Coming May 2, 2022

CHAPTER 1

Maggie Hart settled in behind the wheel of her car late Thursday evening and let exhaustion wash over her. Her head ached. Her back hurt. She looked down at the bright red welts on her arms and winced. A few of those probably needed some antibiotic cream and Band-Aids.

You did a number on me tonight, Cora.

Maggie loved her patients, felt like her job as a certified home health aid was what God had called her to do in this season of her life.

But there were days.

Even though it was Christmas Eve, she hadn’t considered it a hardship to check in on old Cora Burton today. Inez, Cora’s eldest daughter and primary care giver, was sick with the flu. Maggie figured she could get Cora’s shower out of the way, check up on Inez, and still be on time for Christmas dinner with her babies and their foster father.

The mere thought of Randy was almost enough to take the sting out of Maggie’s scalp. She reached up a tentative hand and probed the crown of her head gingerly. The resulting pain had her shoulders bunching up around her ears. Nope, still hurt like the dickens.

Eighty-nine-year-old Cora hadn’t recognized Maggie today, and poor Inez was too sick to be of much help. When Maggie had gone to undress her patient, Cora had slapped and scratched as if a nest of ants was attacking. Maggie finally got her calmed down enough to get her into the wheelchair for the short ride to the bathroom, only to have Cora stretch out her arms and legs at the doorway, blocking their entry as she keened like a banshee.

“Help me.”

“She’s trying to kill me.”

“Get away from me.”

“Somebody help me.”

Inez had gotten out of bed at that point to try and lend a hand. Cora had clung to her daughter like a spider monkey might cling to a tree branch in a monsoon, resisting both women’s efforts to get her into the shower. Cora probably didn’t weigh ninety pounds soaking wet, but Maggie still managed to wrench her back in the battle. The warm water seemed to soothe Cora’s fears, and the shower proceeded without incident until it was time to dry off. Then the battle proceeded in reverse, ending when Cora grabbed two handfuls of Maggie’s hair and yanked for all she was worth.

Maggie dropped her chin to her chest. She hated to admit defeat, but Cora’s dementia had reached the point where she needed more care than Inez and a home health care team could provide. Not Maggie’s decision, of course, but something she’d have to mention to Cora’s nurse after the holidays.

The thought tore at Maggie’s heart as she bowed her head over the steering wheel. These people and their families weren’t just clients. In most cases, they were friends. Jesus, please watch over Cora and Inez. Help us find Your direction and Your will in this situation. I know You have a perfect plan for everyone.

Maggie raised her head and stared through the twilight. It wasn’t quite five-thirty, but dusk came early in late December in Oklahoma. She started the car. Randy had dinner planned for seven, but he never objected when Maggie arrived early.

As if on some invisible cue, her phone chimed with a picture and a text message. Maggie swiped it open, and her smile was surely bright enough to light up the interior of the car.

In the photo, Randy wore a fluffy white Santa beard, her seven-year-old son Max sported a Santa cap, while her sweet eighteen-month-old daughter Mariah gnawed on one of the sugar cookies Maggie had taken over on her visit two days ago. The message was simple.

Christmas is coming. Don’t be late.

Those three faces were Maggie’s whole world wrapped up in one little snapshot of time.

“Thank You, Jesus.”

She didn’t know a lot of women who’d thank Jesus that her children were in the foster care program. Maggie was happy to be the exception.

Oh…it had hurt, crash-and-burn hurt, remove-your-heart-with-a-dull-scalpel hurt to have her children taken away when Mariah was barely a month old. But God had known what He was doing even as Maggie’s heart had bled out on the floor. In the last year and a half, Maggie had grown as a person and a parent. Now, just a couple of weeks away from completing her CPS treatment plan, Maggie was ready to take her kids back and give them the life they deserved.

Their foster father, Randy, would be a little lost and lonely once Max and Mariah came home to be with Maggie. And she had no illusions that the transition would be pain free for her children. But if the secret Max had whispered to her a few days ago was true, no one would be lost or lonely for long. Tingles of anticipation zipped up Maggie’s spine. If there was anything that could come close to the anticipation of getting her kids back, it was the relationship that had built between her and Randy over the last few months. God really did have a plan for everyone.

Maggie didn’t bother responding to the text. She put the car in gear, eased out of Cora’s driveway, and headed back towards her town, her kids, and her man.

She navigated the last curve on the old highway between Ashton and Garfield and applied her brakes as a string of red lights came into view.

“What now?” she whispered as she fell in line with a dozen other slow-moving vehicles. Red and blue lights strobed in the distance. Maggie strained her neck and peered through the darkness.

Must be an accident up ahead. And just like that, someone’s Christmas went from joyous to complicated. Hopefully no one had been injured.

“Jesus,” she muttered. “Please keep everyone safe.” As the cars inched forward, Maggie’s fingers tapped an impatient rhythm on the steering wheel. She used the time to do a mental inventory of the items she’d packed in the car before heading out on her calls that morning. Randy had insisted that he had the food covered, but there had been presents to load.

For Max, a couple of new Lego kits, a remote-controlled car, and a target shooting game that fired foam darts. Her mind scrambled for a second as she tried to remember if she’d grabbed the batteries for the car. With one hand on the steering wheel, she fished in her large bag with the other, breathing a sigh of relief when she felt the blister-packed set of D cells.

Mariah had been a little harder to buy for, but Maggie had settled on a new baby doll, a stuffed unicorn, a plastic tea set, and a personalized quilt, which Lacy, one of her fellow crafters, had graciously put together. It was an intricate pattern of blue, purple, pink, and green. The large center block bore Mariah’s name. It would stay at Randy’s for now, but it wouldn’t be long before it graced the crib in the three-bedroom house Maggie’d rented a few weeks before.

Two more weeks, thank God, and her babies would be home. Eighteen months of parenting courses, home inspections, counseling, random drug testing, and feeling like she was jumping through everyone’s hoops, but hers were about to come to an end. The process had given her much to be thankful for. Randy certainly ranked high on that list, but she was ready to get on with her life.

A sharp beam of light and a tapping on the window startled Maggie out of her daydream. She gasped, then smiled at the cop standing outside the door before lowering the window.

The cop touched the bill of his cap with the flashlight. “Evening, miss. Could I see your license and insurance card, please?”

“Sure.” Maggie pulled her bag from the passenger seat into her lap and dug for her elusive wallet. “Everything all right up there? I have a little medical training if you need an extra hand.” She handed the requested documents to the officer.

“Everything’s fine. Just a routine traffic stop.” He used the flashlight to study her paperwork. “This all appears to be in order. My partner”—he motioned to a second cop walking a German Sheppard around the car in front of her—“will be with us in a second, and we’ll get you on your way.”

“No problem.” Maggie studied the dog. That was something else she needed to think about. Like every other little boy in the world, Max wanted a dog. She wasn’t sure she was up for it.

She sat while cop number two approached cop number one for a quick exchange before taking the dog in a slow circle around her car. Maggie tapped her foot. If she didn’t get a move on, her early arrival was going to turn into a late one. Maybe she should call Randy. That thought was interrupted by a single bark outside the passenger side door.

Cop number one’s relaxed posture changed in an instant. “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to step out of the car.”

“What…why?”

Instead of answering, he opened her door. “Step out of the car, please.”

Maggie released the buckle on her seatbelt and did as he requested. “What’s going on?”

The officer nodded at the side of the road. “I need you to stand over there for me.”

Maggie lifted her hands in surrender and followed his instructions, watching with mounting confusion as the second cop and the dog circled her vehicle again. Another bark outside her passenger door. This time the officer opened the door while the dog pawed at the ground and whined.

Cop number one joined his partner, and Maggie took a step forward. She was stopped by a hand on her shoulder. A third cop she hadn’t even seen. “Stay where you are.”

Maggie watched in frustrated silence as both cops went into her car.

“I’ve got it,” Cop number two yelled.

Frustration turned to confusion. Got what?

Confusion turned to bone-melting horror when little white pills tumbled from a zipper bag onto a cloth spread on the hood of her car.

“What do you have?” asked cop one.

“Oxy. No prescription bottle, about fifty pills I’m guessing.”

Cop one looked at Maggie. His earlier expression of polite courtesy was replaced with one of accusation.

Oxy? Maggie finally found her voice. “Those aren’t mine.”

He kept his eyes on her face as he spoke to his partner. “Take him around again.”

This time the dog circled the vehicle without hesitation.

Cop one approached Maggie while he pulled handcuffs from a holder on his belt. “Maggie Hart, you are under arrest for illegal possession of a controlled substance.”

“Arrest?” Maggie shook herself free of the hand still on her shoulder. “You can’t arrest me. I’ve never seen those pills before.”

“Ma’am, put your hands behind your back.”

“No.” Maggie saw her life, saw everything she’d worked for over the last year and a half, crumble at her feet. Her kids. Her job. Randy. The collapse of her future did not happen quietly. “You have to listen to me,” she pleaded, raising her voice above the noise of a dozen car engines. “There’s been a mistake. Those aren’t mine.” Oh God, please make them hear me. I’ve worked too hard. Her mind scrambled for some sort of excuse and landed on the only possible answer.

Liz.

It had to be her.

Liz Murphy, a friend from school, who’d borrowed her car last week to go visit her sister in Tulsa. Liz, who’d left drugs in Maggie’s car. Liz, who was about to cost Maggie everything she held dear.

The shaking started at her toes and worked all the way up to her head. This couldn’t be happening. What can I do? What can I do?

She rounded on the third cop, who still stood slightly behind her. Recognition tweaked at her. She’d seen this guy around town. Jason…Jason… The name solidified, Jason Hubbard. “Officer Hubbard, I can explain. I loaned my car to a friend a few days ago. The pills must be hers.”

Someone took hold of her hands from behind. “Maggie Hart, you have the right to remain silent—”

“No!” Maggie jerked her arms free and spun, barely able to see the cop holding the cuffs through the tears flooding her eyes. She batted his determined hands away. “Why won’t you listen to me? I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Strong hands pinned her arms to her sides. “Ma’am, we’re taking you to the station. You can make this easy or you can make it hard. We have enough to charge you with possession. I don’t have a problem adding resisting arrest to it.”

“They aren’t mine. You have no idea what you’re doing.” Maggie stomped her foot in frustration. The heel of her shoe landed on officer Hubbard’s foot.

She hadn’t meant to do that.

“That’s it.”

The hands were rough this time as they clasped her shoulders and spun her around. “Possession, resisting, and assault.” The handcuffs were cold against Maggie’s wrists as the cops escorted her to a patrol car and placed her into the back seat.

A quick slap of the officer’s hand on the roof of the car and they began to move. She stared out the window, watching as her car and every dream for her future faded from sight.

***

“Cook kee?”

Randy Caswell ignored the insistent voice at knee level, wrapped the aluminum foil back over the ham, and replaced the lid of the Crock-Pot. He was by no means a gourmet cook, but even he could pull off a small Christmas dinner for four, especially when he had his grandma Callie hitting back-up. It had been her suggestion to put the ham in the slow cooker, a move that even a novice in the kitchen could manage. Brown-and-serve rolls and a green bean recipe off the back of the fried onion package, plus the scalloped potatoes and the cheesecake his grandma had insisted on making for him, and the feast was complete. He planned for a special night, and he wanted the meal to complement that. A glance at the clock sent his heart into a nervous stutter. Maggie should be here soon.

“Cook kee.”

This time, the request came with a bit more impatience and a tug on the leg of his jeans. Randy stooped down and picked up the toddler. “What are you jabbering about, Snooks?”

Mariah put a hand on each of his cheeks and repeated her request for the third time. “Cook kee.”

“I don’t think so. You already had a cookie and we’re having dinner in an hour. You’re a big girl. Can you wait for Mama to get here?”

Mariah’s little face had crinkled in the beginnings of a toddler meltdown at the cookie veto, but as he’d hoped, her expression brightened at the mention of her mom. “Mama comin’?”

Randy would never be able to explain to another living soul just what that little face did to his heart. He loved Max and all of his seven-year-old little boy orneriness, but there was something about Mariah’s dark curly hair, chubby cheeks, and adoration-filled brown eyes that had him wrapped around her little finger. The scary part was that he was pretty sure she knew it.

“Yes, Mama’s coming for dinner. Max is in the living room making her a Christmas card. Why don’t you go help him?”

The little eyebrows disappeared under her bangs. “Cayens”?

“Yes, he’s using crayons.”

Mariah squirmed in his arms. “Me down.”

Randy lowered her to the floor and watched her hurry from the room. Max would not be happy to have his baby sister interrupting his project, but Randy needed to finish setting the table, and he didn’t want the baby under his feet while he took hot dishes out of the oven.

There were serious jitters to overcome.

Calm down. She’s expecting this. It’s not like you guys haven’t talked about it for months. Randy took a deep breath. True, but talking and doing were two different things.

“Dad!” Max raced into the kitchen, paper clutched in one hand, a box of crayons in the other. He skidded to a stop in his sock feet.

The boy’s expression was one of disgust, and Randy could hear unhappy crying coming from the living room. That hadn’t taken nearly long enough. He did not have time for sibling wars right now. Randy closed his eyes, torn between his to-do list and love. Love won. “What can I do for you, buddy?”

Max held out a piece of folded construction paper. “She messed up my picture.”

Randy took the drawing and studied the meticulously drawn Christmas tree. There were randomly spaced dots that he took for Christmas lights and a bright yellow star with a happy face smiling down from the top. “That’s a great picture.”

“Not anymore, look.” Max pointed to a couple of red lines scribbled in the corner. “It’s ruined.”

Randy’s gaze swept past the clock and landed on the still bare table. This night might be important for him, but it was just as important for Max and Mariah. Maggie would understand if things weren’t perfect when she got here.

“That doesn’t look so bad. I bet we can fix it.” He leaned over the table, and Max scrambled into the chair beside him.

“You think?”

“I know. Hand me the crayons.” Randy felt a little like Liam Neeson. Maybe he couldn’t track down a bad guy in some shady foreign country, but he could handle the problems of an average seven-year-old. Being a kindergarten teacher had equipped him with a certain set of skills, skills he could use to right this injustice. He took the box of crayons, selected the black one, and drew a box around Mariah’s scribble. Next, he took the red, drew a few connecting lines, and finished with a bow on top.

“Wow.”

“See there.” Randy handed the paper back to Max. “All fixed.” The timer on the oven dinged. “And if you hurry, you’ve got time to add a few more presents under your tree. Mom will never know the difference.”

“Thanks, Dad. You’re the best.” Max looked over his shoulder as if to make sure they were alone before he leaned in for a quick man-to-man. “You’re going to do it tonight, right?”

“That’s the plan.”

Max’s grin was triumphant as he pumped his fist in the air. “Yes!”

Randy shared the boy’s enthusiasm. “Do me a favor, will you? Keep Mariah occupied while I finish up in here. We want things to be just right, don’t we?”

“I’m on it.” Max wrapped his arms around Randy’s neck in a quick hug. “We’re going to have the best family,” he whispered before hurrying back to his sister.

Randy watched him go.

The best family.

Those words…those kids. He was so blessed.

And to think I almost said no.

He thought back to that moment of decision almost a year and a half ago. His first foster care assignment. Not one child but two, and one of them a baby girl not quite a month old.

It wasn’t just the memory of Tait Mosley that had driven Randy to apply to the foster care program. He believed that foster care was what God had for him in this stage of his life, but even knowing that, he’d doubted his ability to meet this challenge. Who could blame him for hesitating? A single guy with a full-time teaching job. He’d gone to bed one night in the peace and quiet of bachelorhood, and the next night had him searching for day care, comforting a distraught five-year-old, and doing two a.m. feedings. Foster parents didn’t get the standard six weeks of maternity leave. There had been a lot of days during those first few weeks that he’d dragged into his classroom, tempted to join his students in nap time.

With his ear trained on the front door, Randy put plates on the table and pulled the highchair out of the corner.

He’d almost said no. He’d be forever grateful that he hadn’t. He’d accepted the challenge, and in the midst of chaos he’d found the people he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.