his strong presence. “You know, usually we get our EC Christians on Easter and Christmas. You missed it by one week.”

He frowned and looked over at his daughter, who was immersed in an animated conversation with her friends.

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to give you a hard time. It’s just good to see you, is all. And Molly Sue, too, of course.”

He frowned slightly and then forced a small smile. “Well, it seems we’ll be back next week. Molly Sue is adamant on that. She said God misses us.”

“Oh, seems you have no choice in the matter, then. Well, I’ll be sure to give her a warm welcome to the class next week. Really, Liam, I do think it’s good for both of you to be here. We need God most when . . .” She let her words fall away. She didn’t need to remind him of all he had lost, not when the grief already clung to him like day-old cologne. “Well, we need God always, don’t we?”

He smiled wanly. “Yes, I suppose we do. Anyway, we just wanted to stop in to say hello and that we’ll see you next week.” He turned from her and called to his daughter, “Molly Sue, time to say goodbye!”

The little girl trotted up breathlessly and yanked on her father’s arm. “Daddy, are we going to the restaurant next? We used to always go to lunch after church, and I’m real hungry.”

“I . . . sure.”

“Oh, Miss Elliott? Will you come with us, too?” Molly asked, blinking up at Jennifer with an expression that didn’t seem to have much of a question in it at all.

Jennifer looked from the smiling girl to her scowling father. He quickly rearranged his face into a resigned grin, but not before Jennifer could catch the discomfort there. “Oh, I don’t think that’s such a—”

“Please, Miss Elliott? Please!” Molly Sue tugged at her arm. She was really quite strong for a seven-year-old and even caused Jennifer to stumble a little in her short heels.

She glanced quickly at Liam who gave a slight nod. “Well, of course, I’d be delighted, Miss Molly Sue,” she answered with all the enthusiasm she could muster. For while she loved the little girl, she couldn’t be certain how she felt about the father—and that uncertainty worried her greatly.

Chapter 3

Liam couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw Molly Sue give him a quick wink after inviting Jennifer Elliott to join them for their Sunday lunch. And if she had, well . . . that would make absolutely no sense at all.

He and Molly both liked Jennifer. Of course they did. She had been one of Rebecca’s closest friends—Rebecca’s, not Liam’s. Liam had always been more of the private type. He preferred the company of a book or a newspaper to that of other real, live people. And now it just felt strange to be claiming his dead wife’s friends as his own or, rather, allowing Molly Sue to claim these friends for the both of them.

No, this wasn’t right, especially considering the way his breathing had hitched just a little when he’d stood next to the Sunday school teacher in the doorway, that his heart had sped when she’d smiled at him, that . . .

No, no, not good, and definitely not what he wanted.

He was lonely. He missed his wife.

That was all.

So he’d have this lunch to humor his little girl, and then it would be over. And just in case she tried to pull this stunt again next week, he’d have an excuse on hand so that they could slip away from the sanctuary unaccompanied.

And, as for today, what could one little lunch hurt?

Jennifer had walked to church that morning, so she rode with Liam and Molly Sue to the restaurant, sitting quietly with her hands in her lap almost as if she didn’t know where to put them. “Wait!” she cried, startling Liam and causing him to swerve slightly over the middle line of First Street. “You missed the turnoff for Mabel’s.”

“We’re not going to Mabel’s,” he said with a grin he hoped appeared natural. “I thought it might be nice to visit Ernie’s instead.” And it would definitely be nice to avoid running into the whole of Sweet Grove at Mabel’s diner, he mentally added. Ernie’s would be quieter, less of a production.

The German restaurant wasn’t often busy, but given the high cost of its meals and the fact it doubled as the local caterer, the business wasn’t in danger of closing its doors anytime soon. Liam knew this for a fact because he had helped Ernie assess his overall business strategy and plan for the expansion into catering back when he’d first moved to town as a starry-eyed newlywed so many years ago.

It didn’t take long at all to drive from the far south side of Sweet Grove all the way north to Ernie’s out by the orchard. He parked right by the front door and briefly wondered whether he should run round to open the door for Jennifer, too.

Luckily, she unbuckled herself and quickly sprang to her feet outside, stretching her arms overhead. “I haven’t been here in ages,” she exclaimed, seemingly oblivious to how awkward this whole thing was for Liam. “I don’t remember what’s on the menu, but I’m excited to find out again. Are you ready, Molly Sue?”

He watched as she extended her hand to Molly Sue and walked with her into the restaurant, realizing a moment later that he’d missed another opportunity to open the door for her. Oh well, it’s for the best. I don’t want her thinking this is a date . . . Wait. Why am I thinking like that? And now that I’ve brought her to the fanciest place in town will she . . . ? Not good, Liam, not good.

He warred with himself as he trailed a few steps behind the girls. Apparently did a bad job hiding it, too, because Molly Sue let go of Jennifer’s hand and rushed over to saddle him with a huge side hug.

“What’s wrong, Daddy?”

“Just very, very hungry!” he said, returning the hug and then rubbing his stomach with big exaggerated pats to prove his point.

“Well, then you are in luck, because today’s special is one of our most popular: beef roulade served on a bed of spaetzle with a special pickled red cabbage salad to start,” the young waiter said, scooping up menus and directing them toward a table that overlooked the river.

“Tobias!” Jennifer squealed, wrapping her arms around him before taking her seat. “I didn’t know you were in town!”

He pushed his dark hair back from his face and shrugged. “Just for the week. I’m helping Gramps out over the holidays, then it’s back to the rigors of 3L life for me.”

Her eyes widened, and she let out a low whistle. “Impressive, Mr. Lloyd. Very impressive. You’ve gotta be almost finished, right? You’ve been in school forever.”

Liam felt his stomach growl, not with hunger but rather envy. Jennifer had come out with him but now directed all her attention toward Ernie’s young and handsome grandson. Wait, it’s okay. We’re not on a date. Just friends, and just because my daughter forced us into this. He didn’t like how often he needed to remind himself where he stood with Jennifer. It made him feel like the worst sort of husband and the worst sort of person, too.

Tobias and Jennifer continued their upbeat exchange while Liam forced himself to remain quiet and to keep a friendly, nonjealous smile plastered on his face.

“I’m graduating this spring, actually,” Tobias boasted—at least, it seemed like boasting to Liam. After all, he didn’t go around shouting out his credentials for all to hear. “I bet you my mom wouldn’t feel like my life is such a waste of space now. Not if she saw what I’ve been able to make of myself despite everything!”

Jennifer placed a reassuring hand on the waiter’s arm, and the two of them caught each other’s eyes. “She’d be very proud, I know it. I mean, I’m proud of you. We all are.”

Liam bristled. He knew this wasn’t a date, but did this other fellow know that? If not, he was definitely taking too many liberties here. He cleared his throat and offered a polite but firm smile again.

Tobias nodded pertly and laid the menus on the table at last. “Oh, anyway, enough about me. I’ll bring you a glass of the house Riesling while you have a look at the menu.” He stalked away without a smile.

Jennifer frowned as she unfolded the cloth napkin and smoothed it across her lap.

Oh, maybe he had been the one to take too many liberties. It’s not a date, and they’re obviously old friends. Why did he have to be rude like that? Ugh, this is why he preferred to stay locked in his office as often as he possibly could. He needed a way to get back in Jennifer’s good graces to show he meant no harm.

“That’s Ernie’s grandson, right?” he asked, gesturing across the restaurant in the direction Tobias had gone. “I never would have guessed. He doesn’t look a thing like the old man.”

“Well, his dad is from Mexico, and . . . Well, I don’t like to gossip. Not when there are so many cheerier things to talk about. Like you finally coming back to us, Miss Molly Sue!” She turned to face Molly, who sat beside her and talked animatedly with her hands. “Thank you for inviting me to lunch. This is all very exciting! Did you get any good Christmas presents?”

Yes, talk to Molly Sue. At least she won’t act like a jealous fool.

Molly Sue shrugged and began to swing her feet back and forth under the table. “The usual—clothes, toys, art supplies.”

Jennifer shot Liam a quizzical expression. “What about New Year’s? Have you made any big plans?”

“No, we don’t get out much,” his daughter said with a frown that cut straight to his heart. “Hey, maybe you would like to come over to our house to celebrate?” she suggested, and there it was again. This time, Liam definitely saw a wink.

“I would love to, Molly Sue, but I already have plans with my friends. Say, do you have any special resolutions this year?”

Molly nodded vigorously. “I do, but I can’t tell yet.”

“Oh, a secret resolution? That’s exciting.”

“Yup.” Wink.

“How about you, Liam?” Jennifer asked, lifting her gaze to catch him staring at her.

He cleared his throat in an effort to stall for time. He was doing that a lot today. Where was the smooth confident business man, and why had he been replaced by this bumbling imposter on today of all days?

“Um, Liam?” Jennifer asked with a reassuring bob of her head. “Resolutions?”

Oh, he’d zoned out again. Good thing he was only on a . . . out with an old friend and not meeting with a new client today. If so, he’d have already lost out on that deal many times over.

Jennifer chuckled softly and took a long, slow gulp of water.

His little girl shot daggers at him from across the table.

Oh, that’s right! She asked about my New Year’s resolution.

Well, it wouldn’t do any good to explain that he no longer had any hopes or dreams for himself, thus making something as silly as resolutions absolutely pointless—and he definitely didn’t want to say that in front of his impressionable daughter, either. So instead he shrugged and said, “Isn’t it obvious? To come to church every week.”

Molly Sue grinned so big it highlighted the missing teeth on both sides of her mouth. “And what about you, Miss Elliott?”

“Oh, me?” Jennifer put down her water goblet and picked up her wine glass. Liam couldn’t help but feel she was stalling as well. “I actually don’t have any New Year’s resolutions,” she answered thoughtfully.

Liam saw his own confusion was mirrored in Molly’s twisted-up face.

Jennifer laughed. “I don’t make resolutions for the new year. I make them for the new day, every day. Every day can be the very best day of your life if you let it, so that’s my promise to myself: that each day I’ll let life come at me and be open to what it has to offer.”

Hmmm. Well, that explained a lot. Rebecca had once lived like that, too, until her life was cut short. Fat load of good the free-spirit, happy-go-lucky stuff did. Instead of keeping her safe, it meant his wife had a more difficult time accepting the end.

And Jennifer was exactly the same.

No wonder he liked her so much even though he had every reason not to. No wonder she made him feel like a hopeless, lovesick teenager. No wonder he actually kind of did wish this were a date after all.

* * *

Jennifer watched as Molly Sue scribbled furiously on her placemat, a vibrant swirl of red, blue, green, and orange. Ernie’s was a fancy restaurant with cloth napkins and lacy tablecloths, but they still always had crayons on hand for any children who happened by.

“What are you drawing?” she asked to break the silence that had set in once again.

The little girl looked up for a split second, then threw herself back into her work. “You’ll see.” She smiled as she drew, and Jennifer couldn’t help but wonder if she might be up to something naughty.

Liam cleared his throat beside her. “Did you like your meal?” he asked, gesturing toward her half-eaten plate of schnitzel. “I’m paying, of course.”

“What? No. I mean, yes. I liked the meal, and, no, you aren’t paying. Don’t be silly.”

“But I invited you,” he argued.

“Actually, Molly Sue did, and I don’t mind paying my own way, really.” She had to be firm here. Yeah, this meal was expensive, but she was the one who had agreed to come. She was the one whose belly had been filled.

Tobias rushed over with a to-go box and the check. “Split it, please,” she said, handing him her battered Visa card. It had seen a rough few months, that was for sure.

“Certainly,” Tobias answered before disappearing with both her and Liam’s cards.

“You didn’t need to do that.” He frowned and cracked his knuckles. A nervous gesture, perhaps? Jennifer hadn’t made anyone nervous in all her life. What had changed now?

“Yes, I did,” she said with a placating smile. “We’re friends out to lunch, not a date.” Oops, why did she say that? They weren’t on a date, that much was true, but did she have to put the word out there? Especially in front of Molly Sue, who just continued to grin as she worked on her picture?

She still remembered Rebecca calling her, breathless with excitement upon returning from her first date with Liam. He held the door open and everything. Such a gentleman! her friend had gushed.

She also recalled their wedding, the one she had been a part of in her baby-pink satin dress with white elbow-length gloves and bits of baby’s breath in her hair. Liam’s eyes had sparkled then as he said his I do’s. Now they were dull and dark, a never-ending abyss of sorrow. How much the years can change a person, she thought, realizing at the same time she had remained exactly the same.

If only he would smile again, smile and mean it. He was so handsome back then, so happy. And he deserves that now, to be happy. If only I could help . . .

Help with what? She scolded herself. Kiss away his tears? Ridiculous. Ridiculous and moreover very, very wrong.

She could be his friend, as she had been for his late wife. But not if she continued to find herself swooning after him like this. Even this simple friendly lunch put her in dangerous territory. She wanted to help, but she also didn’t know how to deal with grief as deep as Liam’s. She didn’t know whether it was okay to talk about Rebecca or if doing so would only make him hurt more. She didn’t know whether offering him a reassuring hug was a nice, friendly gesture, or if the fact that her heart sped up when she thought about touching him made it a selfish, sinful thing instead.

So many questions, and not even close to enough answers.

“Are you all right, Jennifer?” Liam asked, leaning forward to search her eyes. “You seem lost.”

She forced a laugh, hoping it sounded natural. “I’m right here. Hey, Molly, can we see your picture now?”

Molly leaned across the table and pushed her drawing toward Jennifer. “I made this for you.” She beamed as both Jennifer and Liam took in the image of an angel flying through a sunset sky.

“It’s beautiful,” she said on a slow exhale. “Is this your mom?”

“Sure is!” Molly Sue announced proudly.

“Do you think of your mom like that? As an angel?” Clearly the child wanted to talk about her mother, whether or not her father shared that same desire.

Liam shifted in his chair beside her. “I’m going to the restroom.”

Molly Sue didn’t miss a beat. “I know Mommy is an angel because she told me. I’m an angel, too.”

“You are? But I don’t see any wings.” Jennifer searched from side to side, eliciting a giggle from the little girl. “And, hey, where’s your halo?”

“I’m a different kind of angel. I’m Daddy’s angel.”

Oh my gosh, this is the cutest thing ever. Liam had to be a good dad to have such a great kid, a fact which made her like him even better.

“You definitely are. Your daddy loves you so very much,” she agreed before inhaling the last few drops of her wine.

“Yeah . . .” Molly’s shoulders fell and she mumbled toward the ground. “But he never wants to talk about Mommy anymore. That makes it very hard.”

“Hard on you? Do you want to talk about your mom? You know you can talk to me about her any time, right? Any time at all, I mean it.”

The little girl sighed and looked back up at Jennifer with huge, shaky eyes. “Thank you, Miss Elliott. I do miss my mommy a lot, but I meant something else.”

“What did—”

“It makes it hard for me to do the job Mommy asked me to do.”

A job? Well, this was unexpected. When Molly Sue didn’t continue, Jennifer decided to gently nudge her. “What did she—”

“Ready to go?” Liam cut in, returning to the table and gesturing for Molly Sue to stand.

Molly Sue nodded and raced around the table with her drawing in hand. “This is for you, Miss Elliott,” she said, pressing the picture into Jennifer’s hands. “Mommy wants you to have it.”

All traces of the lingering sadness had once again disappeared, and Molly Sue had transformed back into a happy, carefree child. At least for now.

“That’s very nice of you both,” Jennifer exclaimed. “Thank you, Molly Sue,” she said as she gave the little girl a hug. “Thank you, too, Rebecca,” she said, lifting her face toward Heaven. Was her friend there listening now? And what would she think of the romantic thoughts Jennifer had begun to harbor for her husband? Would her friend even recognize her anymore?

She’d prefer not to find out.

It was a good thing only kids attended her Sunday school class, because she wanted more than anything to be there for Molly Sue. But perhaps every bit as much she wanted to stay far, far away from Liam . . . except she didn’t actually want that at all.

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