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Love & Hope

By Elsie Davis

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Chapter One

Grace stood back to look at the three outfits she’d picked out for her first day at her new job tomorrow. One of them had to be just right, but which one? When she’d interviewed with one of the partners for the administrative assistant position at World Sport Inc., she’d been as impressed with his approachable attitude and appearance as he’d been with her resume and overall marketing experience. He’d made it clear that as Mr. Walker’s assistant, she would not only oversee the office, but also their marketing.

Essentially, during the startup of a company, people typically wore many hats. She’d be one of those people. Grace understood completely and had been thrilled when the man had practically hired her on the spot. And she’d accepted without a second’s hesitation.

It was a stroke of luck that the new online sporting goods retailer was opening a warehouse in Lancaster and that Grace had come across the job posting. Not to mention, a welcome relief after months of searching for new employment and just in time for her to catch up on bills and a past-due mortgage payment.

Lancaster was a bit of a drive from Hallbrook, but something she’d done frequently when she visited her mom and sister. Twenty-five minutes tops, which was doable. Winter always had its own set of issues with the roads, but Grace would deal with that situation after she was established and had proven herself as an asset to the company. By then, she hoped to have a little wiggle room.
She’d moved to Hallbrook for the quiet life five years ago after she graduated college and never regretted it until she got laid off from work. It gave her the space she sometimes needed from her family, the pair of them a bit overwhelming at times. Now, she loved the town and didn’t want to leave.

Not being able to work from home anymore was the biggest disappointment in losing her previous employment. The job itself hadn’t been all that exciting. But then, how could you glamorize over-the-counter medication like antacids and hemorrhoid cream. And then there was the flood of prescription drug commercials that required every disclaimer in the book for all the awful side effects as compared to what the drug was intended for. Her ads had been creative, even if borderline ridiculous at times. They were also mentally draining. The downsizing had been met with mixed emotions.

Lucky moseyed into the bedroom and jumped on the bed. “No, girl. Get off my clothes, please.” Blue-gray dog hair wasn’t the professional image she was striving for.

Grace moved the outfits out of the dog’s way. It was easier than making Lucky get down, not to mention she rarely told Lucky no for anything. Her dog was not only her best friend, but she was her confidant, so it was a good thing she could only bark and not talk. Grace shook her head and grinned as Lucky laid her head down on the comforter, her big eyes and oversized gray floppy ears too cute for words.

Grace picked up the light-blue blouse and dark-navy skirt and held them up in front of herself, checking out her reflection in the mirror. The outfit was professional, but it didn’t reflect much of her personality. “What do you think, girl?”

Lucky raised her head and almost immediately laid it back down.

“I agree. Not very noteworthy for a first-day appearance.” She tossed them back to the bed and eyed the black pants and white blouse. Again, professional but not individual. First impressions were huge, and since she hadn’t met the man who would be her new boss, she wanted to get the look just right. Jordan Tate had reassured her that his partner was a great guy and would be easy to work with, but that hadn’t lessened her tension.

Grace looked at the last outfit she’d chosen as a possibility. She shed her clothes and pulled on the white knee-length pencil skirt and then slid the satiny taupe blouse over her head and tucked it in for a cleaner line. The outfit looked good but still needed something. She glanced in her closet, her gaze landing on a pair of taupe above-the-knee boots she’d splurged on a year ago and only worn once since.

Working from home had its limitations when it came to opportunities to get dressed up and go out on the town, especially in Hallbrook, New Hampshire—a place where country living, church, and old-fashioned traditions came together.
She slid the boots on before grabbing the pink long sweater wrap hanging in the closet. Grace stepped back and checked out her image in the mirror, liking what she saw. This was perfect. Professional and yet creative. Exactly what her new boss would expect from her.

“Does this meet with your approval?” she asked Lucky. The dog rolled over, bored with the conversation and wanting a belly rub. Grace couldn’t resist, and she paused to sit next to her canine bestie. Three minutes was all she could give this time, no matter how much Lucky rolled around on her back, begging for more.

“All done, and back to work for me. You’re the most spoiled dog I know.” But she was also the sweetest dog Grace knew. She’d gotten Lucky from a rescue shelter for springer spaniels. It had turned out to be the best decision Grace had ever made. The dog was loyal, obedient, and a great companion. Exactly what Grace had needed a few years ago.

Grace hung the other outfits back up in the closet, placing the one she’d picked on a hanger to keep it from wrinkling. She hung it up on the bathroom door, out of Lucky’s reach. She moved to the dresser and opened her jewelry box, picking out a pair of earrings and laying them on the nightstand.

The doorbell rang, and Lucky raised her head, one ear cocked toward the door.
Woof. Dog speak for someone’s at the door, in case Grace didn’t already know. Lucky jumped off the bed, raced ahead of Grace, and planted herself at the front door. Early on, Lucky had appointed herself as guard dog over the house and owner.

Not expecting anyone, Grace peered through the peephole. Living alone, you could never be too careful. She was surprised to see her cousin standing there with her baby daughter, Holly, firmly planted on her hip.

She pulled the door open, happy to see them. “This is a nice surprise. Come on in and let me take this cutie pie from you.” Grace reached for Holly. The little girl was happily holding out her arms, just as eager to see her. Karen’s rocker look hadn’t lessened in the months since she’d become a mom. If anything, she’d ramped up the facial jewelry, leather clothing, and tie-dyed hair. It wasn’t a look Grace could go for, but to each his own as far as she was concerned.

“Thanks. Sorry I didn’t call first, but I wanted to surprise you.” Karen smiled as Lucky nudged her leg, looking for attention. She quickly gave the dog a pat on the head and then retrieved the bags sitting on the front doorstep.

“You certainly managed that. Can you stay long enough for dinner?” Grace hugged Holly and kissed the top of her head, inhaling the sweet scent of baby shampoo and innocence. Holly had just turned a year old last month, and Grace had been at the party, completely smitten with her cherub face and bubbly personality.

Her cousin was one of those footloose free-spirited women who didn’t plan much in life, letting life come to them. Including Holly. At nineteen, Karen hadn’t accepted her new role as a mother. But then Karen’s mother, Grace’s aunt, made it easy for her to ignore those responsibilities. Aunt Helen watched Holly every day while Karen went off to do whatever it was that Karen liked to do all day. Which pretty much amounted to nothing, unless it had something to do with her rock band. She’d been out of school eleven months, and so far, she only had a part-time job to show for it.

“Umm, unfortunately, I really don’t have time.” Karen had moved into the living room and set her things down. That was when Grace noticed how many bags Karen had brought in. Grace knew a baby required a diaper bag when they went places, but this was a bit overboard.

“That’s a shame. So, what brings you to my neck of the woods? This is quite a way from Concord for a surprise visit.” Grace held Holly up in the air and pretended like she was flying, then lowered her down slowly and blew bubbles on her stomach. The little girl giggled every time Grace repeated the motion.
She glanced at Karen when she didn’t answer right away.

Her cousin was staring back at her, looking uncomfortable. She looked down at the diaper bag and began fumbling with the zipper, neither opening nor closing it. “I have a favor to ask of you.” Karen let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t have anyone else to ask.”

“You can ask me anything. Let me guess, you need a babysitter. You know I’d love to keep Holly. Just say the word.” Grace loved it when Karen dropped her off for a few hours, relishing the time she could spend with the baby.
“Well, it’s something like that. I’m sure you’ve heard Mama broke her hip.” Her cousin looked up at Grace.

“Oh, no, I hadn’t heard. When did that happen? How is she?” Holly reached for a lock of Grace’s hair and pulled, trying to get her attention. Grace covered her tiny hand with her own to still the motion, not relishing the feeling of having her hair ripped out.

“It was last week. I was sure your mother would’ve called and told you. But here’s the thing, she can’t watch Holly anymore, and it could be a while before she’s fully recovered and mobile enough to keep up with the baby, and I need a sitter.”

Grace immediately saw where this was going. She moved to sit down in the armchair, setting Holly on her knees for a horsey ride, but far enough away the baby couldn’t reach Grace’s hair. For the past two months, while she’d been unemployed, she would’ve loved the opportunity to watch Holly. It just wasn’t possible now. “I see. Unfortunately, I got a new job with World Sport Inc., the new online sporting goods retailer that opened a warehouse in Lancaster. I start tomorrow morning. There’s no way I can help you out. I’m truly sorry. You know how much I love spending time with Holly.”

Karen sat back on the sofa, her mouth in a childish pout, her arms folded across her chest. “I should’ve known better.” She shook her head, visibly upset. “This isn’t fair. One mistake. And I’m supposed to pay for it with the rest of my life.”

“What do you mean? What’s going on?” Grace knew Karen had been having a tough time, but this sounded more desperate and more self-absorbed. Not the direction she’d hoped her cousin would go as she adjusted to parenthood. It was time for Karen to step up—not step back.

“The baby. It’s no secret. She was a mistake. The father’s out of the picture and I’m the one who’s stuck. I have an opportunity of a lifetime to travel with the band to California. We were offered a gig, and as the lead singer, the future of the band has been laid at my feet. I can’t very well take a baby with me.”

The age-old battle between youth and adulthood was at war in her cousin. By the sounds of it, her youth was still winning. “Holly’s a sweet baby. Maybe you need to focus on her, and new doors will open for you.”

The petulant look on Karen’s face showed her immaturity. “I don’t want a new door. I worked hard getting this one. Please, isn’t there anything you can do to help me out? You’re the only one I can trust to take good care of Holly. I’m not a horrible person. I just don’t want to be tied down and miss out on my own dreams.”

Grace didn’t know what to say. The timing was terrible. “How long are you expecting to be gone?” She shouldn’t even be considering it, but she was. The temptation to have Holly around was calling upon the maternal instincts that had been in overdrive lately.

“Three weeks tops. You won’t regret it, I promise. Holly loves you.” Karen stood, hope in her eyes.

Other people managed full-time jobs and children all the time. Something she’d tried to convince the adoption agency of, except they’d turned down her application anyway. Her dream of adopting ripped away. Grace was still dealing with the heartache of rejection. In a way, she could relate to how Karen felt about having to give up her dream. Sometimes, life wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t Grace’s fault that as a teenager she’d had polycystic problems that left her unable to have her own children. And it didn’t change her ability to provide love, support, a roof over a child’s head, and extended family. Being single shouldn’t have excluded her from the happiness she could bring to a child’s life. Unfortunately, the agency disagreed.

She was single and would remain that way. It hadn’t taken her long to figure out men reacted differently to the news of her infertility. One, they left. Two, they lied and said it was okay. Or to be fair, they might have changed their minds. Three, they stuck around longer because they never wanted marriage or a family. Either way, the first two groups left her, and the third, she dumped them.

Grace would have been okay remaining single if only her prayers were answered for a child of her own. Maybe God was giving her the opportunity to prove to the agency they were wrong about her.

It was crazy to even consider watching Holly, given the fact she started a new job in the morning. There was no way around it. She had to report to work. The answer, of course, was for the babysitter to find a babysitter. Easier said than done, but it was worth a shot. Tiny waves of excitement rippled through Grace as hope blossomed.

“I’ve got an idea. Let me make a phone call to Faith and see if she can watch Holly when I’m working. I’m not making any promises. Are you sure you want to be away from the baby that long?” Grace wanted to make sure Karen understood the implications of her choices. There were always consequences to every decision one made.

“Thank you for trying. And, yes, I have thought about it, more than you can possibly imagine. But this is my big chance to do something with my career, and I want to take it.”

“Okay, then.” Grace pulled out her phone and dialed her sister’s number. “Hi, Faith.”

“Hiya! What’s up? I’m just on my way out the door to go to the movies with friends.”

“Are you working anywhere yet?” Her mother had just about given up hope of Faith growing up and joining the real world of work and responsibility, but Grace had convinced her that at twenty, her sister was still young. There was plenty of time for tough love.

“Just part-time over at the Piggly Wiggly bagging groceries. Not exactly a dream job, but it pays for my movies and fun money, I guess. Mom is after me to get serious, and maybe I will after this summer. I just want to have fun for a while.” It was the same tune Faith had been singing since she graduated two years ago. Her sister’s youthful excitement reminded her of Karen.

There appeared to be a lot of that going around with young kids these days. Grace shook her head. Whatever happened to going to college and getting a good job or starting at the bottom and working your way up the ladder? Both were acceptable routes. But starting out your adult life satisfied with movie money wasn’t exactly promising for the future.

Grace had to find a way to entice her sister into accepting her proposition. “What if I offer you a full-time job babysitting for the next few weeks? It would be temporary, but it would pay well. And then maybe you can find something steady.”

“But you don’t have a baby? Unless those stork stories I heard growing up were really true.” Her sister laughed at her own joke, but Grace wasn’t impressed with the deflection.

“Babies don’t come from storks. I’m talking about Holly.”

“Why would you be watching Holly? Oh, wait. I get it. Aunt Helen can’t watch her because she broke her hip. So how is it that she’s with you and you’re trying to find a sitter?”

“Karen’s here at the house, and she brought the baby. She needs help while she pursues a career opportunity. I want to help her, but I start a new job tomorrow. For me to help Karen, I need you to help me. It would be at my place from eight to six, Monday through Friday. Just think, you get to play with a baby all day and get paid.” Grace was trying everything she could think of to make it sound appealing, wanting her sister to agree.

Keeping Grace for three weeks would soften the devastating blow the adoption agency had delivered. For Grace, coming home to a baby at night would be amazing, even if it was only temporary. Not to mention, it might help Karen work through her issues. Perhaps she’d miss Holly enough to want to come home and stay home with her daughter.

“I don’t know. That’s like full-time.” Her sister was stalling, trying to find a way to say no. Grace couldn’t let it happen.

“Come on, Faith. It’ll be fun. Think of all the extra time you and I can spend together. You’ve always wanted big-sister time. Now I’m offering it.” And maybe, just maybe, she’d help her sister grow up through this process as well as Karen.
There was nothing but silence on the other end of the line.

“Fine. I’ll be there in the morning.” Grace let out a huge breath of relief. This was going to work, and she was going to be a bona fide mother for three weeks. Best news ever.

“Thanks. You won’t regret this. Tell you what, meet me at the Sweeter Side of Life in the morning, and I’ll even treat you to your favorite pastry and coffee. You can stay with me these next few weeks if you want.” It would be fun. A sister and a baby. Grace was ready for more fun in her life.

“The bakery sounds good. Staying with you, not so much. You’re worse than Mom when it comes to rules.” It was true. But only because her mother was lax with Faith. Her sister had been a late-in-life baby, born almost eight years after Grace, and right at the time when their father had deserted them. As a result, her mother had spoiled Faith.

“Fine. Meet me at seven.” Grace hung up the phone and turned back to Karen, who stood watching with a lopsided smile plastered on her face.

“The answer is yes? You’ll do it?” her cousin asked, hope lacing her voice.

“Yes.” Grace nodded. “Holly and I are going to play house for a few weeks. Aren’t we, sweet girl?” Grace hugged the baby tightly, excitement racing through her body and love overflowing from her heart. It wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever agreed to, but it was one of the most heartfelt and loving things that felt right. After all, it might be her one chance to take care of a baby like this. Even Lucky seemed to sense the joy. The dog came to lick Holly’s arm to show her some love.

“Yay! I’m going to California!” Karen exclaimed, dancing in circles. She threw her arms around Grace and Holly, hugging them both. “Thank you. You won’t regret it.”

Lucky barked several times, joining in the excitement even if she didn’t understand what was going on.

“I hope not. If I lose my job because I can’t make it work, I’ll be looking to you to pay my bills here, Miss Hot Shot Superstar.” Grace shook her head and laughed, unable to believe what she’d just agreed to.

“We’re just opening for a band, but it really is a good opportunity.” Karen’s smile was infectious when she spoke of her music.

“You have a beautiful voice, and you have a passion for music. Let your light shine, and it’ll be good.” If Karen was going to chase her dreams, she needed to do it with all her might, so that when she returned, she’d be ready to settle down to real life. And in real life, breaking into the music world with any flourish was next to impossible.

“Thank you. Let’s just hope you’re right. I was optimistic and brought you a few baby things. Some diapers and clothes and bottles.” Karen pulled each thing out of the bag, showing her as she rattled off the items. It explained the extra luggage. One whole bag was filled with toys. “I’ve got a pack ‘n play in the car and her car seat. I’ll be right back with them. And then I have got to leave. The band really wants to hit the road tonight, it’s a long drive across the country, and none of us could afford to fly.”

“Cutting it close for me to say yes, weren’t you?”

“Let’s just say, based on the circumstances I was hoping you wouldn’t say no.”

“Circumstances?” Grace frowned, glancing up at her cousin.

“You know, like, the fact you can’t have kids. I once heard my mom and your mom talking about it. I’m sorry.”

“It is what it is. I’m glad you thought of me, and you’re right, it would be hard for me to say no to Holly.”

Karen left to get the pack ‘n play, and Grace sat down in the armchair, Holly on her lap. This was insane, but she’d make it work. “We can do this, can’t we, Holly?”

The little girl touched her face and smiled, her soft chubby fingers poking at Grace’s mouth to investigate. Luckily, she hadn’t bothered to put on any earrings today. The last time she’d held Holly, the pretty pink and white beads had been too much to resist, and the baby had practically ripped one out of her ear.

After Karen returned with the pack ‘n play and car seat, it didn’t take her more than ten minutes to clear out after saying her goodbyes to Holly. Grace wasn’t sure how she had the strength to leave, but then she hadn’t walked in Karen’s shoes and wasn’t willing to pass judgment.

Grace completely put the new job out of mind, preferring to focus on her new charge. Tomorrow would come soon enough, and she’d start in her new role as administrative assistant and marketing guru. Tonight, however, was all about Holly.

After setting up the portable crib in her bedroom, Grace put away the baby’s things. Holly was intent on exploring, which made the task take twice as long as she tried to keep up with the baby. Lucky followed Holly around like a second mother, trying to get used to her.

Once Grace had everything put away, she set her sights on feeding the baby. That sounded easy but turned out to be anything but. It didn’t take long for Holly’s face to be coated in a yucky-smelling green mush from the jar of food Karen brought, some of which made it into the baby’s hair, turning dinner into dinner and a bath.

Hoping bath time would be less complicated, Grace filled the tub with only a few inches of warm water, testing it frequently. Holly loved the water, her laughter and splashing a joy to watch. There wasn’t much in the way of toys, but the bright-blue loofah and headrest pillow kept the baby occupied. Next time, she’d remember to have more toys for the baby. Maybe then there’d be less water on the floor to clean up afterward.

Grace used only a dab of her body wash on the baby, and only a washcloth on what little hair the baby had, not wanting to risk getting soap in her eyes. She kept a tight hold on the baby’s arm since her skin was silky soft and slippery. Wrapping the baby in a towel, she carried her to the bedroom, and laid her on the bed to put on a fresh diaper and pajamas.

Before long, the two of them settled down in front of the TV to watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon. With Lucky sleeping peacefully at her feet, and Holly snuggled in her arms, the moment was almost perfect. Her prayers had been answered, even if it was only temporary. She had a baby.

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