A knock sounded at the door just as Brenda was heading to the living room to fold laundry. She changed direction and looked through the peep-hole. A girl that looked to be about ten years old stood on her porch. Probably a girl scout or something kind of like it. Brenda swung the door open.
"Can I come in?" The girl's dark eyes were sad. It was the first thing Brenda noticed.
"Where are your parents?" Brenda offered a smile.
"My mom died. My dad didn't want me, so my uncle is raising me. It's awfully cold. Can I come in please?"
Brenda's heart skipped and then beat double. The poor child. Slightly uncomfortable, Brenda ushered the girl in.
"Where's your uncle then?"
"I ran away. He'll know where to find me."
"What's your name sweetie?"
"Marie. What's yours?"
"Brenda. It's very nice to meet you. Mind telling me why he'll know where to find you?"
"Do you have any milk, or maybe cookies? Is the cookie jar still on the island?" Marie took off for the kitchen. The girl knew exactly where it was.
"Marie, don't run in the house, please. Where's your uncle? Do you know his number?" Brenda was concerned. What if the uncle didn't know where to find his young charge?
"He's just uptown, Christmas shopping. He told me to wait at the register for him, but I left when no one was looking. No cookie jar?"
"No, but I do have milk. Hang on." Brenda found herself roped in by the little girl's chatter.
After handing Marie her cow juice, Brenda asked, "How is it you know about this house?"
"I used to live here."
The females eyed each other, and Marie climbed up on the stool in front of the island, adjusting her cup of milk.
"I'm glad someone lives here again. I come here sometimes, just to look at it. My dog, Barley is buried in the backyard under that big rock. I miss him." Marie's eyes clouded again.
"I had a dog once. Her name was Bells. I got her for Christmas, and I miss her still." Brenda couldn't believe it. She was having a conversation about dead dogs with a little orphan girl.
"Can I come visit you? You seem nice."
"We'll see, Marie."
"When parents say 'we'll see' it means the answer is no. It always does."
"I...You know, I think you're right." Brenda sighed in relief as the doorbell rang. "I bet that's your uncle."
Marie hopped off the stool and took off as Brenda headed towards the front door. She swung it wide without looking through the peephole, and the man standing there, rubbing his hands together was nothing like what she expected.
"I'm so sorry, but I am looking for my niece, Marie. Would she happen to be here?"
"Yes, she is. I'm Brenda. Come on in."
The man extended his hand. "I'm Roarke."
Brenda felt a tingle as they touched. His hand was big and strong, much like the rest of him. Roarke's leather coat barely contained his muscular form, and his jeans were well worn and molded to his lower body perfectly. She released his hand, suddenly self-conscious of her holey jeans and sweatshirt.
"She's in the kitchen drinking milk. Poor thing."
"Marie told you her life story already? That's fast, even for her." Roarke laughed.
The kitchen was bare.
"Now where did she go?"
Roarke sighed. "Probably up to her old bedroom."
The pair walked up the staircase, and they came to a stop in front of the door that was closed.
"This past year has been really hard on her. She comes here as often as she can. I don't know if she thinks if she comes here things will be different...but I appreciate you letting her in. It's nice to see someone lives here, and that you're taking care of the place."
Brenda felt the urge to blush at the compliment. How silly.
"What's the connection to the house?"
"My sister and her husband lived here. Once she died, the bills were too much and it went into foreclosure. That's when my father bought it back. This is where I grew up also. My dad would have helped them keep it, but by the time any of us knew the finances were that bad, it was too late."
"So... Richard is your father?" Her landlord.
"Yep, that's him. I hope he's treating you well." Roarke laughed.
"Oh yes, he's a wonderful man. Wow. What a small world."
"It is. Let me get my niece. I was taking her to buy some things for her grandparents when she took off on me."
"Marie said you raise her. That's a noble thing to do." Brenda laid a hand on his forearm.
"Oh, no. My parents have custody. I just take her a couple times a week to give them a break. I think she would rather live with me since my parents are 'so old', as she says."
"Ah. I see. Well it sounds like her world has been turned upside down."
"It's been tough, for all of us." A shadow of sadness crept behind his eyes.
Brenda grabbed the doorknob and swung the door open. Marie was sitting on the window seat in what was now Brenda's craft room/library. The fact it had been the little girl's room explained the ballet shoe border that had been up when she first moved in.
"Marie, I was so worried." Roarke stooped down and laid his hand on her shoulder.
"You knew where I'd be."
"Yes, but the part with you walking here doesn't seem completely safe. You've got to stop running off."
"I just wish I could still live here." Her voice was tiny, and it broke Brenda's heart.
Roarke sighed. It was a battle that was waged at least a handful of times a week, either with him or his parents. Suddenly Brenda crouched down next to him, the scent of vanilla washing over his senses. He glanced at her, saw the tears in her deep hazel eyes, and knew she was a goner.
"Marie, I don't mind if you come visit me sometimes. But on one condition. Your uncle or your grandparents have to bring you. No more of this running off business....it's not safe. Is it a deal?"
Roarke was impressed. He didn't want to encourage Marie in thinking this house was her reason for being...but if she was coming to visit Brenda, maybe her focus would change. And Brenda seemed like a nice lady. He didn't think he would have to worry about Marie in her care.
"It's a deal. Will you have cookies next time?"
Brenda laughed, a delightful sound that made Roarke smile. "Of course I will."
The adults stood and Marie wiped her eyes. On the way down the stairs Brenda gave Roarke her phone number.
"Just call and make sure I'm here and you can come right on over."
"Thank you Brenda." Marie impulsively threw her arms around Brenda's waist.
Brenda reached and patted her back, giving Marie a small squeeze.
"Thank you for looking after her. We'll be in touch." Roarke shot her a grin that went straight to her toes.
After uncle and niece were ensconced in his car, Brenda slumped against the wall. That poor little girl...and the poor man. He must have loved his sister very much. Brenda thought of Marie, requesting cookies. For some reason, she knew she better get on the ball, because now that Marie had an open invite, she doubted anything would stop her.
A few days later, Brenda hit the mall for a Christmas shopping frenzy. The beginning of December had crept up on her, and she wasn't prepared. An idea struck her, and she headed into the housewares section. After searching for a few minutes, a cookie jar that was a cow dressed as a gypsy jumped out at her. Brenda laughed in delight and added it to her arms that were growing heavy with packages.
By six o'clock that night, Brenda had eighty percent of her Christmas shopping done. It was dark, it was cold, and she was starving. The task of unloading her car seemed never ending, and when she pulled up to her house a strange car was parked in front of it. Then it hit her- it was Roarke's car. She came to a stop and dug her cell phone out, and she had missed a few calls.
Brenda dialed his number and when he answered, she said, "Make ya a deal. You guys can come in if you help carry stuff."
His deep laugh came through the receiver and caused her to shiver. That man was a hundred percent sex appeal.
Marie came bopping over to the passenger side as Brenda climbed out.
"We tried to call, and then I talked Uncle Ro into coming here anyway. He said we'd wait for five minutes then leave cuz we aren't stalkers. It had been four minutes- we almost missed you!"
"Well that was good timing then, wasn't it?" Brenda shut her door and popped the trunk.
"Did you buy the entire mall? I'm going to strain my back, carrying all of this." Roarke appeared with a devilish grin on his face.
"If you do, I'll make you a cake." Brenda laughed as they all loaded up their arms. It did take two trips, but it was better than her making seven by herself.
"Brenda, your decorations are beautiful! But where is your tree?"
"I didn't get to it yet. You two wouldn't want to help, would you?"
"Yes! We do!" Marie did a little jig around the living room.
"I need to eat first. I am starving." Brenda laughed at the little girl's enthusiasm.
"We haven't eaten either. Want to order a pizza? My treat." Roarke already had his phone in hand.
"Sounds great. I don't care what toppings. I'll eat everything." Brenda smiled, and headed into the kitchen.
After ensuring she had plenty of beverages, she dug through the bags and called Marie over.
"This is sort of for you. I thought you might want to have the honors." Brenda offered the bag containing the cookie jar.
Marie took the box out of the bag, and opened the tab. Brenda warned her to be careful, and the girl slid the jar out of the box slowly.
"Brenda! She is too cute!" Marie laughed with delight.
"I don't want you to come and be disappointed because there aren't any cookies. Let me wash it up and I think there might be some cookies floating around in one of these bags." Brenda laughed and headed for the sink.
Marie disappeared into the living room, looking for the treats, and Roarke appeared behind Brenda.
"That's a very sweet thing you did, buying that."
Brenda looked over her shoulder. "I needed one anyway."
Roarke laid his hand on her arm, squeezing gently. "I appreciate it. It's been a while since her life has been normal. I'm sorry we burst in on you like this."
"I don't mind. I'm just gonna put you guys to work while you're here." Brenda smiled, her greenish eyes lighting up.
Roarke asked where her tree was stored, and headed off to bring it out of the attic. But before he left, he caught her hand in the act of drying off the cookie jar and brought it to his lips. A thrill ran through Brenda as she felt the warmth of his mouth against her skin. Once he was out of the room, she knew she was in trouble. Only the second time she'd seen the guy and she was officially in lust.
Marie reappeared with the cookies and together they filled the jar.
"Can Gypsy live on the island?" Marie's eyes were serious.
"Is that her name? And of course she can."
"Yeah. Ours always stayed there." The little girl carefully placed the jar on the island.
Brenda saw all the sadness behind everything the little girl was trying to do. She slipped into a stool and patted the seat of the other one, offering Marie to sit down. As she climbed up, her eyes filled with tears and she stared hard at the cookie jar, willing herself not to cry.
"Marie, I know you haven't had it easy lately...and I bet the holidays are extra hard, aren't they?"
Her only answer was a quick nod that jarred a tear loose.
"The one thing you always have to remember is that your mother loved you very much, and you can't stop loving this time of year just because she isn't here. You have to make new memories and make the holidays special in their own way."
Marie turned her head and looked at Brenda, listening.
"I don't know you that well, but I know you like to be at this house because this is where your family happened. This is the house that built you. But when you miss your parents, you don't have to come here. They're inside your heart." Brenda grabbed and held the little girls hand.
"You can still come visit me anytime you want. I'm not telling you that you can't. I'm just trying to give you perspective. I miss the house I grew up in, but all of those warm memories I have, I hold in my heart. And it's enough."
Marie's face crumpled and she started to cry, launching herself against Brenda's side.
"I miss my mom so much. I miss my dad too, but not as bad. I just wish things were how they were before!"
"I know...but you can't live for what used to be. You have to make new memories. We'll work on that, together. How does that sound?"
Marie cried for another minute, and then sniffed. She nodded her head and wiped her eyes. Brenda patted her back and stood, getting a glass of milk.
"Have some cookies to hold you over until the pizza gets here."
"Seriously? Cookies are dessert."
"Seriously. At my house, they're an appetizer." Brenda winked and headed into the living room.
She planned on seeing how Roarke was coming with the tree, but as she rounded the corner she was swept up into a strong set of arms. Her eyes flew to his face, and Roarke's eyes were damp.
"Thank you for being so nice to her. No one has ever explained the house to her that way before."
"She's lost. I gave her a map." Brenda smiled. "I want her to come visit me because I like her, and I want her to like me. I don't want her to come here because of the house."
"I think you're succeeding in that. You're a special lady."
"You're a special man, taking care of her like you do."
They stared at each other for a moment.
"This just got dangerous." Roarke's dark brown eyes danced across her face, stopping at her mouth.
"We have a tree to put up." Brenda smiled and wiggled her way out of his arms.
He growled, and Brenda left a trail of laughter behind her as she went to put on Christmas music.
The tree itself was put together and they were just starting to string lights when the pizza got there. After a break for dinner, they got back to it. Marie danced around the living room to the music, but was serious and careful when she handled Brenda's ornaments. In a little more than an hour the tree was decorated.
Brenda popped in an old Christmas movie, and Marie settled herself on the floor to watch as Roarke helped with the clean-up process. Empty boxes were stored in the attic, and Brenda decided to run the vacuum the next day.
"That sure was fast. I've never had helpers before."
"Well lady, you just got yourself a couple elves." Roarke laughed.
"It was nice, having help I mean. Now I have to have a wrapping party and get all those presents wrapped."
"She's an excellent wrapper. She does all of mine."
"Hmm. Bring her over on Sunday." Brenda smiled.
The girl in question was sound asleep on the floor. Brenda placed a throw blanket over her, and Marie snuggled into it, rolling onto her stomach.
"Like a kitten."
The adults watched the movie, talking in low tones as they got to know each other a little better. Brenda's heart beat overtime when she looked into his eyes, or glanced at his full lips. The guy was sexy, and it had been a while since she had had a man in her life. Roarke was watching her back, and Brenda hoped he liked what he saw.
"I better get Marie back to my parents. It's past her bedtime."
After bundling up his niece, Roarke carried her to the door. Marie was out like a light. Brenda swung the door open, and walked to the car to open that door also. Roarke got her adjusted and shut the door gently, turning to face Brenda.
"Thanks again for the help tonight. I really appreciated it."
"No problem. Thanks for helping Marie. I think she is going to start to understand about coming here."
"I hope so. It's nice getting to know you also." Brenda felt her face flush, and was grateful for the cover of the dark.
Roarke held her gaze for a moment, and then leaned in, dropping a kiss to her forehead.
"See ya later." He circled the car and hopped in the driver's seat, making quick work of backing out of the drive.
"Great. I probably just scared him to death." Her breath puffed in the cold air.
Snow had begun to fall around five o'clock, and by seven, as Brenda was pulling another sheet of cookies out of the oven, the roads were completely covered. Glancing out the window proved useless; the snow swirled in the porch lights so quickly that visibility was slim to none.
No matter...Brenda had things to do. She had a long weekend, so she planned to get some of her holiday cooking and baking out of the way. She started a pot of coffee, then yelped as she realized her corn syrup and sugar had come to a boil.
The doorbell rang, but there was no way she could walk away from the stove. She stirred quickly and pulled the pan off the burner, working quickly to get the peanut butter and vanilla stirred in. Once smooth, the doorbell rang once more.
"Hold your horses!" She yelled as she poured the cornflakes into the pot.
"I'm not an intruder, so I came on in." Roarke laughed as he unloaded bags upon bags from his arms.
"Sorry. I almost ruined my cookies over a pot of coffee. Come on in." Brenda smiled and started dropping the cookies by the spoonful onto a sheet of wax paper.
"Those look...interesting." Roarke quirked an eyebrow.
"They are the best things ever. Wait til ya try one. What're those bags?"
"Marie's gifts. She is the biggest snoop on the planet, so I was wondering if I could wrap them here, then hide them. The little brat even peeks under the paper."
"Hmmm, sounds like another little girl I used to know. But that's no problem. Want some help wrapping?"
"If you have free time. But with a glance around this kitchen..." Roarke shuddered.
"If you pitch in on dishes, I'll pitch in with wrapping."
"Deal." Roarke took his coat off and hung it over the back of a stool.
Before Brenda could give him directions, he had his sleeves rolled up and was filling the sink with water. While she dropped the last of the cookies, she stole glances at his forearms, marveling at the strength of them. She wanted nothing more than for him to gather her up against his body, holding her close...feeling the strength as he pulled her hips against him...
Face flaming red, Brenda turned away from her guest. She belatedly realized they were alone together, without Marie there to be a buffer. Brenda had to get herself under control. Just because he was a man...a gorgeous, sweet, helpful, handsome man, didn't mean he was there because of her. Well, maybe it did. He could have stayed home and wrapped Marie's presents...but he wanted to hide them. Still... Brenda's thoughts were in a jumble, and she zoned out while she finished the batch of cookies.
"Earth to Brenda."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I asked what your plans were for Christmas."
"Oh. My mom always has a big party on Christmas Eve, but it ends early because my brothers and sisters all have kids and they have to get to bed so Santa can come. Christmas day is usually pretty uneventful. What do you guys do?"
"Not much of anything. My parents make a bigger deal of Christmas now that they have Marie, but it's pretty boring."
"Hmm." Brenda stuck her pan in the sink and then snapped her fingers. "I know! Why don't the four of you come here Christmas day, in the afternoon for dinner?"
"You don't have to do that. We wouldn't want to impose."
"I know I don't have to. I want to. Or even if your parents don't want to, you and Marie are more than welcome...if you want to, of course."
"I'd love to. Why are you so special?" Roarke had rinsed the last dish, and turned to her, drying his hands.
"I'm not." Brenda shifted her gaze.
"Believe what you will." Roarke caught her chin between his fingers, lifting her face so she'd look at him.
Brenda's eyes skittered across his face, finally landing on his gaze. The stark honesty in his eyes, the longing, made her feel a little weak in the knees.