Sarah’s shoulders slumped forward. “She told me I couldn’t.”

“I see.”

“I don’t want her to leave us, Daddy.”

“I don’t want her to leave us, either.”

Shay’s eyes shot to mine, filled with questions. Mine were filled with love. “I thought it would be all right if she went away,” I said, addressing my daughter, “but I realize now that it would never be the same for any of us without Shay.” I didn’t know what that would mean for any of us, how my church family would react to having her as part of my life, but at this point I was past caring.

Grabbing a napkin from the dispenser, Shay dabbed at her eyes.

“Do you know why it would be hard to let her move away?” I asked my daughter.

“Because we’d miss her?” she guessed.

“For sure, but there’s an even stronger reason.”

“Because we love her?”

“Yes, we love her and she’s important to us.”

Sarah’s face lit up with a huge smile. “Will you stay with us?” she asked Shay. “Please say you will.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Shay whispered, as if she was having a difficult time finding her voice.

“Finish your fries, Sarah, so I can drop you off at school. Don’t you have a spelling test this afternoon?” I knew that because I’d gone over her spelling words with her the night before.

I stole a couple fries when Sarah wasn’t looking, but she caught me and teasingly slapped my hand. “You can have one if you ask nicely, and say ‘pretty please.’ ”

“Pretty please,” I said and reached for two, giving one to Shay.

Shay grinned and accepted the fry from my fingers. As soon as her hand was close, I curled my fingers around hers and squeezed gently.

I asked Shay to accompany me to Sarah’s school, and she did. She waited in the car as I escorted Sarah into the building. Afterward I drove to the house, preferring that we talk privately there instead of at the church office.

We both had little to say while in the car. As soon as we were inside the house and the door was closed, I pulled Shay into my arms and simply held her. God help me, I couldn’t let her go. For the life of me, I didn’t know what was going on with her and the missing money. We’d deal with that later, if at all.

I kissed her, tasting the salt of her tears on my lips. She felt so good in my arms and I knew this was where she was meant to be. Running my fingers through her hair, I angled my mouth over hers, kissing her again and again, unable to get enough of her, needing more, wanting more. I don’t know what I was thinking to send her out of my life. I needed her. My children needed her. Yes, there’d be consequences, but I’d face those, we’d face them together.

Her arms were around me, holding on as if we were locked together in the middle of a stormy sea, rocking in a small life raft. I leaned my forehead against hers, breathing in the scent that was uniquely hers.

“I don’t know why you won’t answer my questions. Nor do I know why you think you can’t tell me what you know about that missing money. For whatever reason, that’s important enough to keep your promise. I’ll honor that with you.”

Tears filled her eyes and spilled down her face. “I trust this person. I know in the end it will be made right.”

I hoped she was right, because she was taking a tremendous risk.

Her hands cupped my jaw and she kissed me again hard and long, twisting her mouth against mine. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“I’ll help you find someplace else to live,” I offered.

“I can’t stay in the apartment?”

“I’m sorry, Shay, so sorry. That decision isn’t mine.”

I felt her disappointment and it hurt me to have to tell her that there was nothing more I could do about the board’s decision.

“I understand.”

“I’ll help you as best I can.”

“Both Sadie and Alice offered to let me stay with them until I could find a new place.”

Inspiration struck. “I’ll talk to Linda Kincaid. She seems to have connections everywhere. What’s most important to me is that you know that I trust you and I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“I’m sorry I pressured you.”

She planted her forehead against my chest. “Thank you,” she whispered, her voice cracking with emotion. “It means everything to me.”

We talked for an hour or longer. I made a few phone calls and then brewed us each a cup of coffee.

As we spoke I realized how close I’d come to losing her. Sarah and Mark had been the ones to give me a wake-up call. Their love for Shay was as strong as my own.

“Sarah and Mark need you as much as I do.”

The back door opened. Mark was home from school. The afternoon had flown by; I hadn’t realized how late it was.

For a moment my son looked shocked when he saw Shay.

“Shay,” he whispered, his eyes brightening with surprised joy. “You didn’t move.”

“Not yet,” she told him, “but I’ll need to find somewhere else soon.”

Mark nodded and headed straight to his room.

Never one to verbalize his thoughts, Mark wouldn’t say much one way or the other. He didn’t need to. I could tell how pleased he was to see Shay. I’d explain later that despite the move, Shay would remain a part of our lives.

With only a few days to pack up my clothes and the other belongings that I’d managed to acquire, I collected boxes from the café. Frankie saved the best of the produce boxes for me and I was grateful. Seeing that I couldn’t exactly cart them home on the bus, I chose to walk. It was only a matter of six or so blocks, although it made for an awkward trip.

Saturday morning, following my shift, I had two more of the boxes with me as I approached the church. Mark was outside with his dad working in the yard when he noticed me, and he stopped what he was doing and stared as I headed toward the apartment.

I smiled at Mark encouragingly.

He said something to his father and then approached me. “Do you want some help carrying those?” he asked.

“Sure.” I handed him the smaller one.

“I hate that you’re moving,” Mark said, setting the box on his shoulder.

“Yeah, me, too.”

“Do you have another place yet?” he asked.

“No, but I’m working on it.” I set the box down and reached for the apartment key to open the door.

“Where will you go?” he asked, sounding worried.

I was surprised his father hadn’t told him. “I’m moving in with the Kincaids until I can find a place of my own.”

“Oh.”

Sarah saw the two of us and raced across the yard. “Can I help, too?” she asked, her face bright and eager.

“We got this,” Mark told his sister.

“I didn’t ask you,” she grumbled at her brother. Turning to me, she asked, “Can we bake cookies later?”

While I should take the time to pack, I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to spend time with Sarah. The Kincaids were kind enough to allow me to move in with them and I was more than grateful. The one negative was that they lived several miles from Drew and the church. Getting to and from my classes was going to be a hassle. I would no longer have my ride and bus service to their neighborhood, especially that late at night, wasn’t the best. It would add an extra hour or longer to my day.

“What kind of cookies do you want to bake?” I asked.

“Can we do sugar cookies this time?”

“You got it.”

Drew called his daughter and she raced back to her father while Mark continued with the box into the apartment.

“Thanks, Mark.”

He hesitated after setting down the box. Glancing around the apartment, he saw that I’d packed and stacked the others, preparing for the move. I saw him swallow hard, as if struggling to hold back tears.

I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about me hugging him, but I refused to hold back any longer. My arms went around him and I brought him close to me and kissed the top of his head. “It’s going to be fine,” I whispered.

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