Click here to read Chapter Three PART ONE
By J.A. Marx
“BUT FIRST, you have to try my new chili recipe. And afterward, some apple crisp.” She walked to the kitchen attached to the large living room. “Your grandmother told me apples in any form are one of your favorite things.”
I WARMED my hands by the fire, reluctant to sit while an old lady served me. “So you know my grandmother.”
“OH, honey. Beatrice and I were best friends back in elementary school.” The woman maneuvered around her kitchen like nobody’s business. “Bea was my maid of honor, and I would’ve been hers if my husband hadn’t swept me off to Europe as an officer’s wife. I’ll be right back.”
SHE disappeared into a back room, which gave me time to look around. Framed pictures on one wall drew me to peruse the faces. At least thirty, all with names on the bottom. Young people, mostly. Except for a handful of women that looked in their early thirties. I visually traced every face to the end of the collection—and did a double take.
LAUREN’S mug hung fourth from the end.
A SOUR taste seeped up my throat and lodged in my mouth. I wanted to spit on her face that had no right appearing so cheery. This explained why Mrs. Skull Cap recognized me without an introduction.
“YOU found your twin.” The woman’s sweet voice clashed with my mood. “We’d better get down to business. I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”
PRESSING my lips together to keep from saying something I’d regret, I joined her in front of the fireplace where she placed two bowls of chili and tumblers full of water. Sour cream and shredded cheese filled two smaller dishes.
I LOADED both onto the chili and picked up my spoon.
“HEAVENLY Father,” the woman said, head bowed.
PAUSING out of respect, I puffed out a breath.
“THANK you for providing nourishment and for bringing Grace to the HAVEN. In Jesus’s holy name.”
SKIPPING the amen, I stirred the cream and cheese into the beans.
“YOU haven’t asked my name.” The woman sprinkled a dainty amount of cheddar into her bowl. “Florence Crosby. Call me Flo.”
Your’re such a twerp, Grace. Grammie had not taught me to behave like this. “Thanks for your hospitality, Flo. I’m sorry for my attitude. I’m still upset with my sister.”
“YES. I saw the pain in your eyes the second I opened the door. I’m glad God brought you here.”
“I’M angry at Him, too.” I shoved a spoonful of chili into my mouth but had to slow down to savor the zesty flavor.
“HE’S not angry with you, Grace. He misses how you used to sing love songs to him every morning when you were first getting to know each other.” Flo closed her eyes and bobbed her head as if hearing music. “Yes, He was just beginning to reveal Himself to you. His mysteries.”
THE lump in my throat grew bigger. How did Flo know about the songs? Not even Lauren or Grammie knew. I took a swig of water to wash it down. This lady was freaky.
“WHEN Bea told me what happened to you girls in high school, I told her to send Lauren here.”
I THREW a sneer at the photos on the wall then returned to the chili. If I could demand the ornament and leave, I would.
“YOUR sister had nowhere to go. She was ready to take her own life.”
THAT pricked my heart. I hated Lauren, but to think she’d take her own life would … would not bring justice. Halfway through the bowl of chili, I paused to take another drink.
“SHE was overwhelmed with humiliation and shame. The only thing that stopped her from suicide was not wanting to destroy the precious life she carried. She was going to put the child up for adoption.”
WAS going to? “So she kept it.”
“I GUESS she didn’t throw all her responsibilities out the window. Like she did when Grammie died.” Spite framed my words, but I didn’t care. “I had to plan the entire funeral and take care of all the arrangements. Greet all the mourners by myself, and listen to their stories about Grammie. All that while Lauren ran off, probably with some new lover.”
NOT to mention she’d stolen my boyfriend.
“THERE was no lover, Grace. Lauren was raped. What you’d call a date rape, but rape just the same.”
I REACHED toward the mess I’d made. “I’m sorry.”
FLO stopped me. “We’ll clean it later.”
IF eyes could embrace, this woman had me in a bear hug. I couldn’t pull away from her sea-blue gaze.
RUSTY lumbered over and lapped at the lumpy slush.
“LAUREN ran away out of fear.”
I CLOSED my eyes, straining to make sense of the news. Why hadn’t Lauren said something? We were twins, for Pete’s sake! We’d been tight. Even had our own stinkin’ language . . . which had evaporated after Mom and Dad died.
This can’t be. I rolled back into the chair, no longer hungry. “Lauren,” I whispered, fighting tears.
FLO left again and returned with a square, wrapped box. She laid it in my lap.
TRACING the checkered pattern with my finger, I felt undeserving of any gift.
“OPEN it, Grace.”
I HEAVED a sigh and sat up. Removing the bow, I wedged it between my legs for safe keeping and peeled off the gold wrapping. The lid slipped off easily, and I peered inside at an ornament and another photograph. I studied the picture of Lauren holding a smiling baby.
“SHE delivered her here.” Flo gestured toward the upstairs. “They spent a year with me.”
I SHIFTED my gaze toward the wall of photos, single mug shots of people in situations like Lauren was. “That’s what you do, isn’t it, Flo? Take people in.”
THE old lady let out a sprightly laugh. “God told me if I opened my doors, He’d bring ’em in. I wasn’t able to have children of my own, and I wanted them so badly. When Hank died, bless his heart, I told God I didn’t want to be alone.”
THIS woman was growing on me.
“THE local pastors bring people to the HAVEN where I offer free room and board. In return, the girls help cook and clean, and the boys chop wood and do minor repairs.” She smiled toward the wall of faces. “And my inheritance is growing.”
IF I were half as giving as this woman, I’d have a permanent halo. I lifted the ornament out of the box, and something stirred inside of me.
HANDCRAFTED, pewter perhaps? Circular, like a bracelet. Woven in the sides were three strands, braided together, wrapped in a full circle. The artistry was stunning. It hung from a silky periwinkle blue ribbon – the exact color I’d always called my favorite. Gram knew that too.
“BEA mailed it to me along with her request to give it to you.”
I WASN’T sure, but something told me this ornament would make sense as the treasure hunt progressed.
GRACE takes delivery of a package and her life is turned upside down by nine sealed mystery envelopes from her late grandmother. Grammie’s instructions require Grace to take the journey of her lifetime, not only to far off places, but also into the deepest parts of her heart. As she follows the trail laid out for her and uncovers her family’s darkest secrets, Grace is forced to confront the loss and betrayal that has scarred her past and seek the greatest Christmas Treasure of all.
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