Peter Samuels couldn't remember the last time it'd snowed this much. Peaceful, Wisconsin had enjoyed relatively mild winters for several years. Now snow slammed against the front porch windows of his parents' home in icy blasts. He literally couldn't see anything beyond the white swirl howling outside.
Unfortunately, I remember all too well the last time it was this cold. The day Lydia died last year. That day, like my life, had been such an oxymoron.
He'd never understood how a day so cold could also be filled with sunlight... nor how a man tremendously blessed in life could lose so much in the blink of an eye.
The sound of a child laughing brought his attention back to the present, and he turned to look behind him. After church on Sundays, the Samuels clan got together as a matter of tradition for a potluck at his parents' home. His father pastored the small church only two country miles away. With such a large family, their get-togethers were great, loud affairs. Only twenty-four-year-old Jay, his youngest brother who was in the Marines, and Marcus, Peter's brother closest to him in age and a medical missionary for a Christian organization overseas, missed out regularly.
And Lydia. She loved these weekend bonding experiences, loved how close my family was.
"Wow, it's really piling up out there!" a voice said behind him.
Kimberly Wolfe--both employee and dear friend--stood in the doorway between the hall and the porch. For an instant, he wondered if she'd come looking for him. Then she smiled, putting an irresistible sparkle in those baby blue eyes of hers, and all he could think about was the way his cold heart warmed at the sight of her. "I bet Josh and Justine are glad to be in Hawaii."
Kimberly strode into the enclosed porch, coming to stand beside him at the wall of windows. Once again, she murmured in shock at the weather. The pleasant honeysuckle scent he associated with her filled the air around him. She'd worked at the Christian bookstore he owned in town since he'd opened for business fifteen years earlier. His twin sister, Tamara, had married Kimberly's older brother Robert. Even without that association, Kimberly was family to the Samuels clan. To Peter...
Without her, especially this past year, I would have lost even my bookstore.
She turned, her gaze on him tenderly assessing. "What are you doing out here all alone?"
He'd hoped no one would notice his absence. He should have known someone would. That Kimberly came to his rescue didn't surprise him one iota.
She reached over to slip her arm through his, looking up at him with the clear urge that he should talk to her.
People are drawn to Kimberly because she's so easy to talk to. And not simply because her goodness comes packaged in beauty.
He sighed, noting that she shivered slightly against him despite the thick cable-knit sweater she wore. The porch really was chilly. His father had never been very mechanically inclined. When work needed to be done around the house, his mother usually did it, or she'd ask Josh--the real handyman in the family--to help. Peter made a mental note to talk to his brother later about insulating the windows. For now, he shrugged out of his suit jacket and wrapped it around Kimberly's shoulders.
"Thanks," she murmured, drawing her arms into the sleeves.
Peter couldn't help noticing how adorable she looked, utterly drowning in his coat. She crossed her arms over her torso again before glancing up at him. "This can't be easy for you."
The gentle tone of her voice surprised him. "What?"
She didn't need to say it. Kimberly was an open book to him, no doubt as much as he was to her after all this time. She knew what time of year this was. Realized what had happened last year to mark this day forever.
This time last year, I was telling the woman I loved goodbye until I join her in heaven.
Peter smiled, a tight, horror-struck thing that made his mouth hurt. Arms folded over his chest against the reminder of so much cold, he closed his eyes. A blizzard had raged inside him last year, and it'd cast darkness over his entire life since.
Peter inhaled sharply. "I'm doing all right...though not as well as my children."
James, thirteen, and Brenna, eleven, had experienced a rough time of it. But he'd seen the change in them lately. They were accepting, adjusting--thanks to the efforts on his part and that of his family members. Peter thanked God often for their resiliency. Was he as resilient? He wasn't sure.
"Why do you say that?" Kimberly asked.
"James and Brenna have begged to spend New Year's Eve overnight with friends."
"Ah. Well, that sounds like fun for them. Did you have something else planned for the three of you? A tradition?"
All holidays were family affairs. But his reservations had nothing to do with tradition.
"No. It just seems like we should be together as a family during this time. Lydia died a year ago on New Year's Eve. Tomorrow."
Leaning her chin on his arm, she hugged him again from the side. The empathic expression on her beautiful face filled him with relief. The ache retreated a little, sending his worries receding to the back of his mind.
"Oh, honey," she murmured. "I know it's hard for you. I understand that it's even hard for you to see your children healing the way they are."
"Does that make me a monster?"
"The opposite," she insisted fiercely. "And it bothers you so much because you're nowhere near that place yourself."
Peter ran a frustrated hand through his thick, dark hair. "I thought I was doing well. I believed it. Until I woke up this morning, and my first thought was Tomorrow. As if she'll die all over again."
"Because you took down the window display," Kimberly said in sudden enlightenment.
He'd gone in to work Friday morning, earlier than usual, and taken down the window display he'd crafted a year ago. In the tiny display at the front of his store, he'd folded their wedding quilt and placed on top of it Lydia's picture inscribed with Psalm 116:15: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints." Taking it down had been harder than he ever imagined it would be. But he'd somehow understood the importance of doing it. Until Kimberly came in and wordlessly hugged him with tears in her eyes that morning, no doubt seeing the empty display window, he hadn't cried at any time during the process.
Her hands tightened on his arm, and her comfort radiated right to his very soul. He covered her hands with his own, wondering how she always seemed to know exactly what he was going through--even those things he didn't want to admit to himself.
"I know you know this, Peter," Kimberly started, "but Brenna and James will never forget their mother. She'll always be a special part of them. The fact that they're ready to move on doesn't change that at all."
He nodded, realizing that he'd needed to hear her say what he already knew. "And I want them to move on."
"I know you do."
After another cleansing breath, he forced himself to grin as he said, "So you're saying I should let them stay overnight at their friends'?"
"No one could fault you if you didn't, but it'd be good for them."
She was right, and he nodded. But the decision didn't feel any easier. She must have seen the discomfort in his expression because she shifted to put her arms around him. Unexpectedly, Peter became aware of how bulky his suit jacket was between them, preventing him from feeling her warm figure, the way he usually did when they embraced.
Awareness jolted into shock. What was he doing? Surprised guilt made him rationalize. Anyone who's ever just seen Kimberly Wolfe knows she's an unearthly beautiful woman. And she takes very good care of her body. I'd have to be dead not to be aware of those truths.
The scent of honeysuckle mingled with his own spicy cologne. He remembered--perfectly apropos to do so--that he'd changed aftershave brands after Lydia died. Somehow, he could no longer wear the scent she'd so loved when she wasn't around to snuggle into his neck and breathe him in. Kimberly commented on how much she liked the new brand the day after I started wearing it. Said she liked it better.
What am I doing here?
A hot flash roared through his body from head to toe--one that nearly floored him when he recognized it for what it was. Attraction. Desire. Lydia alone had inspired both for twenty years.
Peter forced himself to take a step back. Thankfully, Kimberly didn't seem the least bit aware of his thoughts. Sweet, lovely Kimberly. Lovelier with each passing year.
"I think it's time to get going. This weather will only get worse."
Kimberly nodded. "I was thinking the same thing myself."
"Did you drive over in your jeep?"
He shook his head. "That little Suzuki Sidekick of yours could easily get stuck in the seven to ten inches out there on unplowed roads."
Peaceful's street management was notorious for their lethargy during weekend blizzards. He didn't like the thought of Kimberly stranded so far from home. "Let me drive you to your apartment. It's on my way to work tomorrow, and I'll sleep better knowing you're safe. I'll pick you up in the morning, and we'll get your vehicle later."
"Are you sure? I can make it on my own, but to be honest, I hate driving in this weather. And you do have that monster truck with four-wheel drive."
Peter grinned. She'd never been late for work, even in terrible weather. He wondered why she'd never admitted to him before that she didn't like driving when the weather was iffy. He would have happily carpooled since she was right on his way. But he understood she was capable, more than capable, of taking care of herself. She wouldn't mention something like that unless the subject came up--the way it had just now.
"Lydia hated driving in bad weather, too--"
The words escaped his mouth before he could think about them, and then all he could see was that every word out of his mouth today had been "Lydia". He shook his head once more. "My truck can handle it, no problem. Come on."
She held back, surprising him until he remembered that her father was still here. Though the man had an open invitation to attend these potlucks each Sunday since Tamara and Robert had married, Charles rarely had over the years. The past several weeks, he'd been coming every Sunday. From the moment he arrived, his presence seemed to unnerve Kimberly. She clearly went out of her way to avoid him.
They found everyone in the living room, Charles included, and said their goodbyes. His parents rose to hug all of them. Peter couldn't have missed how his mother held Kimberly's face in her hands and whispered something that made her smile. My family loves her. As much as Lydia did.
When Charles rose, Peter tensed, not sure why he felt he needed to intervene when the man went to his daughter and asked to talk to her.
Kim turned on her heel and walked out of the room, aware that he was coming after her. Somehow she'd known he would attend the Samuels potluck today, the way he had for too many Sundays. She knew why, too. He wanted to make a scene because she refused to acknowledge his frequent phone calls--calls in which he would demand she come home with him to stay. Charles Wolfe was not a man who would put up with being ignored.
She made it as far as the entry hall, where her parka hung on the coat tree. She could barely look at her father. Once upon a time, he'd had his son Robert's thick, blondish-brown hair, his rebellious, easy-going good looks. Today, he looked about a hundred years older than he had the last time she'd seen him.
"I don't know why you're bein' so stubborn about this, Kim. Women in this day and age have no idea how vulnerable they are. Women get raped when they're out alone at night all the time."
She whirled on him, slipping into her jacket. "Yeah. And they get raped in their own homes sometimes, too, by their own husbands."
He gave no indication that he'd heard--or understood--her jab. "You need to come home, girl. It's for your own good. I can protect you."
Kim snorted in disbelief. "And who's gonna protect me from you, if not me? It's not for my own good. It's for yours. You can't stand not getting your own way." She sensed others in the house drifting closer at the heated discussion. "I won't talk about this again. I'll never come back home. You'd put me in chains in the basement just to keep me from escaping again, like you did Mom."
"I never chained your mom up."
"Liar. In every way except physically you kept her your prisoner."
Her anger felt like lava inside her, filling her to capacity and then some. It spilled over, hot and scorching as she remembered the words her father would say to her mother. "Forgive me, Cheryl. It's what Christians do, isn't it? Isn't that what you're always saying? I won't do that again, all right? But I'm the head of the household, and by God, woman, you need to let me be."
The pitiful look he feigned only increased her disgust and fury. He glanced away, murmuring, "What if I said I...I need you to come home, Kimmy-girl?"
"What does that mean?" she demanded suspiciously.
"I'm not as young as I used to be. I won't be around forever."
"Is that a promise or a threat?" Even as she said the hateful words, guilt speared through her. She threw a glance at him. In the past year and a half, she'd seen him less than a handful of times. Each time, he looked dangerously gaunt, his skin yellowed and ashen. She remembered what Rob had said every Sunday they'd seen their father in the last month--that Dad looked old. He looked sick.
I can't deal with this. And I don't have to. It's not my problem.
Peter came toward them in the hall, and her father glanced at him skittishly, looking embarrassed.
"Everything all right?" Peter asked.
I hate that Peter probably heard part of what was said here. I hate the thought of what he might assume about me. But I didn't ask the old man to come here. I didn't ask to talk to him. I don't have to acknowledge this conversation at all, not even to Peter.
The muscles in her back went stiff. Turning away from her father, she put on a bright smile. "Nope. I'm ready to leave when you and the kids are."
Five minutes later, Kimberly smiled at the sight of James in the extended cab of his father's truck, already reading a book--his favorite, The Lord of the Rings--with his headphones on. She knew he was listening to the soundtrack to the movie, getting the whole experience. She'd known the boy since the day he was born. She'd loved him as her own. Each time she saw him, she became further convinced that he looked just like his handsome, occasionally stubborn father.
Beside him, Brenna played her Nintendo DS with headphones in as well. Brenna was the picture of her mother. Petite, with pale, delicate features and a quick smile that lit up her entire face. She blessed Kim with her smile before the driver's side door opened, and Peter hurriedly slid in and shut the door behind him.
The blizzard raged fiercely. Thank You, Lord, that I won't have to test my Sidekick in this mess! She'd driven in snow before, of course--and frequently got stuck in just a few inches. An angel in disguise had always come along to rescue her.
Shivering, she watched Peter skillfully maneuver his Dodge Ram out of the parking space in front of his parents' house. While he was distracted with the task at hand, she enjoyed a thorough look at him. So handsome, with those heartbreaking brown eyes flecked with green.
Her fingers twitched at the sight of gray at his temples. She wanted to brush the rich, dark hair back and smooth the lines that had turned his attractive, strong face older and unhappier this past year.
Stifling a sigh, she wondered if she was destined to love her boss forever. From afar. For years, she'd endured Lydia's misguided attempts to set her up on blind dates. How could her dear friend realize what she was doing? How could she know how much Kim envied the love Peter and Lydia shared? And not always for the reasons she should have.
I've loved him. Always. Beginning of story, middle of story, end of story. My love made it that much easier to console him in his grief over the loss of his wife. My own love for Lydia made it seem wrong to feel about him the way I do. But it's not wrong. Not anymore.
That fact hadn't been easy for her to accept, but she'd prayed about it constantly, and she recognized the Lord's leading. Given that, she'd determined as of the New Year that she would stop hiding her romantic feelings for Peter. That she would do nothing to hinder him from seeing her in a new light.
But sometimes she wondered if God was leading her where Peter wasn't yet able to go. Where I'm not ready to go. She remembered the confrontation with her father. It doesn't matter. The past doesn't have to matter if I don't let it.
At thirty-four, she couldn't be seen as a little kid anymore by anyone in Peter's family--not even Peter. Kim realized that he wasn't quite ready to see her as more than an employee, a reliable shoulder to cry on, a Christian woman. One who was nowhere near content to live out her life without having the love of a godly man and a family of her own. I'm a Christian woman with so many hang-ups and baggage, I might never heal enough to have either. But she didn't want to think about that.
As they got out on the nearly unrecognizable road covered in massive snow drifts, Peter glanced at her. She wondered if he'd felt her gaze on him. Kim refused herself the luxury of turning away at being caught staring. I vowed to stop hiding my attraction to and deep love for Peter Samuels, remember? Those few minutes of anger with her father were making her re-think her vow. She shook her uncertainties away. No way would she allow the old man to ruin everything for her, the way he had all her life.
She reached across the seat and tenderly grazed her fingertips against the gray streaks at his temple. Surprising her, he chuckled at the gesture. "I don't know where those came from. I just noticed them myself recently. I guess once you turn forty..."
"You're not old."
Reluctantly, she lowered her hand and placed it back in her lap.
"I feel old."
Kim swallowed the lump that expanded in her throat. He hadn't felt that way before Lydia got sick, she knew. She remembered how young and energetic he'd been then. The world had been his oyster with his wonderful wife at his side. "You shouldn't," she offered, tone strained slightly at the memories bombarding her. "You're still young. And attractive."
Turning for an instant, she saw he was startled by her words. Had she said the wrong thing? But his smile came, and he murmured, "Thanks," in a pleased voice.
Warmth spread through her. She'd said what he needed to hear.
From the backseat, Brenna asked, "What are you doing on New Year's Eve, Kim?"
Kimberly looked back to see the girl had taken one side of her headphones away from her ear. "My annual tenant party in my apartment building."
"Oh. Yeah. I remember now."
Kim's gatherings were popular in the building where she lived. She knew everyone who lived there with her because she made a point of seeking them out. The Lord had provided her with countless opportunities to minister and befriend her fellow tenants.
"Angela asked me to spend the night," Brenna said, glancing for an instant at her father.
Kim could already hear the dejected note in her voice. She truly believed her father wouldn't let her go. An edge of annoyance surprised Kim. Thus far, Peter's children hadn't turned wild or rebellious, which would have made life hard on all of them. Partly, she suspected they'd reined themselves in out of respect for their mother and his grief after her passing. Not all children would have done the same. Some would have selfishly drawn inward and reacted to their pain in outwardly troubled ways. For a short time, he'd allowed his loving family to pick up the slack when he couldn't. But his strong sense of responsibility had drawn him back into life soon afterward.
Brenna returned to her game, and Kim faced forward again.
Visibility was reduced to only a few feet in front of the truck's windshield and rapidly swiping blades, but she recognized the businesses when they made it into town. She only lived a handful of miles from the square, where Peter's bookstore was located.
"I'll walk you to the front door," Peter insisted when he pulled up to the sidewalk in front of the apartment building. Kim had become so accustomed to his chivalry, she no longer argued against the necessity of it. She remembered Lydia saying often that his protectiveness was one of the little things she'd loved so much about him. He was thoughtful and sheltering in ways most modern men had abandoned.
Kim turned around to find both Brenna and James waiting for her hug. Though she'd grown up in the exact opposite of a loving Christian family, the Samuels had made constant hugging the most natural thing in the world to her.
"See you tomorrow," she said.
Peter had already gotten out and opened her door by the time she turned back. He helped her out, putting an arm around her to block the ruthless wind whipping past them.
"Ned, my man, I believe you're fighting a losing battle," Peter shouted to her building supervisor, snowblowing the sidewalk. Ned's father owned several other apartment buildings--all in La Crosse, the nearest city.
Ned ignored him, his gaze focused on her when he said, "Glad to see you got home all right, Kimberly."
She smiled and turned to Peter.
"See you at seven-thirty tomorrow?" he said.
"I'll be ready. Thanks for the ride. You're a lifesaver."
And she knew he wouldn't have taken no for an answer in any case. Hunching over, he rushed back toward the truck. She watched him until Ned shut off the blower. He slid between her and the front door, pulling it open for her with a goofy, shy smile on his face.
Kim murmured, "Thanks," but the uneasy feeling she often got around him made her hurry past and up to her apartment. His crush on her bothered her to the point where she'd been forcing herself to have talks with him lately. She'd made it clear her feelings for him were brotherly and friendly--and that would never change. Somehow those pointed conversations had gone in one ear and out the other. How could he understand that, even though she didn't actually find him attractive, the reason she could never have feelings for him came down to his unwillingness to commit his life to Christ?
She could never be with anyone who didn't share her faith. Besides, Ned played at being a Christian--coming to her Bible studies, letting her talk about her relationship with the Lord. If she fixed him up, he might stop looking at her the wrong way, but she couldn't even do that. She knew Ned too well to want to thrust him on any poor unsuspecting woman--Christian or otherwise. Given an ounce of encouragement, he'd pounce with underhanded intentions. Drawing the line again and again amounted to her only defense.
Kim already had her key out by the time she made it to the third floor. She could smell the cinnamon potpourri one of her neighbors had put out on the hall table that morning.
As soon as she let herself into her apartment, she felt a heaviness in her chest. She lived for Sundays--or had until her father had started putting in weekly appearances at the potlucks. For years, he'd stayed away, allowing her to spend most of the daylight hours of Sunday with her beloved Samuels family--the one she'd wanted to belong to forever. Even before her brother Rob married Tamara, the Samuels had made her feel like an integral part of them. Pastor and Mrs. Samuels never screamed at each other, not like her parents had--day and night, loud enough to shake the walls, vicious enough to make her hide in the deepest recess of her closet and cover her ears. Even then, she'd heard them. Christianity wasn't just a show for the Samuels, the way it'd been for her parents. Her father felt nothing. Religion served her father's purpose, so he used it. That he'd made his family attend church once a week, he felt, had been the extent of his Christian obligation. Kim's mother's faith had waned to nothing until she'd died, a broken woman, several years ago.
Shaking the snow off her hat and gloves, Kim tossed them near the heating vent, then shrugged out of her thick parka. She hung it with her scarf on the coat tree. Mewing caught her attention. Her long-haired tabby, Amethyst, stood in the huge opening between the kitchen, dining and living rooms, green eyes glowing. The cat's thick gray and white tail bobbed behind her like an apparition. After flipping on the lights, Kim scooped up her pet and nuzzled her until Amethyst purred contently.
"Hey, baby girl," she murmured. "Did you know I planned to name my first daughter Amethyst? Don't you feel flattered?"
She'd named her cat at a time when she'd stopped believing she'd ever have her own husband or family. Your will, Lord. But I don't wanna believe I can never be normal. I don't wanna accept that there's any reason at all for going home, putting myself back in the old man's prison. I don't want any obligation at all to him. I don't care if my guilt kills me.
Seeing her ancient answering machine flicker, she walked over to it. She pushed the button to listen to her messages, deleting three of them after only a few seconds of hearing her father's voice. The memory of the conversation she'd had with Rob earlier that day, just after the old man showed up at the potluck, returned.
"You notice Dad looks sick?"
Kim had carefully schooled herself from feeling anything in response to her brother's question. "Yes," she said calmly. "Has he told you anything?"
"Nah. He insists he's fine, other than a stubborn daughter who won't talk to him..."
Sinking to the couch, Kim allowed Amethyst to leap away from her. The spicy scent of Peter's cologne drifted into her nose, washing away the anger she still felt at Rob's jab. She'd worn Peter's jacket for a short time. She lifted her arms and inhaled deeply. Closing her eyes, she remembered how good it'd felt to hold him and to be held by him. Those moments only made her infatuation worse, but she wouldn't trade them for anything. And I won't get a minute's sleep tonight if I let myself dwell on them.
The phone rang, and Kim looked over at it warily. Rising slightly, she glanced down at the caller ID to see Peter's parents' phone number. She picked it up.
"Kim? You left so quickly, I didn't get a chance to say goodbye," the youngest Samuels daughter greeted her.
"I'm sorry. The snow was piling up, and Peter offered to give me a ride. What's up, Sam?"
In the background, Kim heard someone calling for the girl. "Hold on," Samantha said in mild irritation.
As the youngest, the young woman had been sheltered the most and was almost painfully shy with everyone except family. At twenty-one, she still lived with her parents and made almost no decisions on her own.
A moment later, Samantha came back on the line, her voice hushed. "I was hoping to talk to you about something. While Daddy's not around."
"What's going on?" Kim asked, feeling slightly tense. It wasn't often Samantha wanted to do anything out of earshot of the father she lived to please.
"There's this new kid in the church-- Okay, I shouldn't say 'kid'. He's not a kid. He's twenty-two. He's part of the treatment program Daddy's involved in. He's...well, pushing me to befriend him."
Pastor Samuels counseled troubled juvenile delinquents--part of a program with a spiritual component that Peter's sister-in-law Justine's law firm had developed with local law enforcement.
"He--your father, you mean? Why would he do that?"
In the background, the voice had become louder, demanding that Samantha get off the phone. The young woman huffed. "I'm sorry, Kim. I know I called you, but...I can't talk right now. We're still planning to exercise on New Year's Day, right?"
"It's our usual night. But call me if you can't wait that long. Is everything all right, honey?"
"Honestly, don't worry about it. That's not why I told you. We'll talk soon."
Samantha hung up, and Kim frowned, wanting to call her back without delay. Despite her friend's assurance that there was nothing to worry about, the fact that Samantha had brought it up at all worried her. Why in the world would Pastor Samuels push his daughter to befriend one of the delinquents involved in the counseling program? But then the thought of Peter's father doing anything to endanger one of his children was unthinkable. Still, she'd make sure they kept their exercise routine on New Year's Day so they could talk about it.
Kim reached for the basket on the coffee table in front of her. She'd been weaving for a long time, but it'd been harder this last year to find time to weave. Since Lydia's death, Kim had gone from working eight hour shifts Monday through Thursday, then on Saturday, to working every day of the week except Sunday. Peter had needed her when he didn't feel capable of running his own business, and she never considered refusing his request. In the past few months, he'd been coming in most days again, the way he had in the past, yet he hadn't asked her to go back to her old schedule. Truthfully, Kim loved being there, working, helping Peter with the accounting and inventory, being near him and seeing his kids when they got out of school. She loved her job in every conceivable way.
Love my boss in every conceivable way. Love his children like they're my own...
Sighing, Kim grabbed another reed. Would Peter consider letting his kids spend the night elsewhere tomorrow? She felt sure he would. He was that kind of father. He always put their happiness and well-being before his own. But that would mean he would be alone, wallowing in his grief...
I can't change my plans to be with him either. I've got at least seventy-five people coming to my party. But I can try to convince Peter to come to my party, too.