Jennifer's heart went out to new neighbor Noah and his three little kids. Their mother had gone missing a few years before, and the single dad was struggling. All Jennifer could do was be there for them and bring love and laughter to their troubled lives. And, when the truth finally emerged, help them get over their loss.
For so long the attraction that simmered between Jennifer and Noah had been denied. Now, out of the blue, came a proposal of marriage. But was it because he loved her--or because he needed a stand-in mother for his children?
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January 07, 2008
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Excerpt from A Mother in A Million by Melissa James
Hinchliff, northern New South Wales, Australia
"NO! NAUGHTY TIMMY. Give back to Rowdy!"
"Make me, loser!"
"I tell Daddy, bad boy!"
"Go on, baby," came the taunting older child's voice. "See if Dad cares. See if he even hears you!"
Jennifer March sighed, and laid her latest handmade quilt on her lap. The family next door were at it again. They'd only moved in seven days ago, but she'd heard little except the fighting and yelling. She'd crossed the fence four times to introduce herself, but returned home in silence when she heard the fights or discipline happening at the time.
Given small towns, she could know all about them now, if she chose to; but with all the gossip and speculation she'd endured in her past, she'd preferred to close off confidences, and wait for the people next door to come to her.
So far she'd waited in vain. Maybe they weren't the kind of people to want to introduce themselves to the only neighbour they had--but the kids at least weren't private. The boundary fence lying between her five-acre lot and theirs seemed to be a preferred place to, um, sort out their differences. It wasn't as if she wanted to hear their private business every day.
Yeah, right. You're going to get involved sooner or later, an inner voice taunted, not quite bitter nor truly resigned, but something in between. It kind of sounded like Mark, before he'd walked out the final time. I can't believe you've lasted seven days without waltzing in there to help. Pollyanna strikes again. Go and make everyone's lives better...isn't that why you moved here, to fix Uncle Joe's life after Aunt Jean died?
She was done fighting with phantoms. Mark could think what he wanted--he would, anyway. If she'd moved here first to help Uncle Joe get through the worst of his grief, she'd also come to escape. Escape the pity...escape her sisters, all having healthy babies around her...
"Daddy care!" The baby voice, trembling with emotion, broke into her thoughts. He sounded heartbreakingly like Cody...he must be around three, the same age Cody had been.
They might have played together, though Cody would have been five now.
The familiar lump thickened in her throat, and her eyes stung--but she breathed slowly, in and out, willing control and calm. She'd done her crying. She'd miss Cody until her last breath, would miss being a mother for the rest of her life; but she was making something of herself--
"Yes, Rowdy, Daddy cares." The gravelly voice, grim and tired, pulled Jennifer from the familiar up-down spiral of grief and slow healing.
Scarring isn't healing, Jen, Mark would have said. Get it right.
"Timothy Brannigan, I'm ashamed of you," the man went on, in a weary mantra. "Teasing a three-year-old. I only asked you to look after your little brother for half an hour while I make up an ad for work. Why did you steal his blanket?"
Before she knew it Jennifer had drifted to the window, watching from behind the curtain. She shouldn't be inter-ested--she should mind her own business...but it wasn't as if entertainment was everywhere up here. Two TV channels, and that was only when the wind was in the right direction or it didn't rain, and the only radio was country music or talkback. Old man's radio and yee-hah music, she'd thought when she'd first moved up here from Newcastle for a fresh start. This really is a two-horse town--two of everything, no more and no less.
Like these two houses up on the hill overlooking the sea. Twin houses, old and rambling, each on long, thin five-acre blocks five hundred metres from the ocean and three kilometres from town: isolated enough for peace, beautiful enough to fill the spirit.
"I didn't steal it! He was putting it in his mouth, and it's gross, Dad." The boy's voice whined as he looked up at his father. "It stinks. Look at the--"
The tall, brown-haired man--he had lovely hair with shimmering golden highlights, even if it was rather shaggy and unkempt--put his hand on the child's shoulder and said in his deep, rumbling voice, "It might be gross to you, Tim, but Rowdy's only little. Now give it back. I'll wash it tomorrow when I do a load." He leaned toward the object of dispute. "It is pretty stinky, isn't it? Rowdy, it gets washed tomorrow."
"Yeah, Timmy," came the baby voice, with cute triumph. "So give back Rowdy's banket!"
"Oh, have your stupid baby blanket, then. Get sick, see if I care!"
Tears erupted from the little boy as his brother shoved him along with the blanket to the ground. "Dad-dee! Timmy bad!"
The pitiful wails were muffled as the man swung the boy up into his arms. Weariness laced his every word as he said, "Tim, time out in your room. Fifteen minutes by the kitchen timer."
"Who cares? There's nothin' to do in this dump anyway! I hate it here. I hate it!"
The boy, who looked about seven or eight, stomped off down the hill from the ring of trees where the children had been playing, toward the house next door. The man buried his face in his baby son's soft mess of hair. The little boy's arms wrapped around him; childish hands patted his shoulder blade. The son comforting the father.
From behind the window Jennifer ached, watching the tableau. Poor children--and poor father. He looked exhausted--as stressed as his children appeared to be.
"Where's their mother?" she muttered, aching for them. And wasn't there another child...a girl? She knew she'd seen a tangle-haired moppet wandering around once or twice, golden hair and big blue eyes, like a messy Shirley Temple.
As if in answer, a tiny sniff came from somewhere above Jennifer's head, and then another.
Twisting around under the open sash, she peered through the window. The tangle-haired moppet was up one of Jennifer's trees, a dirty thumb in her mouth and her bright blue eyes like big, serious saucers as she contemplated Jennifer.
A five-year-old girl was fifteen feet up her tree.
Panic skittered through her. Jennifer couldn't climb--she'd always been the dollies and tea party kind of little girl, never causing her parents a moment's worry--about her safety, at least. They'd always known where she was, what she was doing--but she was the youngest of four children, the homebody child, and her mother had always been there to watch over them.
Where was this child's mother?
Interfering or not, Pollyanna or not, she had to do something... "Hello," she called to the girl, smiling in a way she hoped didn't show her terror. "I'm Jennifer."
The child's mouth tightened around her thumb. She sucked on it with the fury of childhood fear of strangers.
"That's a--a nice tree, isn't it?" Jennifer blathered on as she climbed out the window and walked slowly toward the child. She wouldn't have a clue if it was a nice tree or a killer straight from Hobbiton's Old Forest at the moment, but she had to talk, to connect to the little girl to get her down. "It's my favourite one in the yard."
She craned her neck, looking up at the branch. The little girl was so tiny, and the tree so high... "What's your name?" she asked, beginning to feel desperate--and the little girl's eyes were filling with tears. If her sight blurred and she panicked--
Please God, I couldn't take another ambulance trip with a dying child!
"Would you like a cookie?" she cried suddenly, remembering the six-month squirrel's store of cookies in her freezer: her store of rewards and treats for the day-care kids she had four days a week. "Or I could give you some crackers with--with Vegemite? Or chocolate spread?" she asked, thinking of her hidden stash of PMS-rescue spread: the one without nut traces in it, since four-year-old Amy was violently allergic to nuts. For all she knew, this child could be, too.
The little girl's face lit up. "I like choc'lit," she confided in a piping voice, as if it were a state secret.
"I have milk, too." Jennifer felt as if she'd scored a major victory.
She couldn't help laughing. "I can make chocolate milk, just for you," she agreed, thinking of her other PMS-rescue: her ice-cream syrup. "How does that sound? Is it worth coming down the tree for all that?"
"You said cookie." Her voice was muffled. "A big, fat cookie with choc'lit?"
"You really like chocolate, don't you?" Jennifer said, smiling. "Yes, they're big, fat cookies with tons of chocolate chips."
Cody's favourite had been choc-chip cookies, too. Except that Cody wasn't coming back to dunk them in milk and make a mess all over his high chair. Now Ben and Amy and Sascha and Jeremy and Shannon and Cameron sat in that chair--at least in the daytime.
Filling the void with other people's children might be pathetic as Mark had claimed, but at least the void didn't scream at her day and night with its howling emptiness. During the day she had baby hands in hers, big, trusting eyes looking up at her for guidance, fun and games and safety...she was a day-care mother now, and she'd found in the past eighteen months that second-best was far better than nothing at all.
She asked the child, "So is two cookies and chocolate milk worth coming down the tree? Or--or--" she frantically reached for inspiration "--I could make you some spaghetti?"
Please, just come down before you fall!
"S'getti?" The little girl sounded ecstatic. "I like s'getti."
"Spaghetti and cookies and milk it is, then. What's your name?" she asked again. "I can't make spaghetti and share cookies unless I know your name," she added, laughing. Hoping she would gain the child's trust.
"Cilla," the child said, with a lisp Jennifer didn't know was natural, or caused by the thumb still in her mouth. "Priscilla Amelia Brannigan."
"Well, Priscilla Amelia Brannigan, would you like to come into my kitchen for cookies and chocolate milk and spaghetti?" To her intense relief the little girl smiled, pulled her thumb from her mouth and turned to climb down the tree, with a natural agility Jennifer envied.
From the corner of her eye, she saw movement down the hill. The older boy--Tim--was climbing out his bedroom window.
It seemed the man next door had no control over his children whatsoever. It had been less than five minutes, she was sure of that. Surely he must have seen the child was feeling so rebellious he wouldn't obey orders for long?
Then a rush of pity filled her, remembering the exhausted, overwhelmed man clinging to a three-year-old for comfort.
Before she knew it she was waving the boy over, with a conspiratorial air. Hoping he would come out of curiosity, if nothing else. Someone had to help that poor man--I mean, the poor children.
On instinct, her arms reached out--and a moment later, her arms were full of warm, silky-soft skin, and the scent of muddy child and baby shampoo filled her head.
She minded other people's children every day, held them when they hurt or to carry them around--so what was it about this child's touch that choked her up so tight she couldn't breathe?
She put Cilla down to the ground with care, before she dropped her; the trembling, when it came, was bone-deep.
"Cookie?" The hopeful voice woke her from the half-dreaming world of loss. Big, trusting eyes were shining as she looked up at Jennifer.
She pulled herself together, as she'd done every day of the past eighteen months, when she'd decided she could either sink into terminal depression, or try to make something good from the ashes of her life. "Cookie," she said, smiling. "Let's go wash your face and hands first."
A little warm hand slipped into hers. "Timmy wants a cookie, too." Cilla pointed to the boundary fence, where a very dirty face was peeking through the wooden rail slats.
Again, though she held other children's hands almost every day, the feel of Cilla's hand in hers filled her heart with her sweet trust, poignant with memory--with the need for motherhood she must deny for the rest of her life.
Stop it. She turned her face, and smiled at the wary, hostile little boy peering at her as if he expected her to yell at him. "So you're Tim," she said gravely.
The boy nodded, his chin pushed out. Pugnacious and ready to fight. "I'm eight," he said aggressively, as if she was about to argue the fact. "I'm Jennifer, your neighbour. I bet you like spaghetti and choc-chip cookies, too." She grinned down at Cilla as her brother scrambled over the fence in record time--and, watching the child, Jennifer realised how thin he was. Lean, hungry, wary with suffering and only eight...
She'd had every intention of sending Tim back to his room to wait out the fifteen minutes of wholesome discipline, telling him the food would be waiting when he'd obeyed his father. As a child-care worker, she knew reinforcing parental commands was vital. Yet Jennifer found herself saying, "Then come on in."
Yeah, right, Jen. You were never going to send him back.
Her mouth curved into a determined smile as she led the way in.
Somehow she didn't think Tim would take well to being told to wash his face and hands; so she led Cilla into the bathroom, and hoped he'd get the message.
He didn't. They returned to the kitchen to find him sitting at the table. The look on his face was daring her to even think about ordering him to the bathroom.
But she'd had a better idea, based on the reactions of Shannon, the livewire child she minded every Tuesday and Thursday. With a lifted brow, she tossed a warm wet cloth on the table splat in front of him, and stood there, waiting. Do it.
Tim didn't move to touch the cloth. He folded his arms and waited, his expression matching hers. Make me.
A tiny tug at her hand made Jennifer look down at Cilla. Her little face--so pretty, now she could see it without smudges everywhere--was hopeful. "I'm very hungry...and I washed."
Jennifer smiled. "You're right, Cilla." She opened the fridge and freezer, got out plates, and put two cookies in the microwave to soften while she made up the chocolate milk.
One glass. One plate.
She settled Cilla with her snack. "There you are, sweetie." She turned back to put away the food on the bench. "I wouldn't even think about it if I were you, Tim," she remarked placidly.
A stifled gasp told her she'd been right; he'd been about to steal Cilla's food and run.
"The milk and cookies will be out on this bench for another thirty seconds--and remember, you can come back every day for more...if you wash first," she announced to no one in particular, and checked her watch. "Twenty-two...twenty-five..."
Thwap! She gasped as the washcloth landed on the curve of her neck and shoulder.
She ought to have known a fighter like Tim wouldn't be able to resist! She fought to keep calm, but a laugh burst out of her. Turning, she saw a clean face filled with mischievous challenge and wary defensiveness, unsure if he was about to be disciplined by a stranger.
She plucked the cloth from her shoulder and threw it back, landing right on his head.
Cilla laughed and clapped, spitting cookie bits all over the table. "Get her back, Timmy!"
Tim grinned and threw the cloth. He laughed when Jennifer staggered back, coughing and wiping her mouth as if the dirt from his face had gone in.
Cilla choked on enchanting laughter when Jennifer threw the cloth at her. She tossed it on to Tim, who threw it at Jennifer.
The room erupted in laughter and dirty wet-washer attacks.
From outside the back door, a sleepy Rowdy on his hip, Noah Brannigan watched the scene. He'd seen Tim heading for the fence, and came to fetch him back--but now all he could do was stare through the screen, with a joy so poignant it was almost pain. Tim was laughing.
It had been exactly three years since he'd seen his boy so--little. A child having fun, just because he could. No reason...
And Cilla was here, too--Cilla, so shy she never spoke to him, her own dad, without her thumb in her mouth, and who never talked to strangers. Cilla had been disappearing every day since they moved from Sydney to Hinchliff, and Noah hadn't been able to find her. He only wished he understood why Cilla had become so silent, so reclusive.
She wasn't merely speaking now; she was shrieking with joy, her big eyes alight as she spat cookie crumbs across the table. She took her turn tossing the grubby washcloth at the woman, who cried foul with a grin and tossed it at Tim, who dodged it and caught it with one hand, throwing it back at their neighbour. The woman, after a pitiful attempt at dodging in turn, took it on the chin. Literally. Her face was alight with mirth.
Who'd have thought his kids would finally find laughter in a game of tag-teaming with a dirty face cloth?
"They're having fun, Daddy," Rowdy whispered from Noah's shoulder.
"Yes, they are," he whispered back, the gratitude a deep ache inside him.
"Want cookie, too. Want--" Rowdy wriggled down from his hip and raced inside, sure of his welcome. "Rowdy want cookie," he announced.
Jennifer March--he'd heard about her from Henry, the local mechanic and jack-of-all-fixing, and one of the best gossips in town--had peeled the wet cloth from her face, and turned to Noah's son with a flitting expression he couldn't identify. It lasted only a moment, before she smiled and took his hand. "Then we'd better get you washed, Rowdy, and you and Tim can both have your cookies."
Almost casually, she tossed the washcloth a final time at Tim, and poked her tongue out in cheeky victory as she led Rowdy into the bathroom."