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A Wife by Christmas
As Christmas approaches, Hank Chandler is determined to find a wife to mother his sister's orphaned children. When schoolteacher Janell Whitman offers to help him with his niece and nephew, she seems to be the perfect match—but she won't accept his proposal. Instead, she insists she'll find him another bride before the holidays.
Janell moved to Turnabout, Texas, to put her past behind her and focus on her future—one that doesn't include marriage. But while she plays matchmaker and cares for Hank's children, she loses her heart to the two youngsters...and their adoptive father. If Janell reveals her secrets to Hank, will he still want her to be his Christmas bride?
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Winnie Griggs learned the art of storytelling as a child when she and her siblings spent countless hours exploring the overgrown area around her South Louisiana home, building forts, stalking big game and keeping watch for pirate ships on the nearby bayou. She now happily shares the product of her active imagination with the readers of Love Inspired Historical books
You can learn more about Winnie at winniegriggs.com or connect with her at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author
Hank Chandler hefted the two carpetbags he carried as he tried to usher his niece and nephew down the aisle of the train toward the exit. He needed a shave. And a good night's sleep. And a cup of coffee that didn't taste like tar.
But most of all he needed for Enid, his sister, not to be dead.
Chloe paused a moment, as if confused. "Alex, keep a tight hold on your sister's hand, please." It seemed wrong to put an eight-year-old in charge of his ten-year-old sister, but for now that was how it had to be. His niece didn't want anything to do with him at the moment.
Here he was, returning home to Turnabout, with two scared orphans. With a cat in tow. Why couldn't they have a sensible pet, like a dog?
Even with Aunt Rowena's help, how would he be able to care for all of them?
He glanced down at his niece. With her straight brown hair, slightly pointed chin and expressive green eyes, she looked so much like Enid at that age that it hurt. He knew the girl's angry, defiant demeanor was just a front she'd put on to deal with all she'd lost. But how was he ever going to get through to her if they couldn't even communicate properly?
He still had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that his life had changed so drastically in such a short span of time. A month ago—it seemed a lifetime ago now—he'd been a bachelor with a very orderly, uncomplicated life. A life he'd been quite content with. Then he'd received that telegram that had sent him hightailing off to Colorado.
And his life had been irrevocably changed.
But he couldn't waste time feeling sorry for himself. What had happened was over and done with, and there was nothing to do but move on. Besides, his niece and nephew were facing much bigger, more traumatic changes to their own lives. He had to do what he could to help them feel at home here.
The weight of that responsibility pressed down on him again. The one thing he could do for them in the short term was provide a sense of order and routine to their lives. To make them feel safe again.
They reached the exit and Hank maneuvered around to step out on the platform first. He set down the bags and turned up his collar. Turnabout's weather had turned blustery and colder than it had been when he left. Of course, that had been late October and it was now late November.
Hank helped Alex down first, swinging his slightly built nephew out of the train and onto the platform easily. Then he turned to Chloe. The girl stared at him defiantly as she hugged her cat tighter, as if daring him to try to swing her down the way he had Alex.
His heart went out to her but he didn't know how to make things better for her. With a smothered sigh, Hank offered her his hand. She took it and stiffly stepped down. As soon as her feet touched the platform, she released his hand and took Alex's.
Would Chloe ever learn to accept him? Like it or not, both kids were in his care now. And they were not happy about it. Not that he blamed them. He'd torn them away from everything they found familiar—their town, their home, their friends—to bring them here, to a town they'd never set foot in before, to live among strangers. And at a time when they most needed the comfort of the familiar. But he hadn't had much choice.
Thank goodness Aunt Rowena had agreed to help him out, at least for the next couple of weeks, until he could make a more permanent arrangement.
He'd think about just what that more permanent arrangement meant later.
Aunt Rowena should already be at his house, getting the rooms ready and preparing a nice hot meal to welcome them home. That ought to make this first day in Turnabout easier for all of them.
Hank raked a hand through his hair as he looked around. He'd asked his aunt to have a wagon waiting for them, but there was no sign of any such vehicle. Normally he'd just walk, regardless of the weather—after all, it was just a little over a mile away. But this homecoming was anything but normal.
He hoped that Aunt Rowena hadn't encountered problems. Regardless, there was no point in keeping the kids out in this weather while they waited.
Hank touched Chloe's shoulder. When she looked up, he very slowly and deliberately explained. "Let's go inside the depot." He used hand gestures to make his intentions clear.
"Yes, sir," Alex responded. He gave his sister's hand a little tug and started moving in that direction. Hank picked up the bags and followed.
With two kids, especially two tired, travel-weary kids, the sooner he got everyone home, the better. He hoped Aunt Rowena had had time to get the children's rooms ready.
But the lack of waiting transport had him wondering what else might have gone wrong today.
When they reached the door, he stepped forward and pulled it open quickly, ushering the children inside and out of the wind. From the corner of his eye he noticed someone sitting on one of the benches that lined the far wall of the depot. The woman seemed to be reading a book, and a closer look revealed it was Janell Whitman, one of the town's two schoolteachers.
Her presence reminded him, that was one more thing to add to his list of tasks—getting the kids enrolled in school.
The woman looked up just then and he tipped his hat in greeting. He wondered for a moment if she was going on a trip. Then he turned back to the counter and dismissed her from his thoughts.
The stationmaster gave him a smile of greeting. "Hi, Hank. Welcome back."
Hank nodded as he ushered the kids up to the counter. "Thanks, Lionel." He gave the man a mock grimace. "You sure could have ordered up some better weather to welcome us home."
"This damp chill just rolled in yesterday. It was downright pleasant two days ago for the Thanksgiving festival, though. Too bad you missed it."
They'd been on the train Thanksgiving Day. Not that he regretted missing the festival. Neither he nor the children had been in the mood for any sort of celebration.
Lionel smiled at the children. "I see you brought some friends back with you."
"This is my niece and nephew, Chloe and Alex."
"Welcome to Turnabout." Then Lionel's expression sobered. "I'm right sorry about your ma and pa."
Alex shifted closer to Chloe's side, but neither kid said anything.
Then Lionel held out a slip of paper. "By the way, a telegram came for you this morning."
Hank reached for the telegram, unable to repress a sense of dread. The only telegrams he'd ever received had contained bad news. The last one had brought him word of his sister's and brother-in-law's deaths.
He slowly unfolded the paper and read the missive.
Tom Parson taken ill. No other driver available to transport me to Turnabout. Will likely be Monday before I arrive. Rowena Collins Today was Saturday, so that meant he was on his own for at least two days. And there would be no warm, clean house or hot meal to greet them. This wasn't the homecoming he'd expected at all.
Hank resisted the urge to crumple the telegram and toss it away. Instead he focused on figuring out how to deal with this new setback.
One thing at a time. The immediate concern was that there was no wagon on its way to transport them.
He glanced back Lionel's way. "I need to fetch a wagon to get the kids and their belongings back to my place. There are a couple of trunks in the baggage compartment that belong to us. If you could just leave them on the platform when they're unloaded, I'll take care of them when I return." The livery was only two blocks away but hiring a horse and wagon was an expense he could ill afford right now. Could he ask Lionel to keep an eye on the kids while he took care of business at home?
"Excuse me, Mr. Chandler?"
Startled, Hank turned to find the schoolteacher standing behind him. "Ma'am?"
"I'm sorry, but I couldn't help overhearing what you said just now. These two children appear to be exhausted and the wind is picking up outside. I would be glad to keep them company while you see about the wagon."
"You're not here to catch the train?"
She shook her head with a smile, as if the thought was absurd. "No, I'm just waiting to see if any mail arrived for me."
Hank sent up a silent prayer of thanks for this good news in an otherwise miserable day. He couldn't have asked for a better caretaker for the kids. The schoolteacher would naturally be accustomed to dealing with uncooperative children. Of course, she probably hadn't had to deal with anyone with Chloe's particular problem before.
"I appreciate the offer, ma'am, and I'd certainly like to take you up on it." He made sure he was turned so Chloe didn't have a clear view of his face. "But there's something you need to know before you take them on."
"Oh?" Her green-flecked brown eyes studied him patiently.
"I'm sure you heard about their parents." News of that sort normally spread fast in Turnabout.
Her expression softened. "I did. My condolences on the loss of your sister and brother-in-law."
He nodded. "Well, the accident that killed the kids' parents also damaged Chloe's eardrums. She's become totally deaf."
Her reaction surprised him. There was a sudden flash of something in her expression that seemed more than sympathy or mere surprise.
Whatever it was, it seemed to be very personal.
Everything inside Janell stilled. Deaf. Not again.
The terrible memories of that nightmarish time came tumbling back.
But this wasn't about her. This little girl needed help—help she was uniquely qualified to give. How fortuitous that she'd wandered in this morning to check on the mail. But then, God's timing was always perfect.
A moment later, Janell realized Mr. Chandler was studying her, concern digging furrows in his brow. "Ma'am, are you okay?"
She straightened and met his gaze, determination stiffening her spine. "As it happens, I actually have some experience dealing with the deaf."
Surprise and relief flashed in his dark gray eyes before he resumed his businesslike expression. "Miss Whitman, if that's true, then you are truly a godsend to us right now."
He glanced at the children. "And I'll take you up on your generous offer to watch them while I'm gone."
"It'll be my pleasure."
He stared at the children for a moment, appearing to be at a loss for words. For just a moment she sensed a vulnerability in him that tugged at her.
Poor man. This was a difficult situation for anyone to be put in, much less a man who'd seemed happy with his bachelor status. He looked as if he hadn't slept in ages—and she didn't think it was just travel weariness. There was at least one day's growth of beard on his chin, enhancing rather than detracting from its square rug-gedness. And his dark brown hair was in need of a trim.
Not surprising—it just meant he cared. And she could empathize. When this had happened to her sister, her entire family had been impacted. How much worse must it be for someone who had to deal with the situation on his own? It did him credit that he'd stepped up to do what he could for the children. There was a lot to admire in a man who would do that.
Of more concern right now, however, were the children themselves. It was obvious they needed a mother's touch. Like his uncle, the little boy's straw-colored hair was also just a tad too long, and he kept tucking it back behind his ears as if it bothered him. And Chloe's rebellious attitude, a natural reaction to what she'd been through, would only be healed through an abundance of patience and love.
Mr. Chandler straightened, rubbing his jaw. He tapped Chloe's arm and waited until she met his gaze, then explained the situation to them. "Alex, Chloe, this is Miss Whitman. She's one of the schoolteachers here in Turnabout. I'm going to go home to fetch a wagon, but I'll be back as soon as I can. Miss Whitman will be staying with you until then."
She approved of the way he spoke slowly and enunciated each word. It showed he understood Chloe's limitations and cared enough to try to get through to her. Not that the girl seemed able to read his lips just yet. But in time, she might be able to learn.
Janell gave him a reassuring smile. "Don't worry—we'll be just fine." Then she turned to the children. "Won't we?"
Alex gave a tentative nod. Chloe merely ignored them.
But Janell refused to be put off by their lack of enthusiasm. She turned to Mr. Chandler, her smile still firmly in place. "There, we three are already friends. So you can go take care of this wagon business. I have nothing pressing to tend to today." Then she looked around. "But perhaps we can find someplace more comfortable and interesting to wait."
The sawmill owner gave her a questioning glance.
"I was thinking perhaps the children would be willing to take a short walk," she explained. "Say, just as far as the Blue Bottle?"
His expression cleared as understanding dawned. "Now, that's a very good idea." He turned to the children. "Miss Whitman is offering to take you to the town's sweet shop. What do you think—wait here or brave the wind for a couple of blocks to reach the Blue Bottle?"
Alex perked up. "You mean a candy store?"
Janell nodded. "And a very good one. You can find all sorts of tasty treats—chocolate drops, sugared pecans, pumpkin brittle, caramels and much more."
"I like candy just fine." Alex took his sister's hand. "And Chloe does, too."
Chloe looked up then, her eyes darting back and forth as if trying to make sense of their conversation.
Yes, this girl definitely needed her help. Janell straightened. "Well then, if you don't mind taking a short walk—" she glanced toward Mr. Chandler "—and if your uncle doesn't mind, why don't we go see what the Blue Bottle sweet shop and tea parlor has to offer this morning?"
"I don't mind at all," Mr. Chandler assured her. Then he turned to the stationmaster. "Lionel, if you don't mind, I'll leave our bags here and get them when I come back for the trunks."
While Mr. Chandler took care of business, Janell noticed Alex trying to help his sister understand what was going on, but Chloe merely looked confused and frustrated. The girl hefted the cat higher, resting her chin against his furry back.
Janell touched Chloe's arm. When the girl met her gaze, she pointed to the cat. "What's his name?" she asked.
Alex answered for her. "His name is Smudge."
Janell thanked him. She knew he was trying to help his sister, but somehow she had to make the boy understand that he wasn't truly helping her by always answering for her. Her own sister, Lizzie, had been that way as well, rarely speaking. And at first they'd compensated for her, answering for her so that she hadn't had to figure out what had been said. But they'd eventually learned that was the wrong approach.
Chloe would need to learn to reengage with the people around her or she would turn into a sad, lonely hermit.
Mr. Chandler's question brought Janell back to the present. With a nod, she followed the children outside while Mr. Chandler politely held the door open.
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